When my husband, Paul, and I went through pre-marital counseling nearly 20 years ago, our pastor told us something surprising—the number one reason couples get divorced is financial disagreement. I found this difficult to believe, but as we settled into married life, started a family, purchased a home, accumulated debt, and felt the pull of financial tension, our pastor's statement didn't seem that far fetched. "It's absolutely true—and documented," says Christian financial counselor Dave Ramsey. "The arguments may not appear to be directly about money; ultimately you're fighting about priorities, values, dreams, trust. But it's all linked with finances."
Pastor Rich's premarital counseling was good for Paul and me—products of the Baby Boom—to hear. Our parents' generation had enjoyed great prosperity after World War II, but they also saw the genesis of credit cards and had no idea how enslaving they could become. In fact, when I graduated from college and got my first job, my father gave me this advice: "Get a credit card from a major store like Sears. Make a fairly large purchase—such as a TV—then pay it all off the next month. That way you'll establish a good credit rating for yourself." Well-intentioned, says Ramsey, but bad advice "unless you want to be in bondage to credit for the rest of your life."
The credit card was a luscious answer to Americans' hunger for convenience and has become a staple of our financial diet. The problem with convenience is that it makes it too easy for us to redefine necessity. Mark Stevens, a systems administrator, says, "My wife and I used to use them for convenience, but lately they feel like more of a necessity to get from one paycheck to the next." Today, according to a 2004 PBS "Frontline" report, "The Secret History of the Credit Card," the average American has eight credit cards and owes more than $8,000 in credit card debt. No wonder countless marriages have fallen apart because of financial tension!
But there's good news. Last fall, Marriage Partnership surveyed nearly 2,900 married people about their finances. If the financial attitudes and practices of our survey's respondents are any indication, the tide is slowly turning, and married couples are starting to guard against financial and marital doom.
What's mine is yours …
Most couples take a partnership approach to handling their money. In two thirds of U.S. married couples, as well as our survey respondents, both spouses are employed. Perhaps that's one reason why MP couples see the money as "ours" versus "yours" and "mine." Even though the majority of the husbands in these dual-income households bring home the larger paycheck, our respondents feel that both spouses should have equal input into financial matters. In fact, 56 percent of them answered "equal" or "depends on the topic/situation" when asked which of them has the better financial judgment, and in half of all the marriages represented, the wife handles the day-to-day finances. Even in households where only one spouse is employed, 6 out of 10 report no feelings of resentment that one of the spouses does not bring home a paycheck.
Tell me no lies …
Honesty and trust abound among our survey respondents. Are honesty and trust reasons for their financial cooperation, or byproducts? Probably both. Regardless, nearly two thirds say they never lie to or withhold spending information from their spouse, and only 11 percent say they have money stashed away that their spouse isn't aware of. Almost 8 out of 10 trust their spouse "completely" or "for the most part" when it comes to money, and their perception is that their spouse feels the same way.
No doubt trust and honesty are enhanced by the fact that the majority of these couples share all their bank accounts, and both paychecks in dual-income marriages go into a common household fund. "There's no point in having separate bank accounts in a marriage," says Ramsey. "You are one. When you share all your accounts, you can develop a game plan together. Separate accounts only set you up for division and distrust. In many marriages that fall apart, one of the spouses is lying or withholding financial information from the other—perhaps he or she is carrying debt or has money stashed away without the other spouse knowing. It's dangerous."
Communicating about finances: priceless
Three quarters of our respondents discuss finances together once a month or more. They may not be long, in-depth discussions—maybe just about checks that have been written, ATM transactions, or giving to a ministry—but it makes a huge impact. Even tense communication can be fruitful.
Three out of 10 say they argue about finances more than once a month, and 22 percent of those who discuss their finances more than once a month also argue about them more than once a month. Mostly they argue about debt, day-to-day spending, and priorities.
"Our discussions about money can get pretty stressful," says Marlene Coe, a bank clerk. "My husband tends to see the glass half empty, and I see it half full; the different perspectives cause tension. I never want to discuss finances because of that; but when we do, I feel better that we did."
When it comes to making large purchases, more than 8 out of 10 of these couples discuss and pray together about the decision. Becky Barrow has been married to her husband, David, for more than 30 years. "We definitely have come to a place in our marriage where we both have agreed to talk it over before we make big purchases. This came after many years of hard knocks, though." But Becky and David are not the only ones who benefited from those hard-learned lessons. "Matt and I always talk before making large purchases," says Becky's daughter Yvonne, who has been married less than 10 years. "We review our budget and do lots of research before we buy." Apparently, healthy financial practices beget healthy financial practices.
Ramsey says there is a "huge danger" in one spouse making purchasing decisions independently of the other. "When you got married, the pastor said you were one. So if only one of you is making the purchasing decision, you're using only half your brain, which means you're more likely to make mistakes."
Budget is not a dirty word
Half of our survey respondents use a budget to manage their household finances, and 80 percent of them say they stick to their budget more often than not. In fact, the presence of a budget and the degree to which it is followed had a more far-reaching impact on financial attitudes and issues than any other factor. Couples who use and adhere to a budget were more trusting and honest, discussed more and argued less about finances, were not as likely to spend impulsively, and could live longer on their savings in an emergency. Dave Ramsey says just the act of putting together a budget is healthy for a marriage, apart from the financial benefits. "The very process of establishing a workable budget can help a hurting marriage simply because of the level of communication and cooperation required."
It's never too late to start a budget, but it will take some time to set it up and tweak it until it works. "It takes about 90 days to get to the place where your budget is workable," says Ramsey. "Be patient with it and yourself, and leave yourself some room. If you estimate that groceries will cost X dollars, add 25 percent right off the bat—things always cost more than you estimate." And leave room for many "budget adjustment meetings."
Still, there are those cards …
Unfortunately, slightly more than half of our respondents carry credit card debt equal to the national average ($8,000). Ramsey is pretty blunt about credit card use: "It's stupid and not necessary! I've met thousands of millionaires, and not one of them has said to me, 'Dave, I made my money using credit cards.' I don't care how many frequent flyer miles you earn using a credit card—you're not going to get rich off that." Why is credit card use so dangerous to our financial health? "It's tough to budget with credit cards in the picture—there's nothing to limit your spending, and no accountability." In other words, couples can easily make believe they have more money than they actually do.
Six billion of these plastic slave masters are sent out each year, says Ramsey, and all they do is keep us in bondage. "Marketing has normalized credit card use to the point where people think they can't live without them." Truly, we can. Ask the 12 percent of survey respondents who have made that choice or the 26 percent who use credit cards but pay them off every month.
One of the best things we can do financially is align our mindset to the biblical perspective: it's not ours anyway. When 73-year-old Martha Hobbs looks back over her marriage, she sees years of saving, remaining debt-free, clearly communicating money issues with her husband, and most of all, her charitable giving. She lost her husband, Dan, a year and a half ago, but thanks to their diligence, is now reaping the benefits of applied financial wisdom and planning. She summarizes what she learned about money in 35 years of marriage: "Lay all your desires out before each other—where do you want to end up? Set goals and be willing to compromise at times. Be honest even when it hurts—that's how you learn to trust each other. Budget. Regularly save, no matter how little. And above all, tithe." It's our way of saying to God, "I trust you," and he blesses that.
Kate Bryant, a freelance writer, lives in Illinois.
Copyright © 2006 by the author or Christianity Today/Marriage Partnership magazine. Click here for reprint information on Marriage Partnership.