John had fallen hard over Caroline.
As far as he was concerned, she was the most amazing person on the face of the earth and, without a doubt, the woman of his dreams. They spent every available moment in each other’s company, talking and dreaming about their future; and, as you would expect, they eventually made one of the biggest decisions of their lives: they would get married.
During the next few months, as they planned for their big day, John noticed that as they visited with wedding specialists or made appointments with different florist shops, Caroline would always ask for written quotes. He also noticed that she made a detailed budget for each item for their upcoming wedding. This trait of his wife-to-be made John extremely happy, as his family was of somewhat meager means and had scrimped and saved for everything they possessed. Caroline, on the other hand, had come from an upper-class neighborhood where all the siblings in her family had received whatever they wanted most of the time. John was very sensitive to financial matters and Caroline's careful spending attitude assured him that at least in this area of their life together there would be little conflict.
Jason and Autumn had a different story. They met at a work-related Christmas party and had been dating for more than 12 months. Autumn's beauty and intelligence enamored Jason, and he loved to dazzle her with all sorts of extravagant gifts, restaurants and entertainment. From outside appearances, Jason seemed to be a very successful sales executive and an incredibly generous individual.
Although Autumn enjoyed being treated as a queen, she was perplexed one evening as she sat on the sofa in Jason's luxury apartment. Among the day's mail on the coffee table were two late notices—one from his landlord and the other from the utility company. When Jason came back from taking out the garbage, she confronted him about his money habits. As it turned out, Jason had been keeping up with the Joneses to impress friends and acquaintances that he was financially well off. During this process, he had run up a number of credit cards to their limits and was also hopelessly in debt with both a personal bank line of credit and a substantial vehicle loan. Even though he had been out of college for only a few years, he had amassed a debt of more than $50,000. Autumn was shocked at the reality of Jason's financial situation and chose to end the relationship based on his immature attitudes and out-of-control spending habits.
Two different scenarios, but both point out the importance of understanding money as two people form a partnership for life. It is a tragedy that the topic of finances seldom comes up during the courtship period. Too often young lovers and not-so-young romantics believe that by getting married they can effectively increase their income while cutting their expenses in half and live in financial bliss forever. It may seem that two can live as cheaply as one until the reality of everyday living bursts their economic bubble. But it doesn't have to be that way if, during their courtship, a couple openly discusses their attitudes and beliefs about money matters.
Two more considerations
For those who are contemplating marriage, there are at least two other important financial considerations.
Opposites attract. The first consideration is the fact that the majority of individuals marry someone who is the opposite of them in personality, and this includes finances. Mary Hunt, in her excellent book "Debt-Proof Your Marriage," puts it very succinctly, "There are two money personalities: spenders and savers. . . . The typical marriage has one of each."
Here are her definitions of both these personalities: "Savers hesitate, drag their feet, and if they cannot avoid spending, look for the cheapest way out.... Savers live with the possibility of a rainy day on their minds. Savers sleep best when they have money in the bank. The thought of overdrawing a bank account makes a saver very uneasy. Savers are reluctant to apply for credit and when they do [they] are anxious to pay the balance in full every month. For savers, the minimum payment option on a credit card balance is unacceptable. Savers see a sale as a way to spend less money."
On the other hand, "Spenders believe that if banks, stores, and credit card companies approve them for more credit, that's all the confirmation they need to know they can afford it. Spenders don't usually worry much about how they will repay the debt. Somehow, they reason, it will all work out in the end. They justify purchases because they 'save' so much money buying things on sale.”
Obviously, no theory about financial personalities is perfect, and the reality is that spenders and savers come in varying degrees of intensity. The ultimate goal for a healthy marriage is to create a balanced money management arrangement that fits that couple's situation.
A commitment to communicate. The second consideration is a strong commitment by both spouses to regularly communicate about their finances. This can be tough if the couple has not developed good communication skills. Communication requires listening as well as talking. It's possible to hear what someone says without listening to what that person says. The spender may want something so badly that he or she doesn't want the saver to get in the way of getting it, so the spender fails to listen to the saver's concerns. On the other hand, a saver can be so tight with money that he or she fails to listen to the heartfelt need of the spender.
Listening—really listening—means paying careful attention not only to what the other person says but also to how the other person feels. And family finances are one of the critical emotional issues that all couples must deal with.
Whether you're considering marriage or are already married, review with your partner the questions listed earlier in this article. Try to identify whether one of you is a saver and the other a spender or if both of you are on the same side. Then have a heart-to-heart talk in which you each listen carefully to the words and the emotions the other expresses. This may be tough, but it's one of the keys to a long and happy relations.
This article originally appeared in Signs of the Times magazine, March, 2011.