Checks and Balances

How to work through your money differences in marriage

Of all the topics engaged couples discuss, I suspect the least amount of time—if any—is spent on how to handle money. I'm not talking about those budgeting exercises they give you during pre-marriage counseling or knowing how you'll make your rent or what it will take to pay off your student loans. I mean the real, gut-wrenching "how do you view finances" conversation.

No, that one usually happens after the wedding. Depending on your situation, it might be weeks or even months before it hits. But when it does, it lands with a giant thud in the center of your newlywed bliss.

Take Rich and me, for example. We were a little older—35 and 40—than "traditional" marrying age, so any observer might have thought we'd be financially set with an understanding of basic money management. The problem was, our "understanding" was not the same; we were set all right—set in our ways. And neither of us was willing to budge.

Money Models

I can trace our distinct views to the models set by our parents. When Rich was growing up, his mom and dad kept separate bank accounts. They had a system for who paid what bills, but discretionary leftovers were theirs individually. Since his mom was an ardent saver, his dad was more likely to pay for the extras, such as eating out or vacations. But it worked for them, and so of course that is the financial separation Rich expected in our marriage.

My parents handled money quite differently. They had one joint checking account with one checkbook. Purchases were mutual decisions, and my dad wrote all the bills once a month on payday. Although they were not much for saving, my parents did find a way to afford a few trips to the beach and designer jeans for me (remember the '80s?).

Before Rich and I married, he rarely allowed me to pay for anything on our dates—chivalry is not dead, I suppose! He enjoyed treating me so I didn't question it. Since we had separate households, I figured whatever extra money he had after taking care of his responsibilities was his business, and if he wanted to spend it on me, well, who was I to stand in his way? Similarly, he never asked how I parceled out my paycheck.

Cut to the first month of marriage. Rent came due, as did other bills. Before the wedding we'd talked about what our debts would be and how our combined incomes would cover them. But we'd never planned how that would actually happen. My assumption was that we'd open a joint checking account, where our pay would be deposited. When I suggested to Rich that we stop by the bank to apply, he looked as if I'd just asked if he wanted to go for a manicure.

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May 25

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