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.
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.
Issues beyond money
It has taken Libby Cates* a while to figure that out. But she's starting to understand that when she freaks out at Simon*, her husband of more than two years, over some perceived money crisis, the root of her anxiety is probably not in the bank account.
Both in their mid-30s, the Vancouver couple has been together for eight years. Simon recently completed a college program in television production; Libby is currently on maternity leave from her university job. As the primary wage earner, Libby says their "discussions" about money escalated when she was pregnant and Simon was looking for work. "I started flipping out once a month," she says. "I tend to get emotional when I'm hormonal and, let's face it, I was hormonal for nine months."
Until her maternity leave, Libby had always been financially independent, earning her own money and buying what she wanted, when she wanted it -- without any apologies. She was also able to support Simon while he finished his training, something she admits she sometimes begrudged. Simon, on the other hand, had developed a frugal lifestyle that meshed with his "lifetime of underemployment." With a baby coming, Libby began pressuring Simon to get a job when he finished his training, and when he did, a better job. She worked herself to a fever pitch, convinced that as one-income renters, they faced imminent financial collapse.
Finally, they sat down and, for the first time in years, put together a formal budget. "I really needed to know that we could cover our basic bills." (Preparing a budget together is the first marriage-saving step championed by counsellors; see Plan to Talk, page 3)
"That took the edge off the tension," says Simon. "We asked ourselves what we needed and what we could live without. We got rid of the cellphone. We agreed to find cheaper ways to buy food."
Once she saw on paper that her security wasn't really threatened, Libby reflected on her deeper anxieties, which centered on her perceived loss of independence. "Basically, I think my whole pregnancy was about coming to terms with giving up control of so many aspects of my life," she says. "I was really afraid of being dependent. It's pretty hard to just let go when you've always felt like you had the power."
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."
Opposite financial personalities attract
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.
Susan and Owen Scott* have been married since 1990, when Susan was 20 and Owen, 23. Owen is a health researcher and Susan is completing a teaching degree on a scholarship while raising two school-age children. They recently downsized to a small urban apartment to save on housing costs.
Susan has long recognized that money means security to Owen and freedom to her. And she swears that she "did not see it as cheap" when Owen gave her rechargeable batteries for their first Christmas together. In hindsight, however, she acknowledges it was the first clue that their spending styles were not perfectly matched. (She is, after all, someone who prefers paying her bills by telephone so she doesn't actually have to see the bank balance: "As long as it doesn't tell me, â€˜Insufficient funds to cover this transaction,' I figure I'm all right.")
Although Susan and Owen are on the same page when it comes to day-to-day expenditures, they disagree on nonessentials, such as vacations. Owen treats their savings as sacred, says Susan, to be used only when they can muster the funds for a down payment on a house. Susan, on the other hand, is doubtful they'll ever be able to afford a house of their own. She has begun advocating a carpe diem approach: "I know it sounds selfish, but I'm like, â€˜Oh, come on, we could be dead tomorrow, let's go to Club Med with the kids.'" As Susan nears graduation -- and therefore employment -- there has been a fair amount of wrangling between the spouses on this particular issue. Susan wants to float a loan from their savings, to be repaid in the future. Owen is resistant. Susan has still not booked the flights.
Debt and saving
Ruth Berry, a professor of family studies at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, says that the difference between how the couple wants to spend their money is indicative of "deeper value positions." But they can probably accommodate both situations: maybe they can't go on a grand European vacation but they could go on a smaller, modest vacation. "It might take longer to save for a down payment, but they should make compromises," she says.
The family formation time of life, traditionally a financially challenging period for couples, has become even more difficult for today's under-45s, says Berry. "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. Neither the Cates nor the Scotts have a formal financial plan in place. "The plan is that I'll get a job," says Susan, laughing. They're not alone: 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.
You're not alone
Ironically, this news comes as a relief to Marie-Elle Martin*, a new mother who recently returned to part-time work as a new media designer. "You mean we're not the only ones who don't have a plan?" she asks. "Whew!"
Marie-Elle and Roch*, her husband of eight years, feel like they're playing catch-up when it comes to planning for and protecting their 18-month-old daughter's future. Both in their early 30s, the couple, who live in rural British Columbia, are quickly settling the differences in their financial styles - he's a saver, she's a spender -- out of a sense of parental duty. They recently purchased life insurance, and have started putting money aside monthly for their daughter's education. But Marie-Elle is anxious that she's still not as knowledgeable as she should be about financial matters: "I don't know what our net worth is or even how to figure it out."
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/agriculture/homeec/cba37s01.html.
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 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."
It's a trend that the Scotts, Cates and Martins are buying into. "Our culture dangerously blurs the line between needs and wants," observes Susan.
"My family was very materialistic," says Marie-Elle. "Ever since I left home, I've been fighting to simplify, simplify, simplify."
Libby says she read "an interesting book last summer called The Joy of Not Working: A Book for the Retired, Unemployed and Overworked (Ten Speed, 2003) by Ernie J. Zelinski, and it really hit me for the first time that if you have food and a roof and people who love you, you have enough. After that, if you're fighting about money, you're probably fighting about something else."
*Names have been changed.
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.