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The danger money poses to your relationship

By Peter Andrew

Back in the 1990s, soon after my better half and I moved in together, my parents came to stay. We all went out for a shopping trip one morning, and when my dad saw my partner's spending habits, he was aghast: "Good grief!" he said to me, disbelievingly. "You're the financially responsible one in this relationship?!" 

Dad was right to be worried. I already had an unchallenged reputation for financial incontinence within my family, and he had naturally assumed it would be impossible for me find anyone worse in that respect. Yet here we were. And, amazingly, we're still here; still a couple more than 25 years later.

Ignorance isn't marital blisscredit lessons

It's surprising we're still together because finances are a huge source of conflict within relationships. Back in 2012, Money Magazine commissioned a survey that found married couples argue more about money than anything else: more than sex, household chores, time spent together and (unbelievably) even snoring.

And yet it's something few engaged couples explore ahead of their marriage. And, you might assume, even fewer unengaged couples do before they shack up together. In May 2016, credit bureau Experian published the results of a survey that found just how poorly prepared many newly weds are for their spouse's financial foibles:

  • Some 40 percent didn't know their spouses' credit scores.
  • A third didn't know the extent of their spouses' student debts.
  • A quarter didn't know their spouses' annual incomes.

Money matters matrimonially

The survey uncovered just how stressful it can be when you find out your spouse has financial issues. The respondents had been married for one year or less, and yet already:

  • A third said their spouses' credit scores were preventing them from buying a home.
  • A fifth said they were concerned about if and how they could pay off debt.
  • A whopping 39 percent said credit scores had been a source of stress within their relationships.

The idea that all these came as a shock to so many newly weds is itself shocking. It represents millions of dreams that -- if they aren't shattered -- are at least tarnished. People who before their weddings were imagining a comfortable lifestyle and their own picket fence are suddenly coming to terms with the misery of unmanageable debt and the prospect of renting for years to come. For some, it may mean putting off having a family.

Stress the point

Last year, the American Psychological Association (APA) published a study that revealed money as the top source of stress for Americans -- ahead of work, family responsibilities and personal health. Indeed, with 72 percent of respondents reporting being stressed by money within the previous month, it was no surprise that APA CEO Dr. Norman B. Anderson suggested, "... financial issues could have a significant impact on Americans' health and well-being."

It must be bad enough to be in that situation when you're accustomed to a financially chaotic environment, having known little else since you were a small child. But imagine how it must feel if you've been brought up in a more economically stable family, and suddenly find yourself mired in your spouse's financial problems.

Candor before commitment

Having a candid conversation about money before making a marital or relationship commitment may not be romantic, but it does make sense. An evening sharing each other's financial details, and talking through how the two of you are going to work together (or separately) financially might prove uncomfortable, but it could be way less traumatic that explaining a few months later why you can't buy a home or new car -- or why a collection agency's calling.

Few fiances and fiancees are likely to be put off someone they love just because of money. But an early exchange of financial information and an exploration of each party's attitudes to money can allow you both to know what you're getting into and gives you a chance to set the ground rules for how money will be managed once you're together. As importantly, it should help avoid any subsequent feelings that one side misled or entrapped the other.

Never too late

Too late? You're already tied to someone your love but with whom you're financially totally incompatible? Well, the good news is it's never too late to begin to work together.

The APA suggests an initial conversation that sees you each answer three questions:

  • What did you learn about money from your parents?
  • What financial objectives do you have?
  • What about money keeps you awake at night?

Just talking through those won't solve much, but understanding each other's needs and priorities should help you empathize with your spouse/partner more and find some common ground where you're both more comfortable. As you continue to work together to build on that common ground, you may find your goals, needs and habits converging.

Teamwork pays

And, according to the APA, working together as a team is essential to managing your money in a way that satisfies you both. Try to commit to the following:

  1. Agree on some common and achievable goals.
  2. Share financial decision making equally, and avoid keeping secrets about your spending or saving.
  3. Spend an hour or two together each month paying bills, reviewing the contents of your high-interest savings accounts, going over credit card balances and generally talking through how you're getting on in achieving your shared goals.

Agreeing, sharing, spending time together ... Is that really too much for the person you love to ask?

Peter Andrew has over 25 years of experience writing about marketing, advertising and management. He regularly covers consumer credit card topics for IndexCreditCards.com and other personal finance publications including Fox Business, TheStreet and MSN Money. He also writes frequently about mortgages and auto loans. Peter has spent extended periods living overseas, in the UK, France and Africa. He lives with his partner of 20+ years, and wastes too much of his time on cryptic crosswords.

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