One year prior to marrying Mrs. Superhero, I became a gung-ho personal finance enthusiast. For the next several months, I ate, slept, and breathed money. I read financial books in my spare time and listened to podcasts during my two hour round trip daily commute. Just for fun, I began watching the now defunct Dave Ramsey Show on Fox Business and The Suze Orman show on MSNBC.
At the time, I had just started my first job teaching elementary school music. I lived with a roommate, drove a 2000 Ford Taurus with nearly 200,000 miles, and lived on a reasonably frugal budget for a bachelor. The soon-to-be Mrs. Superhero was completing her senior year and preparing for a similar career teaching music.
Call us old-fashioned, but we made it a priority to attend pre-marital counseling during our engagement. At our first meeting, the pastor who planned to officiate our ceremony asked us both to complete a brief questionnaire in order to develop a priority list for our sessions.
Not surprisingly, we both scored very highly in the area of personal finance. The soon-to-be Mrs. Superhero is a natural saver, and my near-obsession with personal finance had contributed to her gain of my new-found knowledge by osmosis. After asking us both if we had ever heard of Dave Ramsey or his book — we both had done so — the pastor informed us that we would be “fine.”
In reality, we weren’t going to be “fine.”
A storm was already brewing.
The First Money Talk
I will always remember our first family budget meeting. Shortly after our honeymoon, we sat down among stacks of moving boxes at the old oak dining room table in our rented townhouse. I was excited to do some intense number crunching, formulate projections, and dream about our future as husband and wife. To say I had preconceived notions about how this meeting was going to go would be an understatement.
We began the meeting by reviewing the state of our current emergency savings. Mrs. Superhero’s eyes lit up as we pored over the numbers; not because they were terribly high or impressive, but because she had worked and saved up $2,000 of our emergency fund during the past year, all while taking 19 credit hours, practicing flute and piano for hours and hours each day, and performing in the university orchestra and band. Never one to allow my agenda to be interrupted, I stated that we needed to boost our meager savings as soon as possible.
Next, we reviewed the budget I had put together the day before. I had pre-determined every single dollar of spending on paper and presented each category one-by-one in a very matter-of-fact manner. Mrs. Superhero listened intently, and when I had finished my review, I asked if she had “any questions.” Sensing the rhetorical nature of my question, Mrs. Superhero said “no.”
At this point, I’m sure I was feeling quite proud of myself for directing such an efficient meeting, so I moved to wrap-up the meeting and continue unpacking. Mrs. Superhero sheepishly agreed. Meeting closed.
In hindsight, I had no idea how to talk about money with my spouse. I could talk at her about money until I turned blue in the face, yet conversing with her hadn’t even entered my radar. There wasn’t much authentic communication happening.
Prior to our marriage, I was genuinely excited about the merger of money and marriage. Call it naivete or wishful thinking, but I had no idea that it would be a challenge. A few months into our marriage, I thought things were going well. Mrs. Superhero had graduated in December and secured a long-term substitute teaching position for the spring. At our next budget meeting, I naturally came prepared with spreadsheets and figures illustrating how I had planned to utilize the coming increasing in our budgeted income. Though I deserved it, I was not prepared for what was about to happen next.
In no uncertain terms, Mrs. Superhero informed me that she had gone along with my “control of the budget” so far, but now she wanted a voice in the budget process. Immediately, I went on the defensive and argued that she had always had a voice in the process. As you can imagine, the conversation’s quality quickly eroded from this point.
How to Talk About Money With Your Spouse
Thankfully, Mrs. Superhero and I have grown in our ability to talk about money. We understand each other better with each passing year, and our need to discuss our finances in detail has greatly diminished. We have a system to keep our money and marriage on track.
This system took time to develop. It required an understanding of our individual financial inclinations and values. Once we came to a collective understanding — that I enjoy and value sensible stewardship and planning ahead and Mrs. Superhero values financial security and balancing the priorities of the future with today’s needs — we were well on our way toward happiness.
Money and Marriage – The Wrong Way
Needless to say, however, I made several mistakes early on, and they were damaging to our money and marriage. I have done things “the wrong way,” and it was damaging and discouraging.
1. Overuse the words “I” and “you” when discussing money.
Speaking these words frequently when discussing money is a sure fire way to create a divisive conversation. You will cause your spouse to become standoffish or even adversarial when the topic of money arises.
For example, “You spent too much money at the grocery store” and “I need a newer car” are two phrases which I actually spoke during early budget meetings. The words “you” and “I” super-charged these conversations with negative emotions. They made my wife defensive about her shopping and concerned about future spending on a vehicle.
2. Keeping your financial lives separate.
I know this will be a sticking point for many readers, but it is imperative that you and your spouse join your accounts and view your assets and income collectively. Separating money is a sure fire way to create silly fights and senseless drama. It also serves to unreasonably highlight whether one spouse is the primary breadwinner. When you decided to marry and merge your lives, you pledged to be partners, not competitors.
I believe this idea also includes the mental separation of income by source. When the primary earner holds that fact over the other spouse’s head, a fight is sure to follow.
3. Hiding debt or assets from your spouse.
Before you marry, it is time to let all of your financial skeletons out of the closet. If you have bad debts from years of betting on horse racing, it’s time to come clean. It’s also time to share that you inherited $150,000 from Aunt Rosie. This kind of behavior is common, and it’s toxic to your marriage; according to a CreditCard.com survey, approximately 6 million people have concealed financial accounts from their spouse. Be honest so you can work together to clean-up bad debts or wisely formulate a plan for large sums of money or other assets.
Thankfully, I never had odd debts (or assets, unfortunately!) to hide.
Money and Marriage – The Right Way
1. Identify your common ground for your vision of the future.
If you’ve never done this before, it is easy. Take out a sheet of paper and a pen, and begin listing how you envision your future at various stages in life. How many kids will you have? Where will you live? Will you travel frequently? Will you support your children through college? Will you both work full-time? For how long?
The answers to these questions will provide common ground for the goals which meet at the intersection of your marriage and money; they will help you answer the “why?” questions which may arrive as you plan your financial affairs.
2. Learn to speak your spouse’s financial language.
When I finally realized that Mrs. Superhero values future security and balancing the priorities of both today and tomorrow, I learned how to frame financial discussions in a manner which actually matters to her. Now that our discussions include these perspectives by default, we are making better decisions which align with our collective goals.
Perhaps your spouse is a numbers person. Maybe he or she responds better to be emotional appeal. It is your job to discover their financial language and communicate in a manner which is meaningful yet non-manipulative.
3. Honor each other’s wishes as your circumstances allow.
This can be a difficult step for many people, especially for Extreme Frugalites, but it is important to give and take for the sake of your spouse. I, for example, have no desire to add to my already-fine wardrobe of slacks, jeans, button down shirts, polos, and t-shirts. But Mrs. Superhero enjoys purchasing a few new clothing items each month. Similarly, I enjoy trying new and interesting imported and craft beer. Neither of these indulgences is significant enough to derail us from goals, so we have learned to appreciate the little things which make each other happy.
While the advice in this piece is designed to promote harmony between marriage and money, in the end, I must be clear: our marriage is far more important than any financial concerns, goals, or dreams which may fill our minds and hearts. It is easy to lose sight of this priority in the heat of the moment, but over the long haul, Mrs. Superhero and I have been successful in our marriage and money because the latter ALWAYS takes the back seat to the former.
How do you ensure a healthy relationship between marriage and money? How often do you and your spouse talk about money? How do you stay on the same page with your plans, dreams, and goals?