When Couples Struggle with their Finances….

My sweetheart and I have been married for 29 years next month. When we were first dating in our whirlwind courtship, I could see that things were moving in the direction of a long-term relationship. One of the early questions I remember asking Suzanne was how she felt about finances in a marriage. This doesn’t sound terribly romantic but our attraction to each other was picking up steam. It seemed like an important aspect of a potential future marriage relationship that deserved at least a little consideration.

That’s because it does. Finances are consistently among the top two reasons given for relationships failing. It doesn’t have to be that way.

As our relationship began to accelerate, we would ask each other “hypothetical” questions. “Hypothetically, if we were to get married, what kind of a family life would you like?” “Hypothetically, if things keep progressing, how would we manage my last two years of college?” One of those questions was, “Hypothetically, if things were to develop into marriage, how will we handle our money?” I still remember her reply; “I think whatever money we have is ours, not mine or yours.” For me, that was exactly how I felt.

That may not be how you choose to manage your finances in a relationship. I’ve met married couples that keep their finances separately, with the common expenses being shared equally between the two. If that works for you then great. The most important thing is to have that conversation before things progress too far in a relationship. Finances are a big deal in a relationship. You don’t want to start a serious, potentially long-term relationship without broaching that topic together.

For those of you in a marriage or long-term relationship in which you are sharing financial responsibilities and obligations together, there are some things you can do to succeed together financially.

Think of a large rock, or small boulder with two ropes tied around it’s girth; you each are pulling on one of the ropes. If you pull in opposite directions, the rock is going nowhere. If you pull in different, but not opposite directions, the rock will move, but it won’t go where either of you want it to. When you both pull in the same direction, the rock will move faster and easier than it would in any other scenario. That’s how it can be when you are both working together.

So how do you pull in the same direction financially? Here are a few steps that will help bring success in your finances together.

  1. Decide at the outset that your relationship is more important than your finances.
  2. Work together on your finances.
  3. Use tools to automate the financial tracking processes
  4. Constantly nurture your relationship

1. Decide that your relationship is more important than your finances

If you didn’t have the discussion before you became committed in your relationship together, then decide for yourself and together, that you will not let finances be the reason your relationship doesn’t work. Relationships all have their challenges. Commit to each other that you will choose to work together and not let finances be the reason your relationship fails.

2. Work together on your finances

Couples rarely have similar backgrounds when it comes to the details of how to manage money. There is a lot of emotion around money. Consequently it becomes difficult to talk about. Most people are more comfortable talking about sex and intimacy than they are about how to manage finances.

I suggest the following foundational principles for working together:

  1. Set a spending plan (aka “Budget”) together every month.
  2. Make sure your spending plan includes some money for each partner
  3. Track your actual spending together every week

3. Use Tools to automate the process

There are a myriad of budgeting tools available that help automate financial management. I use and teach others to use Mint.com. Whatever the tool you use, it’s important that it links to your financial accounts so that you aren’t required to manually enter your transactions.

For a few years I would attempt to manually enter all of our financial transactions into a desktop version of Quicken. (This was before the internet was as far reaching as it is now). I would spend a couple of hours with my OCD entering all the details of our income, including all the types of withholdings from our paycheck, to splitting out the transactions from department/grocery stores to categories of food, clothing, auto, misc. It took hours, and it turned out to be a waste of time. We never got to the point of planning our spending. I was simply trying to track our spending as a necessary step before we sat down together to set a budget. We never did.

The more difficult a process is, the less likely you are to do it consistently. For you to be successful with your personal finances, you need to do it consistently. Therefore, automate whatever you can through the use of tools such as Mint.com and automatic payments, deductions, investments, etc.

4. Constantly Nurture Your Relationship

When is the last time you surprised your sweetheart with flowers? When she talks to you, how well are you listening? How often do you hold his hand and tell him how much you appreciate him?

Long-term relationships are at risk of being taken for granted. Don’t let that be you. If you’re going to invest time into your financial wellbeing, make sure you are first investing time into your relationship every day. Smile genuinely when your lover walks into the room. Make a conscious effort to remember the times that lit up your emotions as you first started dating. Leave a note of appreciation or love in a place where she will find it when you’re not there. Surprise him with a gift when he doesn’t expect it.

Suzanne and I didn’t put a spending plan or budget together until we had been married for over twenty years. When we finally did she came to the table very uneasily. To her, setting a budget was constraining and limiting. It felt constricting. After seven years of setting a monthly spending plan together, and tracking to it every week (usually) it has been liberating.

You can do this in your relationship too. If you’re not already working together on your finances, I invite you to give it a try. The steps outlined in this process may not guarantee that you don’t have any financial challenges, but when you’re facing them together, you are in a much stronger position to succeed with your money and with your marriage.

Download this FREE workbook, “7 Steps to Financial Success for Couples”, to jump start your success together.

James Stephenson is the author of Small Steps, Big Feat.

Author, Mentor, Coach