The week we got married, my husband Barry came to me with a big grin on his face. “I have a surprise for you,” he said.
The “surprise” turned out to be $5,000 in his savings account. In 1978, $5,000 was a vast amount of money, so he was stunned when, instead of being elated, I was deeply hurt by it. How could he keep a secret from me? Why hadn’t he trusted me? I felt betrayed.
Having an argument over money only a few days into our marriage was very upsetting, but we probably weren’t alone. Conflict over finances is common between couples; in fact, it’s the number one source of tension, and the second leading cause of divorce, after infidelity.
That argument about Barry’s secret stash was the first, but certainly not the last, of many that we’ve had over finances. But over the years, we’ve found solutions, which have led to an almost (!) harmonious financial relationship.
Here are 9 practices that have helped us reach equanimity.
1. We Don’t Keep Secrets About Money
From that early experience, we learned that financial secrets damage trust, and I can’t remember a single secret about money that we’ve had since. (Full disclosure: I’m hardly perfect when it comes to secrets. I’ve sneaked around with eating, but that’s another story!)
Still, there are secrets you keep even from yourself. For the first 20 years of our marriage, Barry and I had separate finances — a policy I was the one to propose when we got married. Having been the breadwinner in his first marriage, Barry was thrilled to have a financially independent wife. In the late ‘70s and ‘80s, our approach worked fine because life wasn’t very pricey where we lived. When he wanted to buy a house in the Seattle area, for example, I didn’t want to share in the burden of ownership. I signed a quit claim deed at the bank, foregoing my interest in the house in our community property state. I paid Barry $200 every month for rent, and when he sold the house two years later, he lost $14,000, while I didn’t lose a penny.
But in 1987, when we moved to Palo Alto, California, our policy didn’t feel as comfortable to me. It was the biggest and scariest period in my adult life, as I not only moved to a new state but transitioned from weight loss counseling to a training business. The Bay Area was exponentially more expensive than anywhere I had ever lived, and for the first time in my life, I had to earn a serious income. Barry had a head start, being 9 years older than me and with an established profession.
The truth was, the system I had engineered in our marriage was not working well for me, but I was too embarrassed to admit it, even to myself. I was attached to my self-image — one of an empowered woman who wasn’t dependent on her husband’s income.
It took much painful self-reflection, but slowly I got honest with myself and with Barry. Eventually, when we left Palo Alto on a sabbatical, we seamlessly merged our finances.
2. We Pay Bills On Time
Barry loves to pay a bill as soon as it arrives because he’s afraid of forgetting it. He also believes it’s the easiest way to feel in abundance.
I too prefer to pay a bill promptly, but I have a slightly different take on it, based on a prosperity workshop I took with Unity Church in the ‘90s. The instructor encouraged us to always give “willingly, cheerfully, joyfully, and lovingly.” He said that if he was not feeling positive about writing a check, he would wait until he did. Following his advice, if I’m feeling anxious about paying a bill, I wait until I feel better.
We don’t incur credit card debt, either. Why throw hard-earned money away? Paying credit cards on time is easier in this phase of our lives, when we’re financially comfortable. But even in the early days of our marriage, when we didn’t have a lot of money, we would do whatever was necessary to pay our credit cards on time.
3. We Communicate Respectfully
We raise issues directly and listen to each other, without blowing up, interrupting, or avoiding.
This wasn’t always the case. In the ‘80s, Barry worried about money a lot, but I didn’t want to hear about it. I dismissed his worries and wouldn’t listen to him, which only made his anxiety worse because he felt very alone and without an ally.
Our communication about finances really improved in Palo Alto, when we scraped together enough money during a brief dip in the market to buy a home from a friend of a friend, avoiding realtor fees. We had lived in homes we liked but didn’t own, and owned places we didn’t like (the Seattle-area house). But this was the first time we owned a house we both loved, and in many ways, creating a home of our own was our first shared goal.
There was much to deal with related to our house, so we started a routine of having a business meeting after breakfast every Wednesday. Sitting in our kitchen nook, we’d each bring our agenda and discuss house improvements, finances, the garden, who would take on which task, and our social calendar. Knowing we had a meeting every Wednesday stopped us from bringing up issues scattershot throughout the week.
We paid the house off as fast as possible. Thirty years later, I can still remember how exciting it was to get our monthly statement and watch the amount remaining on our mortgage gradually drop.
4. We Respect Each Other’s Financial Smarts
After we sold our Palo Alto home, Barry suggested we invest in a bond fund. He’s also a fan of index funds, rather than paying a financial “expert,” who on balance knows no more than we do about where the market is headed. Both of those decisions have served us well.
On the other hand, we both agree that my instinct for real estate is much better than his. The two houses I found — our homes in Palo Alto and Guanajuato, Mexico, where we’ve lived for part of the year for the last 17 — have both turned into wise investments.
5. We Keep Evolving
The decision to merge our finances (other than our IRAs), is one example. It was much easier during our sabbatical not to calibrate who paid for hotels, apartment rentals, food, and so on.
Although we have joint finances, each of us has some non-negotiable pocket money. Barry loves to take me out on a date, and the last thing he wants is me checking the bill. We also let each other make the final decisions related to our own families.
Our weekly business meeting in Palo Alto has evolved into a daily to-do list: “Hers, His, And Ours.” Much of our communication about finances happens during our morning to-do list, which is divided into two parts: writing the action steps on each list followed by discussing those items that need agreement.
6. We Accept Each Other’s Spending Styles
Barry likes high quality — which usually means spending more. An early adopter, he bought a Honda Civic when it came out in the ‘70s, a folding bike in 1980, and the first Mac computer when it appeared in 1984. He’s willing to buy secondhand but not if it diminishes the quality of the item.
There are times when Barry’s spending style annoys me. For example, I think he sometimes overtips and I’m tempted to tell him. But I remind myself, “What he chooses to tip is none of my business.”
I, on the other hand, am an under buyer. I prefer not to own a lot of stuff, because too many things cause me stress. I’m not naturally neat, and I create puddles of mess here and there. The less I own, the less stress I feel. A friend recently described me as “frugal,” but I disagree because I don’t deprive myself. I don’t believe self-denial works in the long run; it’s like dieting — too much deprivation can lead to excess.
Still, it’s true I haven’t always found it easy to invest in myself. In the early period of my training business, Barry had to encourage me to join professional associations and pay what seemed at the time like a huge amount of money to attend national conferences.
7. We Don’t Sweat The Small Stuff
Years ago, Barry read a book called How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World by Harry Browne, a one-time Libertarian presidential candidate. While I didn’t agree with his entire philosophy, one thing he said made sense: to choose an amount of money below a certain number and to not worry if it’s stolen, lost, or spent foolishly. Any amount can work, from $5, $10, $20, whatever.
This concept has helped us enormously — not just with small amounts, but when we can’t undo an action. About a month ago, for example, we were scammed by an Uber driver to the tune of $60. We tried to complain on the app, but to no avail. Ouch! Realizing the money was gone, though, we shrugged and moved on.
8. We Audit Our Assets Twice A Year
For the last 10 years, we gather all our financial data and do an assessment of how much we’re worth every 6 months. Looking close up at the numbers is very useful because it helps us see where our money is going and if we need to make any changes.
9. We Spend Time And Effort Simplifying Our Systems
After my 101-year-old father died last year, I was shocked by how complicated his estate was, mainly because — strangely — my smart, educated dad did not leave his assets in a trust. The complexity of his estate motivated Barry and me to make sure our own systems were as simple and streamlined as possible.
Mindfully preparing for death is a tiring project, but we found it well worth it. Even though we both had wills and living wills, some pieces were missing. For example, we set up a charitable trust, so that if we die simultaneously, the assets in the trust will go to our designated nonprofits.
Reflecting back on the last 50 years, I realize that being financially comfortable, as we have been for the last 10, makes a huge difference to my peace of mind. Prosperity and equanimity don’t always correlate — look at uber-wealthy celebrities who still fight over assets when they split up. But for me, knowing I have enough helps me relax, so that, for example, I can let go of the $60 scam.
Finding peace with money in our marriage hasn’t always been easy. But judging by the absence of arguments and tension about finances in our lives today, the emotional work and difficult conversations along the way were well worth it.
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