Couples and Money: Check Your Baggage

"There's your perspective. There's my perspective. Then there's the truth."

-Ted Klontz

It's 2010 at a coffee shop in uptown Minneapolis. I was late for this date with my future wife; I'm not used to finding parking in uptown. She doesn't count that against me, but I get minus 10 points. We drink coffee and talk before taking a long walk. We start dating and it's fun learning about each other; what we like and dislike, what are hopes and dreams are, and what kinds of wine we like.


Over the course of the next few months she learns that money was tight for me growing up. Even when it wan't as tight, I had to work hard for it. There are times when I don't have a car to get me to my job so I have to walk. There are times when we simply don't have money for essentials. This is normal to me. 


Over the course of the next few months I learn that she never thought about money. There was never a time when she had to wonder where a meal would come from or whether or not she would get something she needed. She didn't work and never had to wonder how she would pay for a car. 


If we imagine for a minute that access to money is kind of like access to clean water, then she grew up in a situation where she just had to go to the tap. Just hit a button and water comes out. I grew up closer to the desert, where we would look and look for water; water was hard to find.


Interesting things happen when you bring together people who think very differently about how to get clean water.



We All Have Our Own Money Journey


Financial Psychology Institute co-founder Ted Klontz has a saying that we are all a little weird when it comes to money. We are a product of where we come from and we can't change that. Through our childhood all the way to today we've been learning how money works. No matter how right or wrong those lessons are we pick them up. This is how we write our money scripts. As a result we all bring our own money scripts to the table when we enter a relationship. Behavior Gap founder Carl Richards will say this is the baggage we bring to the table.


It's quite common for two people to have vastly different views of money and money's purpose in life. This is an important point to understand when money comes up in a relationship. We've all been in a different journey.


Finding Common Ground


If we're lucky we have a little bit in common. It's not surprising to hear that couples have almost nothing in common when it comes to money. One wants to drive cars until they die while the other wants to lease new vehicles. One wants to retire early and spend time with grand kids while the other wants to maintain their status in the neighborhood. One wants to go bring a tent while traveling and go camping while the other wants to stay in five-star resorts. 


Just because there isn't much overlap does not mean there's no hope. It just means that there will have to be more money conversations, and healthier money conversations going forward. Getting a game plan for how to tackle money decisions is important. 



What If We're on the Same Page?


Some people are lucky and share many common views of money. To be clear, I am suggesting that even if a couple isn't in a great financial spot, if they have similar view about money they are still lucky. It makes things easier to be on the same page with your partner. Hopefully that page is in a good book so you can utilize your shared views and craft a good plan going forward.   




There is a word of caution here, though. Don't be surprised if heated discussions arise even if you share many of the same views. Thinking that you are on the same page makes it easier to get frustrated when there are areas where you disagree. 



Merging Finances: What Works?


Merging finances with someone else can be very stressful and if done without proper care can lead to  heated arguments about money. Here are three common methods you can use to manage joint finances. 


Max Transaction Amount: Many people implement a system where they keep all their money in joint accounts. That works well for them, but they can't just buy anything they want. They spend some time up front determining a dollar amount under which no justification is owed to the other. For example, if that predetermined amount is $100, then I am free to spend money on anything as long as it's under $100. If there is anything that I want or need to purchase that costs more than that, we have to have a conversation. 


It's worth noting here that the spirit of the agreement is important. Gaming the system undermines what you are hoping to accomplish. 



Spending Money: Another good system is to have accounts set up for separate spending money. This could be physical accounts, sub accounts, or just a mental account. With this system a couple designates how much money goes into the spending money bucket and each partner is able to spend that money however he or she wants. For example, if the dollar amount is $100 per paycheck then I get to spend that $100 however I want. I could even let my balance build up. If I want to buy a new television, for example, then I could hold onto several weeks worth of spending money and spend it all on the television. 


To make this work, it's important to be understanding of your partner's use of the spending money. You are not allowed to make judgments on purchases made from these accounts, which is the point.



Segregation: One final way is to simply keep track of finances completely separately. This is most common with second marriages, but it's not always that case. With this, each partner keeps their own finances compete segregated. Joint expenses are paid for by each partner. Then everyone pays for their own expenses. Since it's your money it shouldn't (but sometimes does) matter to the other what you do with the money.


Teamwork Makes the Dream Work


The most important thing to remember is that you are a team. Find something that works for you, implement it, and check in periodically on how it's going. Learn to understand each other's backgrounds, find a way to team up, and learn how to have good money conversations, and you'll be doing very well. 



Read More:

Money Conversations: Be Careful!!

Talking About Money is Stressful: Try This

Couples Game Plan in Retirement

Goal-Setting Doesn't Work - Focus on Systems and Habits

We Can't Afford It

That's Awkward! When Your Friend Has More (or Less) Than You


References:

Brad Klontz, Rick Kahler, Ted Klontz: Facilitating Financial Health

Carl Richards: "Talking About Money" Workshop


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