4 tips to building financial trust in marriage

A study from the National Endowment for Financial Education earlier this year found that one in three adults have committed financial infidelity in a relationship.

A study from the National Endowment for Financial Education earlier this year found that one in three adults have committed financial infidelity in a relationship.

The research doesn’t lie: Money is a leading cause of divorce. Whether you’re dealing with an inability to talk about it, a difference of opinion about how to spend it, or just the stress of not having enough of it, financial arguments can quickly send an otherwise healthy marriage into a downward spiral.

Dishonesty is perhaps the worst offender, and it’s disturbingly common: A study from the National Endowment for Financial Education earlier this year found that one in three adults have committed financial infidelity in a relationship. That means hiding a purchase, lying about debt, misrepresenting income, siphoning cash into a secret account, or – yikes — all of the above.

When you decide to walk down the aisle, one of the first things you should do — even before you plan the ceremony and, I’d argue, before you purchase a ring — is lay out your finances on the table for your partner to see. This sets a transparent tone right from the start. But what if that ship has sailed? It’s never too late to start building (or re-building) trust in your relationship. Here’s how to do it:

  1. Schedule monthly money meetings. I’ve long been a proponent of these, and I practice what I preach — you’ll find my husband and I dishing the dirt at least once a month, if not more often. That’s because I, too, struggle with talking about money in my relationship, and so setting that time aside on a regular basis forces me to face the music. My hope is it will do the same for you. Having a designated time to address any and all financial concerns in the relationship will keep the lines of communication flowing. It’s also a built in system of checks and balances — use the opportunity to talk about where you’re overspending, how you can cut back, how you’re doing with your retirement and other financial goals, and what you’d like to improve.
  2. Maintain some autonomy. I’m a big fan of having both joint and separate accounts in a relationship. Joint is helpful administratively, so you can pay household bills from one account or for dinner with a single credit or debit card. But separate accounts are equally as important because they allow you to spend without feeling like you have to explain every nickel and dime to your partner. Fund the joint account first with an equal percentage of your paychecks – whatever percentage you need to meet the household expenses and joint savings. Whatever’s left stays in your separate accounts. If only one of you is working outside the home, that single paycheck should be divided into three pots.
  3. Talk about big purchases in advance. Or, even better, set a spending limit. Agree that you won’t spend over X amount without discussing it with your partner first. That means picking up take out on the way home from work is a-okay; picking up a new television is not. Part of this is common sense, of course, but it helps to have a dollar limit etched out so you’re on the same page about what is out of bounds. The limit will match your budget — set it at a number that will have a significant impact on your finances. For some, $50 will throw things off the rails. Others have more flexibility.
  4. Fess up. You’ll know when you’ve overstepped the financial lines in your relationship — the guilt will set in pretty quickly. As with any indiscretion, the consequences only multiply if you try to sweep it under the rug. So talk to your spouse about the misstep, then figure out a plan to get things back on track. Often, that’s a simple as making a return. If that’s not an option, work out a payment plan that allows you to slowly pay off the purchase, or pay back your savings account, over a period of a few months. Admitting the mistake is hard, but hiding it can be devastating.
Jean Chatzky

About Jean Chatzky

Jean Chatzky, the financial editor for NBC’s TODAY show, is an award-winning personal finance journalist, AARP’s personal finance ambassador, and a contributing editor for Fortune magazine. Jean is a best-selling author; her eighth and most recent book is Money Rules: The Simple Path to Lifelong Security. She believes knowing how to manage our money is one of the most important life skills for people at every age and has made it her mission to help simplify money matters, increasing financial literacy both now and for the future. In April 2013 Jean launched Jean Chatzky's Money School , a series of college-style, interactive online personal finance courses that give men and women across the country the opportunity to learn from and interact directly with her. Jean lives with her family in Westchester County, New York.
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