“What’s a Sephora?” I asked, “And how can you spend $90 on it?”
So began another fight. The first year of our marriage, my wife and I fought about money all the time. Her shoulders raised in defense whenever I tried to talk about her debt, and I became passive-aggressive when asking about purchases I was seeing in our joint checking account.
We worried that money would become a noticeable crack in our otherwise great relationship. And we had cause to worry; we’ve all heard the stats: couples who fight about money issues on a weekly basis are 30 percent more likely to be get divorced than those who fight about money a few times per month. At that point in our relationship, weekly fights would have been a relief.
Fortunately, my wife is a scientist and problem solver at heart, and with some messy trial and error we came up with a three-step system that addresses our money issues head on. We’re now inching up on three and a half years of marriage, and fights about money have virtually disappeared.
1. The Limited Joint Account.
At the time of our Sephora fight, my wife was in relatively good financial shape. She had a stable teaching job and had gotten her debt under control. She chipped in on the mortgage and had just started a 403(b). If she was meeting all of her financial obligations and goals, why should I have cared if she spent $90 on makeup and hair goop?
The answer is that I shouldn’t have. I know this, but human nature is hard to change. Even when I was good and brought up purchases in a neutral way, my wife still felt she had to explain herself. Not good. Better, we found, was to open a joint account for joint obligations only, like mortgage and utility bills. Now we both pay in to cover expenses, and the rest goes into our solo accounts away from the prying eyes of the other person.
2. The Spreadsheet.
Even with the limited joint account, we had issues. Forecasting future expenses challenged us, and a few times the well went dry. More importantly, our situations were not equal. My wife still had student loan payments, which my parents were able to spare me from, and her salary lagged behind mine by a bit. At the end of each month, I felt flush and she felt, well, broke. It wasn’t fair. We fixed it by creating a fairly simple spreadsheet to calculate our monthly joint expenses. This wasn’t revolutionary by itself, but we added a calculation in called the pay ratio. Basically, the ratio took into account that since I made more money than her, I would pay more into joint account for expenses. Immediately, we both felt about the same amount of breathing room in our finances. A scrubbed version of the spreadsheet is available here.
3. The Money Meeting.
No matter how many systems we surrounded ourselves with, we still had to occasionally talk about money. And we found that these conversations happened at the exact wrong time: when one of us felt stressed or angry (feeling stressed after a long commute and tripping over a big Amazon.com box blocking the door was a reliable money-fight trigger). This venting of stress had almost nothing to do with money and everything to do with our other personal issues.
Our solution: the money meeting. Simply put, the money meeting is a monthly safe space we create to talk about money issues. Power points are drawn up, generous glasses of wine are poured. Neither person is allowed to be hungry at the time of the meeting. We huddle over a laptop, open a dozen browser tabs, and begin pouring over the numbers. We check each other’s savings goals. No questions are stupid. We assume all comments are meant constructively and lovingly. And either person can tap out if they become bored or stressed. At the end, we try to capture all the actions, things we promised we would do, and hold each other accountable for them at the next meeting. Did you change your joint contributions? Did you call that company to transfer your Roth IRA? Our friends, even those impressed by our method, think this is overkill. But I liken it to those long rituals foreign diplomats go through. Money matters in a marriage, like foreign relations, are so important that there’s no harm overdoing it to avoid misunderstandings.
Do I think our method will work for all couples? Of course not. Every couple is unique. But it’s important that, whatever a couple’s method for handling money, they come about it deliberately. Fighting about purchases in stressful moments is not a sound financial plan. Googling “What is Sephora?” in a private browser tab makes you a parent, not a loving partner. Though now that I mention it, my wife has some face wash from there in the shower, and man. That stuff is amazing.
E.A. Mann is an engineer and freelance writer living in Warren, R.I. He has a twitter account, but feels like an old person when he tries to use it.
You can see an example of a money meeting here.