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How to Mess Up Your Marriage

Have you ever felt like a stranger living in a strange land? Like somehow you’ve woken up in a place where you don’t speak the language? 

I felt that way while watching a morning news segment about financial infidelity.

The host mentioned the results of a national survey in which:

  • 71% of married Americans acknowledged keeping secrets about their spending from their spouses
  • 44% said keeping secrets about money is acceptable under certain circumstances
  • 40% admitted that they tell their spouse they spent less on purchases than they actually did (women lied mostly about clothing, shoes, and things for kids; men lied mostly about things for the car, entertainment, and sports tickets)

And these weren’t even the parts that surprised me.

When the cure is worse than the disease

What made me feel out of place was the matter-of-fact advice given in response to the survey.

Expert number one, host of a cable TV show about money, said, “I don’t think financial infidelity is all that bad. I mean, women need to have independence in their relationship and they need to be able to have private numbers that they can do whatever it is they want with.”

Expert number two, a personal finance author, tempered things a bit by saying, “I agree, except that let’s acknowledge that we’re each going to have this pool of money that we can do with what we want and we don’t have to talk about it.”

She believes couples should keep three bank accounts: “One for me, one for you, one for the house. And the house gets taken care of first.”

To which expert number one responded, “Oh my gosh, without a question you should have separate bank accounts. I mean you should be able to do with your money whatever you want to do with your money.”

The host concluded the segment by saying, “Good advice.”

I concluded by saying, “huh?”

Separate lives

Divorce attorneys have told me that when money is the issue that brings a couple in to see them, as it often is, the specific issue is usually that the husband and wife were living separate financial lives. Over time, one spouse damaged their finances, usually by racking up lots of debt. By the time the other found out, it was too late. Not only were their finances a mess, but now all respect and trust had been lost as well.

Want to mess up your marriage? Live separate financial lives. What’s yours is yours, what’s mine is mine.

Information is love

I don’t care how many people have gotten on the separate accounts bus, I’m clinging to my quaint, clearly out-of-fashion point of view that the ideal way for man and woman to get along financially is to practice full financial disclosure before marriage and complete financial transparency after marriage.

Full financial disclosure means talking about money before marriage. A lot. It means detailing how much debt you have, how you got it, and what you’re doing about it. It means revealing how much you have in savings and investments and how much you earn.

It isn’t about interrogating each other; it’s about talking with each other about something that’ll impact countless aspects of your relationship.

The two shall become one

And here’s where I’ve really gone off the deep end. I have this odd point of view that if one person had a lot of debt before getting married, after the wedding, both spouses have a lot of debt. If one was rich before the wedding day, the minute the vows have been said, both spouses are rich.

Crazy stuff, I realize.

Ongoing financial transparency means that after getting married each person should know exactly how much is coming into the household and how much is going out. You work together to set a plan for your money and then you track your finances with what I like to think of as a central financial operating system. In our household, we use Mint.com because it automates a lot of the tracking and we both have easy access to all of the information.

Ongoing transparency also means talking about money on a regular basis. Some people call it a money date. I just call it communicating. At the end of each month, review the month together. Did you overspend in any categories? If so, why? And what will you do about it?

Freedom doesn’t require separate accounts

One point made by expert number two that I agreed with, to a degree, was this: “Let’s acknowledge that we’re each going to have this pool of money that we can do with what we want and we don’t have to talk about it.”

Jude and I each have separate clothing budgets. Each amount is a line item on our household budget. We each have the freedom to spend that money as we want, but we’re accountable to manage to the number.  And we usually do talk about what we buy. Other couples use such budgeted amounts for lunches with friends, music downloads, etc.

You don’t need separate financial lives to have some semblance of freedom in marriage. You each just need a budgeted amount that you can manage.

Oneness is better for your finances, and your marriage.

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6 Responses to How to Mess Up Your Marriage

  1. Michelle September 3, 2016 at 11:19 AM #

    Hi Matt. I basically agree with you (as usual!) But, when we entered our 50’s my husband and I went with the his/hers and 3rd (household) accounts. Partly so I wouldn’t have to keep up with his haircuts, car tags, certain ins. premiums, hardware store stops, etc. nor he keep up with mine. Also, after his mom died, there were incomes and expenses he came into and now he keeps up with the rental income in his account and I don’t have to worry about it. We have absolute transparency and common goals. One of the goals is no debt and lots of trips! Thanks for the food-for-thought. Michelle From Near Memphis

    • Matt Bell September 6, 2016 at 12:50 PM #

      Michelle – As I said to Garold, it’s hard to argue with a system that works! The important thing is that you have financial transparency. And lots of trips 🙂

  2. John Kelley August 31, 2016 at 4:35 PM #

    Matt, I whole heatedly agree with you on this one. Having one account for all income has worked for us for 27 years. Marriage is two becoming one, including your finances. It is not a joint venture.

  3. Garold Baker August 30, 2016 at 11:37 PM #

    Matt I do appreciate your point of view but really disagree with you in a certain situation. That situation is when two adults (middle age or older) marry after divorces. This is the situation that my wife and I are in and have been for the past 25 years. We have 3 bank accounts and it has worked beautifully for us. We both contribute equally to the “house” account. We then spend as we choose out of our own accounts. But we do have financial transparency as we have agreed that we will not go into credit card debt. We are both financially responsible adults and if that is not the situation – then this will not work. We like the freedom to buy what we please with our “cash” and to spend on our separate grandchildren as we please without having to consult with the other one. I would believe that this plan would not work in a majority of situations for young newly married couples – BUT it could for some – therefore saving a lot of stress & even divorces. What I am saying is I do not think it is wise to take the position that there is only ONE way for ALL couples to manage their money.

    • Matt Bell September 1, 2016 at 10:04 AM #

      Thanks for the added perspective, Garold. I can’t argue with a situation that’s clearly working well for you. The important thing isn’t so much that couples absolutely follow this rule or that; it’s that the bigger pictures goals are accomplished — namely, transparency, teamwork, no secrets. For most, I’d say joint accounts work best, but as you’re pointing out, there are other ways to accomplish those more important goals.

  4. Paul D August 30, 2016 at 9:40 PM #

    I’m 100% with you on this subject, Matt! I’ve been married for nearly 29 years, and the only his and hers financial separation we have is what you described – separate line items in the budget for a little money we can each use as we please.

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