Ah, February, when a young person's fancy turns to romance, roses and â€¦ RRSPs?! Now there's a sonnet waiting to happen: How do I love thee? Let me count the compound interest. Doubtless there are couples for whom a daily discussion of money matters is an aphrodisiac, but they're as rare as lottery winners. For almost everyone else, love and lucre cannot safely be discussed in the same season -- let alone the same sentence.
Money talk can be a constant source of conflict for couples. One study found that one-third of couples cited money as their marital hot button. Another showed that more than three-quarters of couples who divorce before age 30 report financial problems as the primary cause of their marriage breakdown. Money inflames our passions, all right -- just not the right ones.
The last taboo
Talking about money is certainly taboo in many relationships, says Gerry Smith, a psychologist with WarrenShepell, an employee and family assistance program provider. "In 20 years of experience, I always found it easier to get people talking about their sex lives than their finances," says Smith. Most people bundle their money and their self-worth in the same package, he adds. Put a little stress on that package -- uncertainty in the workplace, an unplanned pregnancy or an overextended credit card -- and suddenly you have an explosive device. The resulting screaming match isn't about money at all. "Money is the great scapegoat that gets blamed for all sorts of other issues," he says.
Although having enough income to provide basic necessities is a major indicator of family strength, the size of a couple's income isn't usually a significant indicator of marital satisfaction, report former researchers Rosanne Farnden Lyster and Jane Olsen of the British Columbia Council for Families in Vancouver. In other words, it's not what you've got that matters but rather what you want to do with it. And depending on the values you and your partner ascribe to money, what you want to do with it will differ -- sometimes dramatically.
In her book, Couples and Money (Gabriel, 1997), Victoria F. Collins, a financial planner and psychologist, says that our individual quirks, biases and beliefs around money cluster into primary themes -- central motivations that govern how we use our finances. The four primary "money motivators" are freedom, security, power and love. "While at different times in life you're influenced by all of these forces, usually one will prevail," says Collins. "It becomes your unconscious raison d'Ãªtre, the unspoken reason you fight rush-hour traffic every morning."
But as anyone who has ever read a romance novel knows, opposites attract. This means that people who see money as a path to freedom (a way to travel, pursue interests and do what they want in life) -- spenders -- are attracted to people who see money as a promise of security -- savers. Generous-hearted givers marry misers. Financially illiterate money avoiders marry profit-obsessed mutual fund managers. You see the problem.
The family formation time of life, traditionally a financially challenging period for couples, has become even more difficult for today's under-45s, says Ruth Berry, a professor of family studies at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg. "There's such discontinuity for young people in the labour force; it's difficult to become well-established. Under-45s carry the highest debt loads in this country and account for the most bankruptcies," she says. "That uncertainty is leading people to marry later, if at all, and have their children later.
"There is no longer a lock-step progression through the life cycle, beginning with a job and annual vacations and ending with a guaranteed pension and a comfortable retirement," says Berry. That's why she tells her students that they must be responsible for their own finances and their own lives by paying off student loans and saving for the future.
Couples would do well to heed Berry's call to action. You need to have a formal financial plan yet 60 per cent of Canadians don't do any financial goal-setting, and only one in three Canadians earned a passing grade on a recent industry-led test of basic investment knowledge.
Berry says there is no shortage of free financial planning resources in libraries and online. One of her favourites is Starting Your Financial Plan, a worksheet sponsored by the Manitoba government and available free online at www.gov.mb.ca.
As well, accredited financial planners and debt counsellors will shepherd anxious couples through the planning or rebuilding process, but Smith cautions that a couple with explosive money issues might want to consider signing up for a few sessions with a marriage counsellor first: "If the resentments have really built up, then love and caring can't penetrate those barriers. You sometimes need help opening the pathways of communication."
Smith finds it heartening that a growing number of people sought counselling from his company for marital and relationship issues last year. "Three-quarters of our marriage cases were couples who wanted to preserve their relationships," he says. "They didn't come to talk about divorce. Perhaps people are waking up to not only the emotional but also the extreme financial consequences of divorce, especially for women and children."
One of the other things that couples are waking up to, says Berry, is the notion of voluntary simplicity. "It's a lifestyle trend reacting against overburdening ourselves with consumer goods and debt and then spending time and energy earning the money to pay for it. People who go for voluntary simplicity consciously choose a pared-down lifestyle. They emphasize the importance of enjoying small pleasures, building strong relationships with family and friends and protecting the environment."
Plan to spend
Develop a financial plan together, and include short- and long-term goals, such as a new roof or a new home. Set a monthly budget and assign bill-paying responsibilities. Consider giving each partner a monthly allowance to be spent without apology or justification.
Plan to protect
Secure life, disability and mortgage insurance. Contribute monthly to an RRSP. If you have children, consider setting up a registered education savings plan: the government will add a maximum of $400 to your annual contributions.
Plan to save
Agree to pay yourselves first. Even $25 off the top of each paycheque adds up quickly. Make it a priority to pay down consumer debt (or seek counselling if you're already in too deep -- skipping minimum payments or using one credit card to cover another are sure warning signs).
Plan to talk
Set time aside monthly to review your budget and financial goals. Consider starting with the following exercise from the B.C. Council for Families. Each of you draws up an ideal budget given your current resources and notes what each line item symbolizes. For example, a monthly lease payment on a new SUV that represents freedom or status to you might in fact threaten your spouse's sense of security. As you explore what money means to you, begin to negotiate your differences and work together to develop a more creative budget.
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