Financial Planning and Marital Success – Not Such Strange Bedfellows

Ever wonder how sound financial planning and romance could possibly relate to one another?  In fact, both personal finance and marriage counselors increasingly are recognizing that a critical secret to marital success and enduring happiness is financial compatibility.  Irrespective of a couple’s age or the duration of their marriage, there is clear evidence to support the fact that couples who have compatible views on budgeting, saving, and financial planning for retirement have stronger, more satisfying marriages.  The logic underlying this situation appears clear – such couples feel more fiscally secure, argue less about finances and budgetary priorities, and have more satisfying sex lives. 

It is, therefore, not much of a stretch to suggest that any measures a couple takes to align their financial expectations and secure their financial future will translate directly into marital stability.   Highlighted below are five critical steps every couple should consider to strengthen both their marital future and their financial profile. [1]

 

COMMIT TO FINANCIAL TRANSPARENCY - Get “Financially Naked” With Each Other

With financial transparency setting a strong foundation for all marriages, financial experts advise couples to “bare all” of their fiscal baggage and aspirations early in their relationships – even before marriage.  Partners should candidly discuss their level of debt, the extent of their savings, and their financial goals.  They should then use that information as a benchmark for framing their future plans and structuring other aspects of their relationship.  Knowing where you stand as a couple financially and what you want to accomplish in terms of wealth accumulation builds trust and a sense of teamwork.   

 

HOW TO DO IT:

Finances are much easier to talk about when both you and your spouse are happy and in good spirits.  Therefore, it is best to start the financial transparency conversation around the time of a positive event, such as a promotion at work or planning a wedding.       

Start by making a net-worth statement.  This summary of your collective assets and liabilities gives you a framework toward your common goals and can also help to uncover flaws in your savings strategy.  Many couples find it helpful to make a list of monthly expenses by reviewing the last few months of bank and credit card statements so it is clear where the money is being spent.  Online money management tools/apps such as “Mint” or “Quicken” can be helpful for this initial financial accountability step. 

In order to set financial goals together, it is important to begin with an understanding of your partner’s fiscal perspective.  Financial planners suggest using basic questions such as “What are your three biggest money worries?” or “What are the three most important ways you want to use money to leave a legacy?” to initiate this process.  It is important to narrow your common goals to no more than three to ensure that you can devote proper focus to each. 

 

PLAN WITH RETIREMENT IN MIND – Ground Your Retirement Wish List in Reality

It is never too early to set strategic savings goals with retirement in mind. There is no question that couples need to plan together for retirement, no matter how far off it may seem. And the retirement planning dialogue needs to be refined and restructured continually to inform all chapters of married life.

 

HOW TO DO IT:

Develop an awareness of your respective retirement goals and “mutualize” them into a retirement wish list.  The amount of savings you need depends on your wants, so it is important to create a retirement vision together.  As an initial step, both partners should write down when you want to retire, where you want to live, and what you expect post-retirement life to look like.      finances

Next, it is important to step back and have a reality check of retirement goals in light of Social Security, investment funds, pension resources, and other projected sources of income.  An essential angle of this reality check involves considering means to most effectively coordinate and sequence retirement benefits.  It is important to recognize that it is rarely the best move for spouses to retire at the same time.  Differences in age, income level at retirement, and projected life span should be factored into decisions about when to start drawing on different sources of retirement income.          

It is also extremely important to make sure you and your spouse act as a team when saving and investing.   Think of your portfolio as a unified investment and make sure there is no overlap or overexposure in the overall mix. Also, make certain the investments are collectively responsive to the different risk tolerances that likely characterize each spouse. 

 

ADDRESS THE SPENDER-SAVER DICHOTOMY - Tackle this Biggest Source of Marital Tension

According to a recent sociological study, money is the greatest source of marital conflict and couples who fight about money weekly are 52% more likely to divorce than those who argue about money monthly.  A MONEY magazine survey identified the number one source of money conflicts involved spending too much on “frivolous” purchases.  Taking practical measures to eliminate predictable spender-saver tensions can have long-term positive effects on marital stability. 

 

HOW TO DO IT:

Couples should automate some savings “off the top” to ensure that this aspect of financial security is never compromised, no matter what the spender-saver balance may be at any particular marriage life-cycle chapter. Then, they should seek out mutually agreeable mechanisms and devise tolerances for both small and large ticket spending.  Take a cue from 54% of millennials and 51% of baby boomers who think it is important for spouses to keep some money separate.  It is often a good idea to set up an individual his-and-her account arrangement in which each partner commits to ask no questions about where the money goes. This allows for some discretionary spending freedoms.  Additionally, in order to prevent fights about joint accounts, set a spending limit, above which each of you must clear purchases with the other. 

Couples also should agree upon measures to “self-audit” their finances and expenditures periodically.  A mutual commitment to regular devices for identifying and correcting “spending leaks” will likely heighten happiness since there is a high correlation between marital satisfaction and asset accumulation.

 

REDUCE DEBT - Confront this Silent Marriage Killer

As the mirror image of the financial security that enhances marriage relationships, accumulated debt works to decrease happiness. With excessive student loans and credit card debt standing as adverse realities of the current economy, it is more important than ever that couples take a realistic debt survey and commit jointly to measures to relieve this strain on their relationships.

 

HOW TO DO IT:

Create a systematic pay-down plan that takes account of all household debt. There is no “right” answer about how to erase a cumulative debt balance, but it is important that couples make and commit to following through on the debt reduction decision together.  It is also important to review the progress regularly.  As you decrease the amount of debt gradually, you will both be more motivated to stick to the plan. 

 

CONFRONT FINANCIAL DISPUTES HEAD ON - Keep Small Disagreements from Escalating

Even couples committed to following all the above strategies will still argue about money occasionally.  Acknowledging such disagreements is what matters most.  Being conflict-averse and avoiding financial discussions compounds the inevitable stress associated with financial disputes and invites recurring tensions.

 

HOW TO DO IT:

Experts advise that couples not go more than 24 hours before communicating openly about a financial disagreement.  And be prepared to recognize that such disputes are best addressed through mediated solutions and agreeable resolution, rather than a win-lose dichotomy.

Experts also suggest that before meeting, you each write down the financial concern that prompted the argument.  One partner should talk about his or her fears, avoiding blame and concentrating on facts.  The other partner should then repeat back what has been said to ensure that the concern has been communicated.  Reversing roles and repeating this process will ensure a sound grounding on which mutually agreeable solutions can be introduced and assessed. 

 

Next Steps:

As with all aspects of marital communication, financial issues can be trigger points for conflict or opportunities for collaboration and cohesive goal setting. Clearly, how couples handle and candidly address their finances will affect the happiness and often the duration of their marriage. 

Facilitated communication utilizing the services of an attorney specializing in family law issues or a financial planning professional can help engender productive dialogues in this challenging area.

 

[1] From “Five Moves Every Couple Should Make” by Dan Kadlec with Kerri Anne Renzulli, Money.com (June 2015).