Money Can’t Buy Love
Guest post by Chris Dlugozima.
Everywhere you look, love is in the air. The popularity of dating sites seems to grow by the minute. It’s hard for some to imagine life before speed dating. But once all the butterflies flutter away and the harsh reality sets in, the challenge of figuring out how to reach financial goals together will eventually smack you in the face harder than one of the Real Housewives.
Money and love. Two things our culture is obsessed with. But how do we reconcile the two? Look at the average survey that seeks to find your perfect match and you’ll see a myriad of questions asking for preferences for smoking, religion, politics, family size, etc. How often do you see questions asking about one’s money values? Are you a saver or a risk taker? Do you watch every cent you spend or treat your American Express card as a second job?
Yet, money is probably the subject most likely to start a fight between an otherwise happy and compatible couple. As a financial counselor, I’ve received training on many financial matters to help the clients I counsel. Little did I know when I started my career that my job would require just as much Dr. Phil as Suze Orman. Truth be told, all the training in the world could not have prepared me for this as much as real life experience and the sometimes painful transition of having a meeting of the minds (and hearts and souls) when it comes to money. Here’s what I have learned…
1. Don’t be afraid to ask a potential partner about their money values.
Unless you’re a gold digger, don’t ask what your partner’s annual income is — ask what they do with their money. Better to know early on. If you’re having money problems, don’t be afraid to bring them up. Better to know that your partner is having difficulty than to assume he/she is a cheapskate. I still remember one of the first clients I counseled and how he hid his debt from his fiancé and how the wedding was off when she found out. In this case, the fight was not caused by the amount that he owed, but the fact that he had kept his burden from her. Eventually, they did talk things out and I helped him to manage and eventually pay off his debt. In fact, the same month he became debt free, he became the happy father of twins!
2. You can go out on dates and still stick to a budget.
What if you want to date and try to keep a budget while you pay down credit card debt? How do you make room for both goals? I once helped a client who would only ask someone on a date if it fell after the 15th of the month. Why? Well, his budget was very tight and most of his check went to the rent when he was paid on the 1st. He simply didn’t have much money from the 1st to the 15th, so he didn’t want to ask someone out and then be thought of as cheap. I helped him with some budgeting ideas to help free up some money throughout the entire month– to help motivate him, I mentioned that my first date with my eventual wife was on the 4th of the month so if I was following his current budget, I might have missed the boat.
3. An expensive first date might impress some people, but consider dialing it down a notch.
The other challenge for the client in the above example was that he usually spent close to 100 dollars on the first date. I think that’s madness. Assuming you barely know someone and the first date is your opportunity to get to know that person, having an expensive dinner on the first date is a recipe for disaster. If you don’t click, do you really want to be stuck with the person for 2 + hours? If there is a 2nd date, how do you top it if you barely had the money for the first date?! And if you’re not into expensive dinners on a regular basis, you might be attracting someone who is more interested in the free dinner than you.
Personally, on a first date, I preferred something simple like getting coffee. Yes, it fit nicely within my budget. But it was also a situation that each person could opt to cut short if a date wasn’t working out well. When it came time to treat, a girl could have sent a signal that she was not interested if she insisted on splitting the bill. (Not that I would let her, but at least I’d get the hint.) However, with an expensive dinner, can the person being treated afford to split the bill? If the first date goes well, there will always be an opportunity to enjoy a nice dinner– 0r at least to try to enjoy a nice dinner. As for my wife and I, we ended up at an obnoxiously loud place where we could barely hear each other. That place has since closed down.
If you have a completely separate financial life, what’s the point of being in a serious relationship or marriage? Let’s fast forward to when the happy couple has finally decided to get married or live together and then has to figure out how (or whether) to merge any of their finances. When I meet with a person who may have been married for 20 years and yet has a completely separate financial life from their spouse, I’m baffled. If you cannot reach common ground on financial goals, how can you hope to raise a family, buy a house, etc.?
Balance your own financial independence with a shared vision of a life you want to live with your partner. Practically speaking, I would suggest that each partner have his/her own bank account in addition to a joint account. The joint account could be used for any expense that serves both partners– rent/mortgage, utilities, food, vacation, childcare expenses, savings (remember that?)– while a personal account would be used for purely selfish purposes. For example, I get to choose whether I save this money for a flat screen TV or blow it on an smart phone. And if my wife wants to use her money to buy supplies to make her homemade greeting cards, we don’t need to have a long discussion over her saving a few dollars through the purchase of cheaper glitter pens. In the end, it’s about having some independence while still reaching a common goal.
If you’re not on the same team, it’s not going to work! As a debt counselor, I see firsthand how quickly the stress of dealing with debt can derail the best laid financial plans. If you love someone enough to marry them or share a home with them, then consider the fact that it does a couple no good if one partner is drowning while the other is climbing the mountain alone.
I will illustrate my point with two examples. In the first couple, an individual who was soon to be married worked on his budget with me, and we discovered that he needed an extra $500 a month to have a realistic shot at paying down his debts. Enter his fiancée. Although he had incurred the debt before they met, we reviewed her budget and determined that she had enough wiggle room to shoulder more of the rent and thus free up the money for him to pay off his debt. Obviously, this helps him. But what about her? She wanted that condo (their long term goal) just as much as he did. Well, by helping him to pay off his debts, they both got closer to their goal of obtaining a mortgage and getting that condo.
The second couple had one person who was drowning in debt, stretching his razor thin budget as much as he could. His partner was very successful and had money to burn, but still insisted that the household expenses be a 50/50 partnership. I didn’t agree — when one person is able to pad their 401K while the other is eating PB & J for lunch, what we have is partners in name only. Splitting expenses evenly is fine if you’re starting a new relationship. But once you get serious, I suggest splitting expenses so that both parties can achieve their financial goals simultaneously. If it was decided that the person eating PB&J should not pay any part of their mortgage and this meant that his higher income partner could not save for retirement, this would not be healthy either. In the end, a balance needs to be struck that benefits both parties.
Just because you know more about money, doesn’t mean you get more voting power. As you can imagine, it’s natural that I take the lead when it comes to planning my family’s financial future. When one partner prefers handling money decisions more than the other, it’s very important to take additional steps to keep things collaborative.
Our financial “merger” was a long process; by the time I got on my knee and proposed to her on the day before my 30th birthday, we had developed a shared vision of our life together, finances included. The road to get to that shared vision was not easy, but it was worth it. I have now been married for nearly 5 years and been together with her for nearly 10 years. Here are some of the secrets to our success…
1. No surprises when it comes to money.
Having the first serious conversation about money while you’re engaged or after you’re married puts a lot of pressure to agree on things or else. However, talking things over early on allows much room for failure.
2. Don’t be afraid to speak up.
One day, my wife came home and happily announced that she had signed up for a gym. While the $80 a month price tag was very reasonable and she could afford to pay it with her income, it was a one year contract and meant that she was committing to spend $1000. I spoke out and shared that I felt we should always discuss purchases over a certain amount beforehand. On the flip side, I have a tendency to be a tad anal when it comes to planning our budget and tracking our expenses. By speaking up, my wife was able to get me to relax a little in that area.
3. True wealth is about quality, not quantity.
Objectively, our combined income has only kept pace with inflation since we’ve met. Yet, I feel wealthier every day and having a partner to share in my vision of the future has everything to do with this. Communication is the gateway to feeling wealthy.
4. Above all else, have patience with your partner.
Very seldom do people who fall in love get socialized the same way when it comes to their relationship with money. But if you take the time to understand your partner’s values, talk about shared goals and show a willingness to compromise, perhaps love can buy you money after all.
Chris is a financial educator with GreenPath Debt Solutions, a nonprofit organization that provides financial counseling and helps people manage their debt. Chris leads financial seminars for groups of people from all walks of life in the New York tri-state area. He will be GreenPath’s blogger on issues related to college finances. Check out www.greenpath.org/university later this summer when our new blog launches.