Monday, October 19, 2009

Money in A Marriage of Opposites

Joanne and Peter have been married for three years and have just started to deal with the reality of blending their money and making joint decisions. Planning to buy their first house has forced them to face the fact that there are conflicts they've been avoiding--conflicts because they have very different opinions and styles of approaching money.

Peter has no problem spending money he doesn't have. His parents lived beyond their means. They had what they wanted, when they wanted it. The stress of paying off debt was a familiar scenario in Peter's household.

Joanne's parents were just the opposite. They never spent money they didn't have. They saved for the new furniture and the new car. Likewise, she always earned her own spending money and never received an allowance for helping with family chores. She said she was not spoiled--like Peter whose parents never said "no" to him or his brother.

I met Joanne and Peter through Joanne's parents; instead of dealing with the crises in her marriage, she was running to her parents for advice. She was afraid of setting limits on her husband's spending and cowered in any conversations about his spending. Those conversations always turned into confrontations with resulted in her feeling guilty that she was being the money cop.

What I could offer as a third, objective party, was to help them in setting up a joint plan for "their" money. Even in marriages that work well with separate accounts, the partnership is an entity that has financial implications when planning a joint purchase, whether that be a vacation, car, house or for a child. If there is some agreement about mutual goals, couples can usually agree about the steps they will take to achieve those goals.

With their agreement in creating a 1, 3 and 5-year plan that they both felt satisfied them, there would be certain steps they would have to take to assure they would achieve them. It became a joint plan instead of Joanne's plan. They also were asked to include any barriers they perceived might prevent them from holding up their end of the commitment.

This was the part of the exercise that gave Peter the most challenge. It also changed his life, and saved his marriage. With a non-judgmental third party, Peter was able to discuss his style and habit of rewarding himself on a weekly and sometimes daily basis. Perhaps more importantly, in that discussion he was able to see what was previously a blind spot for him: the consequences of his free-spending style.

He had to admit that the thought of having their own home, his own garage and back yard would bring him much greater joy than buying the latest digital camera or stereo equipment. Once he saw the payoff for what he would have to change, he was willing to make that commitment. Once it was his decision and not just Joanne's, it became easier to do for him.

The last I heard, Joanne had very positive conversations about her marriage with her parents. She and Peter had bought their first home, and were already starting to save to landscape their yard.

From the outside looking in, perhaps the greatest payoff for their joint planning is a compatible marriage. Instead of dreading and doubting their future, they will be planning and achieving what is valuable and meaningful in their life together.

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