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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, “Good grief!”

Separate lives

While writing Money & Marriage, several divorce attorneys 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. Nancy Dahl July 31, 2019 at 6:39 PM #

    Signs of the times. Symptoms of deeper issues. Problems are never about what they’re about. The big picture is that NONE of this operates properly in Christ-less relationships. Issues of the heart do not change by virtue of a marriage. The conceptual framework is not faulty, just untenable because of “stiff necks”and “hard hearts”.
    I would warn to beware of self-righteousness. Yes, you are peculiar. That came from God’s sanctifying work in your life. How kind and generous are his ways, imparting the blessings of the godly on those who fear Him.
    Continue as a light, reflecting the mercies and truths of our God.

    • Matt Bell August 2, 2019 at 11:08 AM #

      Well said, Nancy. Appreciate your perspective, counsel, and encouragement.

  2. Tammy Jo Ingraham July 31, 2019 at 7:45 AM #

    My husband and I (31 years of marriage) have joint accounts, but we have more than one. One is his primary use account and the other is mine. I “manage” both of them- pay the bills, buy the groceries, balance the checkbook. I know exactly what is in all of our accounts, and he has the ability to know the same, he just chooses not to look at the one I manage- which really bugs me, so once in awhile, I just flat tell him. (He is 20 years my senior with health issues, so it’s not a matter of his not caring, he just doesn’t mess with it)
    All that being said, I would NEVER recommend it for someone married less than say,15 years, because transparency and making joint decisions is so important! We used the same account- just one- for the first 10 years of our marriage, and when I became a contractor, we opened a second account. I used it for my contract, and found it was easier to keep my “allowance” in that account. If we did not have the strong, stable marriage that we have, this could be a train wreck.
    Thank you for all you do. I love reading your blogs!

    • Matt Bell July 31, 2019 at 2:06 PM #

      Tammy Jo – Thanks for sharing some of the details of how you and your husband have things set up. Ultimately, the best system is one that truly works for you and it sounds like you’ve come up with a system that works, especially given your husband’s health issues. I think the important key is that both accounts are in both of your names. Glad to hear you’re enjoying the blog!

  3. Steveark July 30, 2019 at 5:30 PM #

    I couldn’t agree more and it has served my wife and I well over 41 years of marriage, so far. We’ve never had separate accounts, except where the Fed’s require for IRA’s, 401K and ROTH’s since they can’t be jointly held. Even when I inherited a seven figure estate from my parents I put it immediately into a jointly held account since I don’t view anything I have as being just mine, it is ours. Sure she could have withdrawn the money and left me, in theory, but the money would have been pretty meaningless compared to a life without her. So far, fortunately, she’s still putting up with me! We both can spend what we want on ourselves but we do discuss anything first that is just for one of us if it approaches $100. However I can’t think of a single time when one of us told the other they didn’t agree with an expense. I know there are risks with mingling assets completely but a good marriage is priceless and it is worth the risk in my opinion. Great post!

    • Matt Bell July 30, 2019 at 8:08 PM #

      Congrats on your 41 years of marriage! And thanks for sharing such a powerful testimony that speaks to so many things—commitment, trust, but especially to the love you have for your wife.

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