A few years ago, a new client came to see me, without her husband, for a financial planning session. We’ll call her Sara. I knew Sara and her husband were having problems getting out of debt, and it was beginning to severely impact their relationship. Sara told me, through tears, that their fights about money had become so regular that she wasn’t sure the marriage would last.
They had been married for over 10 years with two kids, as she ran her own consulting business and he taught as a college professor. They were both in their early 40s and had a total household income just over $200,000—high for the average American—but they were still struggling.
While they had about $160,000 saved in their retirement accounts, they also carried around $27,000 in debt, divided between a small student loan and credit cards. Between making minimum payments on their debt and paying their monthly bills, they were constantly running out of money.
Hidden Spending and Mismatched Priorities
Sara told me she was concerned about her husband’s spending habits, which were unpredictable and often hidden. While she prioritized getting out of debt and increasing their savings, he spent more freely and was irritated by what he felt was her constant criticism over his spending. They had reached a breaking point.
They weren’t alone, as we well know. According to a study by Fidelity, more than half of couples getting married start off in the red. Even worse, 40% of indebted couples admitted it had a negative impact on the relationship. I was witnessing first hand the tension debt can have on a relationship. After spending an hour with Sara at that first session, I was convinced she wanted to save her marriage and that we could find a path for her and her husband to a healthier financial life.
Cutting Spending and Bad Habits
After breaking down a financial plan, we were able to set up a clear budget that identified where they could cut back on nearly $600 in spending per month by cutting things like subscriptions and frequent dinners, as well as the husband’s lunches out at work and afternoon coffee habit. He also agreed to dump his gym membership and use the college’s facilities for free.
They established a grocery budget, and redirected about $500 in savings toward debt payments. Lowering their spending wasn’t enough, though. They needed more income, and Sara agreed she had the bandwidth to take on an additional client in her practice, which would net her another $1,000 per month.
Since it fell to Sara to pay their bills, she needed a better system to make sure she could allocate additional payments every month toward their current debt, starting with the highest interest rate debt. We set up a direct payment through their bank account to automate bill payments. Once Sara knew their credit card and student loan payments were on a consistently scheduled date, she just focused on making sure they had the money in their checking account in time.
The real breakthrough and victory for Sara and her husband was the fact that they started communicating more about their spending, savings goals, and plan for the future. Money went from being a subject they fought about to one they enjoyed spending time discussing, without shame or blame. I helped coach them to this point by having them follow these four simple rules:
Scheduling weekly money dates. Weekly money dates allowed them to come into the conversation prepared, unthreatened, and ready to make progress. If these talks happen regularly, they won’t be left until something has gone very wrong, when tempers and defenses are flaring.
Talking to each other about their financial history. This is something they had shied away from since they started dating. Learning how their respective families talked about money revealed why they brought their own habits into the relationship. If one partner thinks it’s normal to keep their spending secret, while the other wants expenses out in the open, there are bound to be expensive and painful miscommunications. Find out what’s normal and what’s not in your partner’s eyes. What you thought was a malicious or deceitful act may have been a seemingly “normal” money habit to them, or vice versa.
They learned to be more compassionate and patient. Money issues are extremely personal and can touch on some deeply entrenched emotions. By empathizing with each other, they gave themselves permission to admit their past mistakes, which enabled them to openly plan for the future, shame-free. Remember that when you’re dealing with personal finance, these issues touch more than a balance sheet. Pride, shame, and self-worth can easily be tangled up in discussions about money, so tread carefully and respectfully.
They created positive associations. By talking openly about their financial aspirations and goals, they discovered how much fun was missing in their relationship when money was a source of stress. Once their plan was in place and they could see a viable path to becoming debt-free, they actually enjoyed their financial chats, since they now represented the positive possibilities awaiting them in the future, rather than feeling like a confessional to review past “sins.” (See #1)
Sara and her husband were able to turn things around. That doesn’t mean every couple will have the same experience. But they will have a better chance if they start—or restart—their conversations about money from an honest, open, and loving place. It takes sacrifice, commitment, checking your pride when necessary, and a willingness to stick to a plan to give you the best chance of success. I’ve seen it happen.