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Finance

This Valentine's Day, Have One Last Fight

Money troubles aren't fatal to couples -- if they agree on how to handle them.

This Valentine’s Day, if you’re in a long-term relationship, resolve to do something really romantic: talk about money.

In the interests of full disclosure, I should note that my husband spontaneously proposed in the middle of a household budget meeting. You may therefore conclude that the McSuderman household has somewhat … unusual … ideas about what constitutes romance.

But what’s more romantic than “until death do us part”? And substantial research shows that fights about money are one of the most common stressors on couples, and a very good predictor of divorce. One recent study found that it’s not having money troubles that send couples to divorce court, but the inability to agree on what to do about them.

In a consumer society such as ours, money is fundamental. Our purchases aren’t just about stuff we’d like to have; they’re about signaling who we are, to ourselves and other people. Money is one of the most important ways we shape choices about our lives. Naturally, when someone else gets involved in those choices, there’s going to be conflict.

Those conflicts are obviously made easier when you have more money. There’s margin for error and disagreement without catastrophe or stress. But as financial advisers can attest, a dedicated spender can easily find ways to run through 20 percent more than he or she earns, regardless of how much that is. That spending isn’t necessarily on flat-panel televisions and speedboats; it may be on a house in a good school district. But no matter where the money goes, if you strap two spenders together, they’re both apt to end up in financial disaster. And if you strap one of those spenders to a saver, you end up with years’ worth of fiery arguments.

I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that that budget meeting has been the foundation of my marriage in more ways than one. We do not agree on all money matters. There is considerable divergence in household views, for example, on the relative merits of high-end stereo equipment and expensive kitchen appliances. But we did agree that we had to agree on how the money would be spent. And having already had those discussions, through some hard times (Peter was laid off a few weeks after we moved in together) we knew even before we tied the knot that we could come to such agreement.

Too many courting couples have a delicate reluctance to get down into the nitty-gritty of how they’re going to arrange their money: how much to pool, and how to spend those collective funds. Like a Victorian bride picturing her wedding night, they have only the vaguest notion of what is supposed to happen, but they imagine that money matters will sort themselves out easily as they drift along on a cloud of ecstatic love. What they often get instead is glorious fights when one party wants to put aside 15 percent of their salary for retirement and another 5 percent for emergencies, while the other wants to live for the day and let the future take care of itself.

My sympathies are naturally with the careful saver. But we’re not talking about retirement planning today; we’re talking about love. And if you want that love to last, what you do with the money is less important than being on the same page about it. Which means that if you’re considering marriage (or a functionally equivalent long-term partnership), you should have that conversation as soon as possible.

That conversation should include near-term budgeting. But it also needs to lay out the long-term goals that you both want, whatever they are: a big wedding, nicer cars, education for the kids, travel, a cushy retirement. You need to try setting a plan. And then you need to see if your partner can keep to it, or if they do as so many people end up doing when these plans are attempted: sheepishly confessing that they stopped trying to keep to the budget four days into the month, making secret purchases, blowing through the money that was supposed to go into the car fund on a spontaneous night out with the boys. Someone who repeatedly cheats on you with money can reform, to be sure -- but you should see strong signs of that reformation before you tie the knot, rather than hoping that marriage will somehow change them into someone they haven’t been.

And what if you’ve already married that special darling who can’t seem to stick to a financial plan? What if you’re already having those fights?

Well, that’s an even better time to have that conversation. If you’re already fighting constantly about money, you need to stop blowing up over individual purchases and crises, and start hammering out a long-term plan that both of you can live with. The more distance there is between you two in how to handle money, the more detailed that planning needs to be, because you can’t rely on inertia to do any of the work for you. It is not the naturally thrifty who need a microscopically attentive monthly budget; it is those who look up at the end of the month and wonder where all the money went.

It might not seem like the most idyllic way to spend your Valentine’s Day. On the other hand, it might ensure that you have plenty of happy Valentine’s Days to come.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net

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