Money is one of the most argued about topics for many couples. It’s also a topic that many people like to avoid, so it’s not surprise that couples may date, get engaged, and even marry without having any significant conversation about how they view and handle money.
Watching our parents deal (or not) with financial issues is where it starts. If our parents had a good grasp of finances, knew how to deal with income and bills, and were able to settle conflicts that came up, then it’s likely that money won’t be too difficult a topic. This is regardless of whether family income was particularly high or low (more on that later). But if they didn’t know how to handle money, if it created an atmosphere of tension, or if it was just never discussed, then it’s likely that we will carry at least some of those attitudes into our relationships.
Dealing with personal finances is a learned skill, and one that isn’t taught enough in high school. So it’s no surprise that if the family doesn’t teach it, young people can reach adulthood without knowing how to balance their checking account (still important even in this day of online banking, to know how much is committed to going out soon), set a budget, save for emergencies, short and long-term goals, and how important the factor of time is in saving for retirement. There are lots of websites that point out how little someone needs to save if they start young, and how incredibly higher that number is if they wait, even until their 40’s, let alone later.
Besides the actual skills of managing money, there is the perhaps tougher skill of how to discuss it. This is where many couples first encounter the possibility that their spouse has very different values around money than they might have thought. For example, some people value buying a house, others value early travel. Some think it’s important to have no debt at all other than a mortgage, some are comfortable with making payments for cars, vacations, and many other things.
Whether values are the same or not, differences and issues have to be discussed, and it’s very easy to feel defensive and uncomfortable on the topic of finances, money management, and values-based decisions. Some couples just avoid the topic entirely, which is like ignoring the proverbial elephant in the room. Some consciously or unconsciously give most or all of the decision process over to one or the other person in the relationship, which may work alright but may also breed resentment for both people. It’s dangerous too, because if the person who has been managing the money leaves or dies, the other person is left without deep knowledge of the household finances, and without comfortable skills for managing them.
So, whether you are just dating or have been married for years, do a little self-assessment on how well you know each other and yourselves regarding money. For a place to start, here’s a great link. If you run into trouble, or find that this area is just too conflictual to handle on your own, consider couples’ counseling. Be sure and ask if your therapist is comfortable and skilled in helping couples in this area. It doesn’t need to be a specialty, but it does need to be something that the therapist does frequently.