What makes for a financially healthy relationship with your significant other?
When I asked members of three different generations how they managed money and a strong relationship, the responses showed how the ways we handle money have changed over the decades—from one partner controlling the checkbook to increasing openness toward pooled resources. This trend is in the right direction, of course, but the surprising thing is how much we can learn from each generation, no matter when they came of age. Learning from the past is important because, as a recent SunTrust Bank survey found, money is the top cause of stress in relationships.
G.I. Generation (AKA Greatest Generation)
“Delegate some minor expense decisions, but no unilateral bigger decisions (car, investments, private bank accounts, etc.). The words are trust and love. When my husband was alive, I didn’t always understand our finances. I completely trusted his conservative investment schemes. There were no formal discussions; we just talked when some decision came up. Also, he put all our material assets, such as cars and our house, in my name, not in joint ownership. That is trust!”
—Frederica Valentine, 92, Flagstaff, Ariz.
Takeaway: Some couples find sharing the financial burden difficult, especially those who came of age during the Father Knows Best era. One thing we can learn from this generation is trust. Partners must trust each other to make smart choices on behalf of the family. Of course, trust alone can cause problems down the road. If one spouse is entrusted with making key money decisions, and that spouse dies or becomes incapacitated, the surviving partner can be left ill-equipped to handle the finances alone.
“To have the faintest chance for success a financially healthy relationship must be based on trust and transparency. It’s not essential, for example, for a couple to share a checking account; it is essential that there is a clear delineation of responsibilities coupled with a humble awareness of the realities that each party brings to the conversation.
“My wife and I don’t have a formal ritual for discussing financial issues. As they arise we address them. We see opportunities; we research the options. For example, a recent inheritance allowed us to consider retiring our mortgage. We investigated, and after several weeks of discussions among ourselves and trusted family, we successfully made our mortgage disappear. We don’t go over bank statements (but she can see mine at any time). While I’m the source of income for the family, she likes having financial independence and I would not interfere with that in any way. This helps quite a bit in reducing potential tensions over money, purchases, and decision making.”
—D. Bornstein, 66, Great Barrington, Mass.
Takeaway: Trust and transparency. Without an open, honest approach to sharing all aspects of their financial situation, couples will have trouble making financial decisions that benefit both parties. But as two-income families became more prevalent, couples began to share everything from earnings to college debt, meaning that a healthy financial relationship had to include more than trust and transparency.
“You’ll have trust that the other person won’t be doing something egregious, such as accumulating other debt or breaking the bank on gifts. Respecting your partner breeds behaviors that help couples figure out their financial goals, set them, and achieve them together. Without respect, you’ll look at the other person as an impediment to getting what you want, which I think can be toxic for a relationship.
“Practically speaking, we route everything into a joint checking account and a credit card account. Each partner has access to statements. At the end of each month, we go over our budget and what, if anything, changed. We have a $500 rule—if you spend more than $500 on something, you need to talk with the other person first. I am the breadwinner of the house currently, but my wife pays all the bills, and she’s the person who has come up with our household budget. I think couples need to not think about ‘my money’ or ‘their money’ but instead think about ‘our money.’”
—Nigel Solder, 32, Columbus, Ohio
Takeaway: Add to the virtues that make a strong financial relationship one more: respect. While joint accounts aren’t necessary, pooling income puts both people on equal footing. But with shared finances comes shared risk. Because either person has access to all the money, there needs to be a system for avoiding things like overdrafts and returned payments—or overspending. Putting one person in charge of overseeing bill payments and agreeing to a price cap on individual purchases are two great methods.
(Quotes have been edited for style and length.)
Check out more articles from our Generation Gap series.