Leading up to Valentine’s Day, there are a lot of studies released about how couples handle their money.
A recent CreditCards.com survey uncovered a lot of cheating: Many people confessed that they are hiding a checking or savings account, or a credit card, from their significant other.
And Discover found that people generally prefer a partner who is fun over one who is financially stable.
I think about all this because a colleague, Rodney Brooks, who writes a retirement column for The Washington Post, and I were comparing how we address the most frequently asked money questions involving couples. Here are the questions and our quick take on each:
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Brooks: Yes. Me: No.
▪ Separate bank accounts?
Brooks: Yes. Me: No.
▪ Should we each have some money to spend freely?
Brooks: Yes. Me: Yes.
▪ Should we give money to our grown children?
Brooks: It depends. Me: It definitely depends.
You can read Brooks’ answers in full by going to www.washingtonpost.com/people/rodney-brooks. But let me explain the reasoning behind my answers.
My husband and I mentor about a half-dozen couples every year in a financial ministry we direct at our church. We also teach a course called “Mastering Money in Your Marriage.” My opinions are informed by research as well as by what I’ve seen personally over many years.
As to a prenuptial agreement, I’m not a fan. I think it puts couples into an adversarial position at the start of their marriage. It’s too much about money and assets they don’t want to share. But why don’t you want to share all your past, present and future wealth with the person you are sharing your life, bed and, perhaps, children with?
Yes, I know, the high divorce rate. But the answer to that isn’t a prenup. It’s getting good premarital counseling. And not a one-day session that mostly has you exchanging credit reports.
A prenup focuses on planning your exit strategy. Are you going to spend as much time and money, planning for how to stay together? Take steps during your courtship to get counseling or take courses – communication, conflict resolution – that can help you make sure you share the same values, especially about finances.
Should you have joint or separate accounts?
I understand the fear about merging your money. You may be marrying a spendthrift. Or perhaps your man is a miser. You figure separate accounts will keep the peace. Or keep you financially safer.
Except separate doesn’t often solve the tension that arises when one or both partners have serious financial issues.
You may have a system in which having separate accounts is working. But, in my experience, couples who don’t pool their money aren’t always fully aware of their financial situation. Fidelity Investments found in a survey last year that 43 percent of couples didn’t know how much their partner earns. That’s crazy.
This year, my husband and I will celebrate 25 years of marriage. Now, I'll be honest. Before we got married, I wanted joint and separate accounts, including a “home-wrecking hussy” account. My grandmother Big Mama suggested that I set up this secret bank account just in case my husband-to-be decided to cheat.
I never did. We merged everything. We never divvied up bills like we were roommates instead of lifetime mates. Thanks to the premarital counseling we received, we developed a set of rules to govern how we would handle our money – which brings me to the third question of whether you should each have some money to spend freely.
Some couples call it an allowance. Some wince at that word. Whatever you call it, it can keep the peace if you agree on an amount of money you can spend with no questions asked.
Finally, my husband and I have been witness to some epic battles between couples who disagree on how much to help struggling adult children. It’s usually a mama who wants to bail out her “baby.”
Any such help should depend on whether the financial aid ends up enabling the child. Sometimes people who are irresponsible have to fall before they will get up on their own.
Whatever you decide, it’s vital that any help be a mutually agreed-upon decision. Your marriage comes first, and doling out money to an adult child against the better judgment of your spouse could jeopardize your relationship.
All year can be like Valentine’s Day when you find that sweet spot of financial harmony with your honey.