Note: This guest post was written by Jesse Campbell, MMI counselor and personal-finance enthusiast. In his spare time, Jesse enjoys taking long walks on the beach and communicating openly about his finances... usually with his dog.
Money is hard enough to manage in a vacuum. You can be a glorious island unto yourself and still struggle with balancing your personal budget, determining your goals and navigating the sometimes contradictory financial values you’re acquired over the years.
Money is, however, approximately eighty billion times harder to manage in a relationship. In fact, when not handled properly — openly and honestly — money can be the thing that undoes an otherwise perfectly happy, stable relationship.
It’s hard to see that when you’re there, in the midst of a relationship, trying to juggle all the other "You and Me" things. For me, it wasn’t until after my two most significant relationships ended that I was able to look back and see the gaping holes financial issues had left in our seemingly sturdy bond.
I was in a relationship for nearly five years during my mid-to-late 20s. We had similar income, but she had substantially more debt than me. I found myself paying the majority of the utilities, while she handled her student loans and credit card debts separately. We usually went grocery shopping together and did the old “I’ll pay this week, you pay next week” trick, except that I happened to work a couple blocks from the grocery store and once a week or so she’d call me up and ask me to make a special trip to get something we had forgotten. This struck me as somewhat unfair, but I never said anything. She would also occasionally buy pieces of furniture or assorted home goods. In return she would ask me to cover more of the mutual expenses, which I would do.
When we broke up and went about the rather dire business of sorting out our possessions, everything seemed to “belong” to her. I didn’t realize until that point just how bitter I had come to feel about our financial arrangement. It didn’t have to be that way.
For starters we failed to have even the most cursory of conversations about our money – what we wanted, what we needed and what we thought was fair. Opening a joint checking account would have resolved an enormous amount of unspoken issues – it would have allowed us to make mutual purchases with mutual money, track our joint spending and make equal deposits (or whatever contributions we had decided together).
While it wouldn’t have prevented us from breaking up, but it would have made that process less painful.
A few years later, I found myself in a different relationship that seemed to have long-term potential. I had quit a good job that paid well to work for the local animal shelter. I had hardly any expenses, so I didn’t need a lot of money and the change in environment was good for me. At the same time she was working extraordinary hours at a difficult job to put herself through nursing school and stay ahead of her own sizable debt. I had no eye towards the future or my next job, while she was practically killing herself to get to a better place in her life.
One day, seemingly out of nowhere (though we all know these things never come from nowhere), she exploded. She informed me that she would not be supporting me and my laziness when she finished school. She pointed to my not-expensive-but-not-cheap sweater and advised me that if I wanted nice clothes I needed to get a better job. In short, she had no intention of being my sugar momma and if I thought that was the case I needed to be moving on.
I was a bit caught off-guard.
I had never dreamed that she would be taking care of me. But the problem was that I was in a completely different place in my financial life than she was – our values at that moment were completely at odds. And that, in and of itself, is not insurmountable, BUT you have to know where you both stand and you have to be willing to talk about it.
Rather than ask me what I planned to do next, she stewed and steamed until she just couldn’t keep it in anymore. By then a small issue had become a big problem, and a productive conversation had become a raging argument.
And, really, that’s the key to managing money in any relationship: open communication.
Unexpressed goals lead to resentment, while unexplained values lead to confusion — and, ultimately, distance.
So the lesson here is that you need to have "the talk." Talk about your financial goals. Be prepared to argue; but be prepared to compromise as well. Just get it out there. Trust me, you’ll be happy you did.
For more financial advice for couples, download our free Love and Money eBook.