Couples Financial Therapy: 4 Keys to a Happy Marriage

Couples Financial Therapy: 4 Keys to a Strong Financial Union | www.TheHeavyPurse.comAmore is in the air as we approach Valentine’s Day. Couples are busy buying the perfect gift to demonstrate their love to one another. After all, love conquers everything—right? The romantic in me says “yes”. The financial advisor in me sadly says “no”.

Instead of a more traditional Valentine’s Day post, I decided to share some tips to help couples master the minefield of money. With almost 50% of first marriages ending in divorce (and the percentage increases in subsequent marriages), money is often cited as a contributing or the main factor in the dissolution of marriage. The good news? This is also something that can be fixed once we understand how money can ruin a once happy union.

How to Build a Strong Financial Union

I’ve worked with countless couples and I have seen how money can bring out the best and worst in people and marriages. While every couple is unique, addressing these four key areas can help keep money from being a source of stress and unhappiness in your marriage.

Open Communication is a Must

This is where many couples fall apart, so this is where I want to start. Money cannot be a taboo topic in a marriage. You should be talking about money before you say “I do” and afterwards too. You are no longer making money decisions just for yourself but now as a couple, and you need to actively adjust your money approach from “me” to “we”. You need to understand how each of you views and handles money and establish common ground. You don’t have to think and do everything exactly the same, but you do need to follow agreed upon values when it comes to how you will manage your money. Too many couples assume the other one is comfortable with how they spend their money, only to find out later that they are not, which can cause a lot of unnecessary friction. A few things you need to determine together:

  1. Will we completely commingle our money or commingle a portion to be used to pay bills, etc.? Will each contribute the same amount or a percentage of income? What about if someone earns significantly more than the other?
  2. We will keep money we had prior to marriage separate or commingle?
  3. How we we handle debt brought into the marriage by the other partner? Are they solely responsible for debt repayment or are we both responsible?
  4. How will track our expenses? Who will track our expenses? Who will pay the bills?
  5. Will we each have our own “fun” money to spend as we please? What types of expenses (or amounts) must we discuss first with each other before purchasing?

This is just a sampling of some the questions you need to answer. Once you start the conversation, you will discover money isn’t such a scary topic. Be open, seek to understand and supportive in your money conversations. Don’t hold grievances and let them fester until you explode. If something is wrong, talk through it. In many instances when we get angry, we are actually scared, so tell your spouse when their actions/decisions with money scare you. It’s unlikely they knew or were intentionally trying to make you afraid. As I’ve said before, money is emotional. Don’t let your money emotions, both good and bad, affect your marriage. Talk, talk and talk some more.

All Systems Go: Each Partner Recognizes and Accepts Their Responsibility

We’ve all heard the phrase “too many cooks in the kitchen” and it holds true when it comes to your money too. You absolutely must decide how you want to use your money together but then agree upon who will do what, follow through with your responsibilities in a timely manner and keep each other informed. Not surprisingly, I am responsible for our investments, but Chris knows what we are saving for and how our investments are doing. We celebrate our success together and cheer when the markets go up and remind each other that market volatility is normal when they go down. šŸ™‚

Marriage is an Equal Partnership

Sometimes there is an imbalance of power in a relationship. It might be one earns more money than the other and feels this means their vote carries more weight. The reality is most couples don’t earn exactly the same amount of money. Sometimes the differences are minute and other times they are not. A healthy, long-lasting marriage looks beyond the amount of money one brings to the family and does not give one partner more power over the other. You are equal partners. You decided together to create a life with each other and that includes an equal say in how that life looks.

Create Goals for Your Life Together

It surprises me how many times couples have sat before me and have never once discussed their goals with each other. They automatically assumed the other one wanted what they did. And guess what? They don’t always want the same thing. šŸ™‚ It’s not a surprise that money tension exists since they weren’t working towards common goals. Sometimes they were even unintentionally working against each other. Don’t view this as a deal breaker, but an opportunity to create shared goals and get on the same page. Trust me, this is fun!

A Financially Strong Marriage

When we communicate openly with one another, it’s easier to calmly discuss money issues when they arise and focus on the life we want to create together. Chris and I are united in our love of traveling, our retirement vision and our desire to pay for Lauren and Taylor’s college education to name a few of our shared goals. We know what we’re working towards together and what matters most to our marriage, which is 23 years strong and I can’t wait to see what the next 23 years brings us.


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February 10, 2014  •  35 Comments  •  Tips

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  1. Monday, February 10th, 2014
    Such an important topic, Shannon! It's hard to have open lines of communication sometimes because sometimes we simply don't want to talk about things. And I hear you about balance in the relationship. Regardless of what each individual does, they should always have equal say on any decisions.
    • Shannon
      Monday, February 10th, 2014
      Very true, DC. It's not always an easy topic to broach but it's so important to do so. Everyone has some money skeletons in their closet and it's important to clear the air early. And, if your partner is not going to be supportive, it's best to learn that now. It's definitely critical for their to be equal power in a relationship and to view it as a true partnership. Otherwise a lot of hurt feelings can be grow and fester when one partner doesn't feel valued.
  2. Monday, February 10th, 2014
    This is such a huge topic Shannon, as you well know. :) I think you hit the nail on the head with the first point as open and honest communication is such a great need in marriage - especially where money is concerned. Regardless of how you end up managing your money, you need to be able to talk about it freely and take responsibility in order to set your marriage up for success.
  3. Monday, February 10th, 2014
    I completely agree with everything especially communication and goal setting. When I uncover financial issues with my clients, the first thing I do is get them to articulate what it is they are both working toward in their marriage (as least financially). Once we find common goals (i.e. home ownership, retirement, travel), it is easier to partner and focus because they both know what they are working towards. Without the goals, it's as though they are driving in a car without a destination. Once we set the destination, mapping it out and getting there becomes easier and less stressful.
    • Shannon
      Monday, February 10th, 2014
      It makes a world of difference once couples begin to communicate and start working towards shared goals. Money conversations become so much easier and less combative. Some couples fear talking about money but it can be a game-changer.
  4. Monday, February 10th, 2014
    I couldn't agree more about communication being the big key. There are so many different ways you can actually manage the money and I wouldn't say one is inherently better than any other. But if you're not on the same page then the system you use is moot.
    • Shannon
      Monday, February 10th, 2014
      I agree, Matt. There is no right way to manage money, but if you don't communicate than it makes it so much harder. It is surprising how many couples will talk about everything but money. It's one of the most important topics to discuss and it doesn't need to be combative or shameful, which I think couples fear it will be.
  5. Monday, February 10th, 2014
    Great post! Those are great questions, and I'm glad we discuss those issues during our pre-marriage counseling session. Communication is so important in a marriage...that's something my wife and I need to work on. Fortunately, we're usually on the same page when it comes to money issues and have similar financial goals so there isn't much conflict.
    • Shannon
      Monday, February 10th, 2014
      Communication is definitely important in a marriage. Without it, everything is much harder. It's great that you and your wife had a good heart-to-heart before you got married and are on the same page with your financial goals. It absolutely helps minimize conflict when you know what you are working towards together.
  6. Monday, February 10th, 2014
    Sometimes it's difficult to get the communication going. One party or another (usually the man...because we are stubborn) doesn't want to open up, share and get all emotional. A great Valentine's gift for one another would be to attend a marriage seminar/study at your church or other community organization in your area. My wife and I have been through 4 or 5 since our marriage began and they really help keep us on track and open up the communication channels. We went to one this past fall and still were able to learn stuff about one another even after all these years.
    • Shannon
      Monday, February 10th, 2014
      It isn't always easy to initiate money conversations. People sometimes worry that they will lose the respect or love of their partner when they confess some of their past money mistakes. A great suggestion to attend a marriage seminar where money will be one of the topics discussed. Having a neutral party to help guide the conversation and keep it loving and supportive can help remove the fear.
  7. Monday, February 10th, 2014
    Granted, I'm not married but I so strongly agree with #1 (well, I agree with all of them but #1 hits close to home). Peach and I have significantly different backgrounds when it comes to dealing with money and our current financial situations. But it no longer bothers me because of the transparency we have when discussing money. Not that we tell each other exactly how much we have, but that if he's in a pinch he can say, "I can't afford to go to a play or out to dinner or insert other activity here." There is no shaming about money and we try to split everything related to our relationship (dates, traveling, etc) pretty evenly.
    • Shannon
      Monday, February 10th, 2014
      I love how well you and Peach communicate with each other. Transparency is important and really helps avoid those hurt feelings or embarrassment when you know you can be honest with each other without judgement and only support. It surprises me when couples money shame one another. Yes, sometimes money decisions and actions need to be addressed but shame isn't the best way to create change.
  8. Monday, February 10th, 2014
    Congrats on your 23 years so far!! I think this is probably a big mistake my parents made. They were both so different when it came to money, so when they got divorced my mom spent years I think trying to figure everything out...the first few years probably in denial. Long story. But I think everything should be talked about and finances need to be open in every relationship. Reminds me of the movie Blue Jasmine.
    • Shannon
      Monday, February 10th, 2014
      Thank you, Tonya! It's been a great 23 years together. :) While money isn't always top-of-mind when couples are trying to figure out if they are a good match, it is something we use every day and we need to make sure we're on the same page overall. Even when couples having different spending habits, you can still create mutual expectations and rules. I haven't seen Blue Jasmine but have heard great things about it.
  9. Monday, February 10th, 2014
    When we didn't communicate about finances, we ended up in debt. If you have no goals or guidelines, it's easy to get off track. It's sad so many people don't think about this before they get married.
    • Shannon
      Monday, February 10th, 2014
      Debt is a very common result of lack of communication and goal-planning. It is easy to get off track and spend mindlessly when you don't know what you really want to do with your money. It is sad how few people talk about money before they get marriage. Differing money views and habits, isn't an automatically deal breaker but clear communication can help alleviate a lot of potential future problems.
  10. Tuesday, February 11th, 2014
    This is a truly important topic, so thank you, Shannon!! One of the best things we've done for our marriage since we got our financial life together is that I have started to respect Rick's vision more. Rick is frugal to a fault (due to a desire to get out of debt), and although this isn't necessarily good, I do keep it in mind every time I make a purchase. I want him to know that I have his and our best interests in mind, not just my own.
    • Shannon
      Tuesday, February 11th, 2014
      It's great that your decision to get out of debt has helped you and Rick communicate better. It really does make a difference and understanding how your partner feels (and sometimes how your decisions affects him), changes how you approach your spending. You are more sensitive to their needs as they are to yours. All good things!
  11. Tuesday, February 11th, 2014
    Absolutely love this post, as it is very timely for my current situation! :) I agree that communication is a must, and to keep it frequent and consistent, because some thoughts could change, or new thoughts could be introduced, and the other partner might not be aware. I like the idea of taking on different responsibilities (i.e., he handles most of the supplement income streams, and I do my best to stop any leaks and minimize costs) - it's still a work in progress, but I feel we're on our way. Thanks for your great thoughts, Shannon!
    • Shannon
      Tuesday, February 11th, 2014
      Great point, Anna - goals do change over time. Some people get locked into goals and over time priorities can shift so what was once important, no longer is. Good communication helps you keep on top of shifting goals. I think it's important that everyone has their responsibilities and there is a system in place so you can regularly update each other without it feeling like you're being micromanaged or monitored or out of the loop.
  12. Tuesday, February 11th, 2014
    23 years? Yay, that is absolutely WONDERFUL to hear!!! That is so nice to hear considering all of the awful stats you always hear in the media concerning marriages.

    You've offered some great advice here, Shannon. You are right about money; many a relationship has ended because of fights over money. I've heard that's the number 1 statistic as to why people separate. Sad...
    • Shannon
      Tuesday, February 11th, 2014
      Thank you! I feel incredibly blessed. :) Yes, it is sad when you see how many marriages end up in divorce and many times money and a lack of communication play a strong role in its disintegration. I find once couples start communicating, listening to one another and set shared goals, it makes a huge difference. Now they are working towards something, rather than against each other.
  13. Tuesday, February 11th, 2014
    My husband and I have definitely hashed out some fights about purchases and debt repayment and I think its pretty normal to disagree about things- but at the end of the day, we don't do anything with our money until we agree. Whether it be buying furniture, making an extra payment towards student loans or splurging on a vacation we make sure we are both okay with the decision.
    • Shannon
      Tuesday, February 11th, 2014
      I don't think it's possible for two people to agree 100% of the time! It might even be boring if we did! :) But it's great that you and your husband don't avoid the hard conversations and figure out together how you want to use your money - that's what matters.
  14. Wednesday, February 12th, 2014
    Communicating with each other is so important. My hubby and I didn't really communicate properly about money until after we were married. We kept our finances separate for a long time. Luckily we're ok but I think that money can drive a real wedge between couples, so it's best to get everything out in the open once you know that the relationship is serious.
    • Shannon
      Thursday, February 13th, 2014
      It can drive a wedge in many marriages unfortunately. I glad it didn't in yours and that you are your husband are now communicating about money. And working towards to shared goals too. :)
  15. Wednesday, February 12th, 2014
    Communication and trust with money is SO hugely important! It continues to amaze me how many couples i know don't talk about money!
    • Shannon
      Thursday, February 13th, 2014
      It amazes me too, Catherine. They can talk about anything and everything else but they avoid talking about money. I imagine part of it stems back to either never seeing their parents talk about money, so they assume it's normal or their parents fought all the time about money, so they avoid the topic like the plague. Couples need to have open communication and those conversations don't need to be combative either. They can actually be quite fun!
  16. Wednesday, February 19th, 2014
    So important, especially with divorce being such a common result from financial problems. It always amazes me that couples don't talk about money, or don't know how their partners spends money, or even worse, don't know what their partner makes. Common goals and being on the same page are important, but like every other aspect of a relationship, trust is paramount.
    • Shannon
      Thursday, February 20th, 2014
      Trust is absolutely paramount. Sometimes people just assume they are on the same page as their partner but without sitting down and figuring out how you want to use your money and track your spending together ā€¦ you don't truly know whether you are on the same page. Now days I am no lingers surprised when one partner is in the dark about the finances. Their partner may not even be "financially cheating" on them but it's still a huge risk because if something happens to them, a difficult situation is made 10x worse when the remaining partner has no idea what's going on with their finances.
  • Meet Shannon

    "As a Certified Financial Planner, it is my passion to help individuals and families build a healthy relationship with money. I look forward to helping you raise financially confident kids.ā€ - Shannon Ryan