The Secrets of Financially Harmonious Couples
by Manisha Thakor
When you meet someone special, you're likely to get asked if you're simpatico in many ways: physically, intellectually, and spiritually. But there's a single question that can make or break your romantic relationship yet rarely gets asked: “Are we financially compatible?” Failure to consider your financial compatibility can lead to all sorts of troubles down the road, causing ongoing tension, stress, and even divorce.
It's a paradox: We have a clearly identifiable issue that can cause a committed relationship to crumble, yet society puts almost no emphasis on exploring this dimension of your romantic partnership. Thankfully, our research has shown that there is a clear set of values and exploratory questions you can use to become part of the growing number of couples who are committed to establishing financial harmony in their relationships.
How financial opposites attract
As a professional who has worked in the financial services industry for nearly 25 years, I have long been fascinated by the topic of love and money. So much, in fact, that I co-authored a book about it, Get Financially Naked: How to Talk Money With Your Honey.
Early in my career, while working as a portfolio manager for institutional clients, I'd often find myself speaking socially with my colleagues about the role of money in their lives, which was my first introduction to how explosive the intersection of love and money could be. Intrigued by the fact that even financial professionals could see money as a source of conflict in their lives, I had the chance to explore the issue further when I became a wealth advisor, where I spent my days proactively talking to clients about their level of financial harmony or discord on the home front.
What I've come to understand is that the subject of money tends to stir up a whole host of less-than-pleasant feelings — shame, stress, embarrassment, and anger, to name a few — and that people are often very, very unwilling to speak about it.
On top of that, in a cruel twist of romantic fate, I increasingly have come to observe that many of us find “financial otherness” very intriguing during the early stages of courtship. I experienced this firsthand while dating someone who was my financial opposite. I was a saver, and he was a spender. The first thing that crossed my mind when he asked if I wanted a soda with my popcorn at the movies? “Wow, you actually buy the food at the theaters?!” It seemed so luxurious. By contrast, he found it “charming” when I traveled with a refillable water bottle, refusing to spend $3 or $4 for bottled water at the airport.
Alas, with time, the novelty wears off and discord sets in.
The key to financial harmony
When speaking with individuals and financial advisors about the characteristics that lead to financial harmony, the cornerstone was the concept of “shared values.” There were three words that came up over and over again: trust, respect, and transparency.
One woman said her dream was to have enough in investment savings to be able to live off her interest and dividends, leaving the principal to her family and charity. The need for the ability to fund her lifestyle based on cash flow from the portfolio, versus dipping into the principal, was deeply rooted in a childhood experience marked by scarcity and lack of control, which fueled her feelings of insecurity.
In contrast, her husband was of the belief that you can't take it with you. His financial goal was to develop a spending plan that optimized the odds of dying without running out of money, leaving as close to nothing as possible. He valued enjoying the money today, spending on himself, loved ones, and philanthropic causes, because he had seen several people he cared about deeply die unexpectedly and early. Sadly, the couple ended up divorcing. Their underlying worldviews around money were so wildly divergent, they simply couldn't find middle ground.
Another couple shared an argument they had while playing the “what would we do if we won the lottery” game. They were ruminating on this issue, playfully, over several days. Finally, the conversation hit a crescendo when the husband excitedly proclaimed to the wife he'd buy her a new washer-dryer with their winnings. When she expressed outrage, he said wistfully, “But it would be top of the line!” They laugh about it now, but at the time, it was a turning point — they realized how much their views on how to spend disposable income differed. In their case, their ensuing discussions served to bring them even closer.
What kinds of conversations should you have with your partner about money? The framework I like best is one that involves exploring your financial past, present, and future:
- How was money handled in your home growing up?
- What did your parents teach you about money — directly or indirectly?
- What is your most positive (and most negative) money experience to date?
- What are our household income and expenses in aggregate?
- What are our assets and liabilities?
- What is each of our credit scores?
- What does a happy, full, rich life look like?
- What financial steps do we need to take to get from where we are today to where we want to be?
- What additional help do we need to make this vision a reality?
The benefit of this framework is that it starts the conversation from a place of understanding, not judgment. For many, our “money issues” are deeply intertwined with our life histories and our innate personalities. Understanding at a deeper level who our partner is as a person, and the factors that shaped his or her money outlook, provides a more holistic backdrop against which to discuss the facts of the present and your dreams for the future.
In my experience, having the ‘money talk’ is the investment that keeps on giving.
Lastly, life is not static, and neither is this conversation. I recommend couples revisit this past, present, future framework annually — and potentially with the help of a trusted financial professional. Consider using tax time, your anniversary week, or the new year as your yearly check-in. Over the years, sometimes the understanding of past issues will become deeper or more nuanced, and certainly the present and future are always evolving.
Many people seek that “can't miss” investment in their portfolios. But in my experience, having the “money talk” is the investment that keeps on giving. As one couple said to me, while opening this door initially led to increased tension, they ended up feeling more connected than ever over time as the conversations continued. Having an awareness of the other person's financial pain point made each of them want to help the other, which in turn moved their household finances from a place of negative net worth to positive net worth (and growing!).