Financial Advice for Couples: How to Keep Things Equal

Whether you’re newlyweds or not, your marriage can only benefit from a better balance that eases the stress on both of you. But be ready to talk — “we” statements only, please.

Advertisement

Continue reading the main story

Supported by

Continue reading the main story

A year and a half of pandemic living has revealed — or reminded us of — some persistent patterns around money, gender, marriage and families. And they aren’t always pretty.

There is anecdotal evidence of men confiscating their wives’ federal relief checks, and data showing a link between financial stress and domestic violence. And millions of women felt they had no choice but to leave paid employment to provide care for children or other family members.

Matrimony and parenting involve compromise, without question (and sometimes, seemingly, without end). But it need not be disproportionate.

There are plenty of reasons to equalize the financial decision-making in your marriage — and this goes for every couple, heterosexual or not. If you’re among the many getting married now as part of the great pandemic wedding boom, consider adding another promise: that yours will be a financially egalitarian marriage.

Here is what that might mean.

First, understand where the power lies.

When a new household is setting a financial baseline, it is almost impossible to avoid talking about power.

Rachel Sherman, a sociology professor at the New School for Social Research in New York, examined arrangements of authority in the marriages of the affluent in her book “Uneasy Street.”

While gender and the troubling norms that can come with it in heterosexual couples can play a role, she suggested that at least two additional vectors influenced the power dynamic.

The first involves the source of any household resources, including earnings, unpaid labor and inheritance. Who gets or takes credit, and for what? What privileges, if any, come with the answers to those questions?

The other is about spending styles — who has license to do what, and when and who decides? Confusion here can stem from having grown up in a family with a dysfunctional relationship to money.

Conflicting habits can cause real trouble, but understanding them is an important first step. “People are lucky if they have a partner who has the same ideas that they do,” Professor Sherman said.

You’ll have to talk. A lot.

Financial planners get to participate in many conversations with people who have recently married, and they can spot worrying patterns. One frequent issue: Only one partner speaks.

“They’ll often have a meeting with just one half of a couple,” said Marci Bair, a financial planner in San Diego.

More often than not, it’s the man in heterosexual couples who shows up or calls alone (or wants to), several advisers told me this week.

At Fyooz Financial Planning (pronounced “fuse,” as in joining together a couple’s portfolios and peccadilloes), that sort of exclusion or neglect isn’t allowed. Moreover, every couple meets with a couple: Dan and Natalie Slagle, who jointly run the business in Rochester, Minn.

It can feel a bit like a double date, and as on many dates, there are red flags. “They typically have to do with the pronouns that are used,” Mr. Slagle said. “‘You’ as opposed to ‘we.'”

Ms. Slagle picked up the thread. “If they are not seeing themselves as a partnership, it’s going to be very difficult to create a successful financial plan for two people,” she said.

So consider your pronouns, and not just if you’re talking to a professional. Be a united front.

There should be no ‘financial spouse.’

Even if you’re both present and equally engaged in any conversations about your money, many couples have just one person running all of the household’s finances.

“I call it the financial spouse and the nonfinancial spouse,” said Annelise Bretthauer, a financial planner in Hillsboro, Ore.

She’s generally not a fan of that setup or default, in part because of what can happen when a marriage ends, either when one spouse dies or when the relationship goes sour.

Much of Ms. Bretthauer’s pro bono work is with recently divorced women, who may have spent decades as the nonfinancial spouse.

“And then they’re drinking from a fire hose,” she said. “They don’t know how to make the best decisions in the divorce because they haven’t been privy to financial information for years.”

And there’s not one right way to do it.

You may be certain about the wisdom of a joint bank account and rigorous spending accountability. Or perhaps you prefer a trio of virtual piggy banks labeled Yours, Mine and Ours. Both can work.

“Whenever people ask, I say that the right way to organize your money is the way where you don’t fight about it,” said Alexandra Killewald, a sociology professor at Harvard.

Keeping your finances separate doesn’t prevent you or your spouse from inadvertently picking that fight.

“If you have separate accounts, how separate are they really?” asked Lazetta Rainey Braxton, a financial planner in Brooklyn. “Can you spend with no judgment? However you want? Only within your shared value system?”

But you can budget wrong.

Be wary about how you talk — or even think — about whose income is for what.

Viviana A. Zelizer, a sociology professor at Princeton, spent years examining how couples would assign labels to the money that came in. Often, women’s earnings fell into particular patterns of allocation — for child care, vacations or summer camps and not for, say, the mortgage.

“Somehow they were a bit different, and maybe more secondary, than the big money items,” she said. “I would tell couples to notice how powerful this is.”

If you have at least one joint account — to pay for all shared expenses — perhaps no one will feel that their income is less relevant.

Consider the influences outside your front door.

For all your efforts to have a financially equal marriage, inequality in the outside world may come through the door each night and hover over the dinner table.

Ms. Braxton, the financial planner in Brooklyn, encourages clients to consider the following set of possibilities and the sensitivity that is necessary to manage them in a marriage.

Perhaps you earn less, on average, because you are Black. Perhaps you earn less, on average, because you are female. And perhaps you feel more vulnerable to job loss.

A couple of things could happen at home. You might save and invest more conservatively out of fear. Or you might spend with abandon on occasion, just to cut loose.

“People in that situation need planning to rise above what they are experiencing,” Ms. Braxton said. For instance, you might build savings backstops as a “cushion” fund for softer landings or as a kind of “go to hell” account.

Giving up authority can give you something more.

If any of the above sounds familiar, it doesn’t make you retrograde. After all, there’s a decent chance that you’ve never done marriage before. Change, however, may actually put you at ease.

Husbands who have taken on traditional financial gender roles can feel a palpable sense of relief when they are not operating solo, especially if the household finances grow more complicated over time, said Ms. Bair, the financial planner in San Diego.

“It’s all on their shoulders,” she said. “And they know that they’re probably not fully equipped for it, either.”

Hiring professional help may bring some comfort, too, but it doesn’t obviate the need for deep conversation with your spouse. Ms. Bretthauer said the best financial planners were in the behavior-change business, not the stock-twirling one.

“Are you looking for someone who will tell you what to do?” she said. “Then don’t hire me.”

Leave a Reply