Back when my wife and I were dating, we thought about our financial pasts in much the same way we viewed ex-relationships: What came before were learning experiences that ultimately led us to each other. It was “no harm, no foul” territory and simply wasn’t worth discussing.
This worked well for us (or so we thought)…until we got married and suddenly needed to merge our financial lives.
Needless to say, starting from scratch was challenging. After all, we’d made it a point to keep money conversations off the table. So, until we were husband and wife, I didn’t know about her never-ending student loan debt. And she didn’t realize that special trip we took to Paris to meet my mother was financed entirely by credit.
She knows that now—and more—and I know her financial junk, too. On some level, it was a relief to unburden ourselves, but opening up wasn’t easy, particularly as we started to unpack our different money styles. For example, my wife abhors consumer debt and had a hard time accepting that she was now party to the baggage I brought from my single years. For me, her constant worrying about “where we’re at” financially felt like nagging.
Yet something clicked in us that having frank conversations about money was as much a part of a healthy marriage as communicating about our feelings or views on parenting. Maybe even more so, considering that money and what it can provide—security, choices, status and self-esteem—is pretty much the cornerstone of the American Dream. So we soldiered on, forcing ourselves to be as forthright and accommodating to each other’s styles and values as possible.
Thirteen years later, the truth is, our finances remain the greatest source of marital stress. It’s not that we fight about money, but we worry about it sometimes. We live in D.C., one of the most expensive regions of the country, and, from time to time, we struggle. But we’ve learned to worry—and plan—together, and that’s key.
According to New York-based financial therapist Amanda Clayman, our story isn’t so uncommon. “When two people are both working and supporting themselves, there can be a minimal degree of financial communication for a long time if both are trying to avoid it,” she says, but adds that as soon as your know your relationship has long-term potential, it’s time to broach the conversation. She recommends a discussion of “what each person earns, owes and owns [as well as] spending and values.”
For some, that might feel overwhelming, but remember: “Honesty doesn’t necessarily mean full disclosure—at first,” Clayman says. “But anytime you are lying or misleading, that behavior can have a destructive long-term effect on the partnership.” (Of course, as you progress in your relationship, full disclosure is important.)
Not keeping money secrets from a significant other may sound simple enough, but it happens a lot. A 2012 Today.com and Self Magazine joint survey found nearly half of Americans polled had lied to their partner about money, fessing up to indiscretions like secretly withdrawing cash and hiding purchases. And a 2015 CreditCards.com poll found that 6 percent of respondants maintain an account their partner knows nothing about—a small number, true, but a serious offense.
So that begs the question: If financial infidelity is so widespread, what can couples do to navigate honest conversations about extra sensitive or negative circumstances, like a layoff or spending problem?
Clayman says the trick is first reminding yourself that you’re a team—for better or worse, right?—and putting your heads together to hash out the issue. Then make a specific plan to deal with it. For instance, “We need to cut X dollars in order to make our new budget balance,” rather than just “cut back” in general, Clayman says.
This strategy’s worked for us over the years. There’s an old Victoria Williams song that goes, “Good love, there ain’t no denying. Bad love, somebody ain’t trying.” I think about those lyrics often. They suggest, in a loving way, that marriage is work—albeit the best work you can find. It’s particularly hard work for couples to work through tough financial times, but, in our case, I’d rather do so openly than get caught trying to shield things from my wife.
That’s mainly because I believe dishonestly destroys everything it touches—but also because it creates an environment where neither of us has any unreasonable expectations about what we can and can’t do with our money. (There are definitely no “Why can’t we go on Safari this summer?” questions in our budget conversations.)
Plus, as the old saying goes: Two heads are better than one. And my wife is really smart.