As we gear up for our Thursday Circle of Knowledge Event, Gay & Married: Welcome to the Family, we’re thinking about the issues that couples face before they actually tie the knot.
Today’s tips come from expert TFI staff clinician Anthony Chambers, PhD, ABPP. Dr. Chambers is director of the Couples Therapy at the Institute, and has completed training and is an approved provider in two of the most comprehensive and well respected divorce-prevention/marriage enhancing programs in the world: PREP (Prevention and Relationship Enhancement Program) and PREPARE/ENRICH.
Today, Dr. Chambers provides insights on one of the most common issues couples face (and how to talk about it before getting married): money.
Money presents risks for couples, but also opportunities to co-create a shared vision.
I think it is critical for couples to discuss their finances before they get married. Money is the number one reason why couples get divorced. I am always amazed by how little communication couples have about money prior to getting married, and then once they have to make a major purchase like a house or a car they are then surprised by their partner’s credit score.
Discussing money is especially important because if you set up your finances correctly from the beginning, then a lot of arguments and problems can be avoided. Moreover, although money is a huge risk factor for divorce, it is equally true that money can be a huge protective factor when set up correctly. The transition to marriage is about moving from “I” to “we”, and money may be the single greatest manifestation of “we-ness”. One conceptualization of intimacy is that it is the couple’s ability to co-create a shared vision. In this capitalistic society, there is no vision that doesn’t involve money (i.e., buying a house, a car, saving for kids’ college, retirement, etc.).
That’s not to say that the conversation is always easy. The reason it is so hard for couples to discuss money is because money represents trust, power, control, vulnerability, and fairness. Thus, to the extent that a couple struggles with any of those issues in their relationship, it makes talking about money all the more difficult.
Keep it together.
The most common misstep I find couples make regarding money is the separation of money.
Marriage is about moving from independence to interdependence, which basically means whatever you do impacts me and whatever I do impacts you and there is no way to get around that. Couples will frequently try to maintain their independence and avoid financial arguments by trying to separate their finances. However, in a marriage there is not true separation. It is an illusion. Marriage is a group sport and just like any team, if a teammate has a bad night it impacts the other players. Thus, it becomes important to embrace the team concept in order to have success. If a person does not trust their partner with money, then that is probably a sign that they should be in couple therapy to work out the trust issues, because it will not get resolved by simply trying to separate their finances.
Make your finances marriage-friendly.
- First, couples need to think about money as “our money”. That is, there is one lump sum of money that has to take care of their needs and the needs of their kid(s), if they have any. It doesn’t matter who makes more or who makes less because it is about making sure everyone’s needs are met. Second, there needs to be “transparency”. That is, both members of the couple need to know how much money there is and where it is being invested. Some of the worst cases of infidelity I’ve ever treated were financial, not sexual. Secrets and money is never a good idea!
- I recommend couples use technology to help actualize the guideline of transparency. Websites like www.mint.com are great ways to track your finances. Towards that end, I recommend that couples track their finances at least once a week to make sure they are on budget.
- Paychecks should be automatically deposited into a joint account. It is OK to have individual accounts, but I recommend that couples have their paychecks automatically deposited into a joint bank account and transferred to the individual account in order to promote transparency. Couples should prioritize their budget by making sure that their collective needs are met (i.e., bills, savings, groceries, etc). Then, if there is money left over, the couples who choose to have individual accounts can transfer some money to their respective individual accounts. Keep in mind that those individual accounts should be checking accounts with low balances as they are for monthly discretionary spending in order to help manage the fact that some couples have different spending priorities. The individual accounts are NOT safety accounts to stash money away “just in case”. Setting up your joint account is a nice way for couples to feel like an “us” and can be something nice to help couples “feel” the transition to marriage, especially if they were cohabitating before marriage.
- If a member of the couple wants to help out a family member, make sure that the needs of their new nuclear family is taken care of first before helping out friends and extended family.
- Check your credit score before getting married. If one or both members of the couple have a low credit score, that is OK because at least you know the number and you can work together to increase the score(s). Moreover, knowing the credit score is important for delineating the shared vision, because a low credit score may mean delaying certain aspects of that vision, such as purchasing a home.
Dr. Chambers’ passion, clinical, teaching, and scholarly interests all focus on strengthening the relationships of couples from all walks of life. He is the Director of the Couples Therapy Program, the Director of the Postdoctoral Fellowship Program in Couple and Family Psychology/Marriage and Family Therapy (MFT), and a Staff Licensed Clinical Psychologist at The Family Institute at Northwestern University. He is also an Assistant Clinical Professor in the Department of Psychology, and a member of the Teaching Faculty in the MFT Graduate Program at Northwestern University. Dr. Chambers is also one of only 117 Psychologists nationwide Board Certified in treating couples (ABPP-CFP).
To read Dr. Chambers’ full bio, or to make an appointment, visit our website.