My husband and I began our marriage as many couples do—long on love and short on cash. Our first financial crisis arose before we’d even said our vows. Richard had two more years of university to complete and we’d spent all of our savings on the wedding, honeymoon and setting up our new apartment. I got a job; and we struggled, but we survived. We learned to stretch our money, to live frugally, to search for bargains and to buy things secondhand. It was tough, but we were careful.
Then Richard graduated and got his first teaching job. I continued to work, though part-time. That’s when credit card companies began to court us. We accepted their invitations. We bought a caravan and furnishings to fill it. And we stopped living on a careful budget. If we saw something we wanted, we bought it. If we didn’t have the ready cash, we charged it.
Then Richard lost his job and suddenly we were left deep in debt—and scared. That began a nearly 20-year struggle with finances. Money problems bring some of the toughest stresses on a marriage. Couples argue, blame and sometimes divorce when they’re under financial pressures. Through our long battle, though, our marriage stayed strong.
Here’s what we found that helped to keep our marriage intact even when money was a problem.
James 5:13 says, “Is any one of you in trouble? He should pray.” We had spent a lot of time worrying about our finances. It was time to pray about them. We made a list of the debts we had accumulated and began to pray every day about each one. We prayed about our fears. We prayed for ways to persuasively communicate with the creditors. We prayed for insights into how to solve our immediate problems and learn from our mistakes.
Each time we paid off a debt, we crossed it off our prayer list. And each time was an opportunity to celebrate.
James 5:16 says, “Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.” When we lost control of our spending, we found it difficult to talk about the problem. We avoided it for a long time—not the fact that we were in trouble, but how we’d gotten there.
“I’m afraid,” I finally said. I was surprised at the look of relief on Richard’s face when he admitted, “Me too.”
Suddenly, we weren’t suffering alone. We had created the problem together. Now we were ready to work together to solve it. And once we sat down to talk, we were able to admit the mistakes that had brought the bill collectors calling, our credit rating lost and our needs unmet.
When financial troubles strike, the worst challenge to relationships is the temptation to blame: “If she hadn’t bought such-and-such,” or, “If he just made more money.” We realised that our financial difficulties were the result of a series of mistakes, emergencies and bad decisions and that we couldn’t pin the blame on just one of us. We both had made mistakes, individually and as a couple.
To find the mistakes you’re making, Deborah McNaughton, founder of Professional Credit Counselors and author of Financially Secure: An Easy-to-Follow Money Program for Women, suggests keeping a journal of where you’re spending your money. “It’s a reality check when you see it in black and white.”
Here are some questions to ask and answer: Where do you tend to needlessly spend—and waste—the most? How did your parents handle their money? Do you reflect their uses, misuses, obsessions or spendthrift ideas? What issues crop up repeatedly? What attitudes and emotions are creating the inappropriate spending? Do you regularly spend out of revenge, depression, anger or boredom?
McNaughton advises that when you’re ready to have a serious talk about your finances, you make an appointment with each other at a specific time before your bill-paying day. We found it to be important to set aside a day, outside of home, to do our planning. We spent our first planning day sitting at a picnic table by a lake. We began by talking about the dreams we shared: we wanted to adopt a child, to buy a home, to save for the future and to pay cash for a car.
Now, every three months when possible, and every six at the most, we have a planning day. Whether it’s in a hotel, a park or a restaurant, we review the past few months and look to the future. We’re honest. We listen to one another’s ideas. Sometimes we disagree. But overall, we leave the session happy with what we’ve accomplished. And we’ve found that when we talk about our plans, problems, solutions and successes, not only does our financial situation improve, but we also grow closer to each other.
“Two heads are better than one,” McNaughton says. “If the cheque book handler doesn’t share what’s going on with the finances, their spouse won’t understand the family’s limits.”
Take equal responsibility for managing your money. That way you’ll both be informed. And understand your differences and plan around them. When you recognise your individual strengths and weaknesses, you can learn to use them to balance each other.
Perhaps one of you is better organised and should be the one to pay the bills and balance the family accounts. The other may be better at finding ways to save money or to staying strongly—but not obsessively—tuned to the budget.
If your financial problems are too great and solutions seem impossible to find or you just can’t agree on what to do, you may need to seek help. Having a third party’s help—whether a professional financial counsellor or someone on the staff of your church—is nothing to be ashamed of.
There are also numerous books and workbooks that you can either purchase or borrow from the library that can help you set up budgets, find ways to get out of debt and grow together in the financial area of your marriage. The important thing is to keep your marriage intact as you sort through financial problems.
“Mum, why do I have to save money?”
“Couldn’t you just charge that and let me pay you back?”
“It’s not fair; I want to buy it now.”
Now we’ve begun communicating with our daughter what we’ve learned about finances. McNaughton says, “It’s great to begin early, but it’s never too late to start a game plan. The older you get, the more you realise the importance of saving and preparing for later.”
Some couples avoid talking about money. But the problems and conflicts don’t go away just because you ignore them. The present is always a good time to begin, whether you’re engaged, newlyweds or have been married for 20 years.
During our 22 years of marriage, Richard and I have had our financial ups and downs. We’ve learned from some mistakes and created others. But through it all, we’ve learned to communicate.
It’s a cycle that changes and challenges us—a part of our marriage that has bent, yet not broken us. We continue to pray, to talk and to learn.