My husband and I are at a Lucky’s Famous Burgers when he goes to the soda machine to get a Coke.
“We have Cokes at home,” I say.
“Well, except I’m a grown-up,” he says. “I want a Coke now.”
“Oh yeah, absolutely,” I say. “I just wasn’t sure if you knew.”
He definitely knew. It turns out I had accidentally pinched an emotional-financial nerve on a man who grew up with Depression-era parents, leading him to dream of someday living a life where he could purchase a refreshing sugar-water beverage whenever he liked — stockpiles of soda at home be damned.
Do you want to know the No. 1 reason couples divorce? You guessed it: Whether or not you have Cokes at home. Okay, not quite. It’s money.
“Arguments about money are the top predictor for divorce because it happens at all levels,” Kansas State professor Sonya Britt said in a press release about her 2013 survey of 4,500 couples from the National Survey of Families and Households. “Results revealed it didn’t matter how much you made or how much you were worth.”
Fights about spending it, fights about saving it, and, perhaps most insidiously, fights about hiding it will doom your union if you aren’t careful. My solution: Nip that potential in the bud on day one.
“I don’t care about money,” I told my husband early on in our relationship. “It means nothing to me. I mean, I obviously want a ton of it, like every other person on the planet. But it doesn’t drive my decisions in relationships, and it’s an area I’ve never had a problem with when it comes to men.”
But there is one tiny qualifier to my precious little soliloquy. I’ve never had a problem with money in relationships when I’ve been honest about the subject. The time I racked up the most debt in my life? When I dated an obscenely wealthy guy and was terrified of giving away that I was poor. He didn’t care one way or the other, but I was too proud to show up in Stratton or Newport wearing my usual getup: Salvation Army with a splash of Forever 21. So I bought the new ski outfit, I bought the new after-ski outfit, and I definitely bought the new after-after-ski lingerie complete with $200 perfume.
Fifty-five-thousand dollars in debt and one bankruptcy later, I learned the perils of the whole “money means nothing to me” philosophy. So I decided I would never again spend money I don’t have again.
“We’ll have total transparency about anything related to our finances,” my husband agreed after listening to my confession about my time keeping up with socialites named Muffy, Buffy, and Tinsley, who rarely wore much more than Louboutins and a trust fund.
“And we split everything,” I continued. “I mean, we’ll treat each other when we want, like we always have, and we’ll help each other when we can, but no matter what, we’ll never combine our finances.”
Surprisingly, escaping the black hole of financial squabbling is becoming more and more common: A new study found almost 90 percent of couples report being “happy” with how they deal with their finances. The Ameriprise study surveyed 1,500 couples, ranging from 25- to 70-year-olds, and found that 68 percent say they communicate well about money.
That might be partly due to the plethora of advice about how to talk about the emotional issues triggered by money. For my husband and me, these ten basic questions recommended by The Wall Street Journal provided a nice gateway to larger discussions.
1. “What is your most painful money memory?” Me: “Earning more than $100 a month as a 13-year-old paper girl and spending it all on leopard-print sweaters, neon jumpsuits, and Technotronic cassingles from the Wherehouse instead of saving a single penny.” Him: “Being an 8-year-old kid and spending $17 on a remote-controlled Mercedes-Benz and then realizing that I liked it, but I liked having the $17 better.”
2. “What is your most joyful money memory?” Me: “Getting tipped $50 as a waitress with a note saying ‘Anything is possible.’” Him: “Winning $390 in a game of poker with friends. I barely lost a hand the whole night.”
3. “How did these experiences shape your relationship with money?” Me: “Enjoy money. Also enjoy saving it.” Him: “Think before purchases. And it’s fun to win.”
4. “What three things did your parents teach you about money?” Me: “Spend, spend, spend.” Him: “Don’t carry money in a wallet. Avoid impulse buys.”
5. “Which lessons have you applied in your financial life?” Both: “All of them.”
6. “Was your family rich, poor, or middle class growing up?” Both: “Middle class.”
7. “What were your family’s values around money?” Me: “You can’t take it with you.” Him: “Don’t spend any.”
8. “What is your greatest financial fear?” Me: “Overspending.” Him: “Not having any money.”
9. “What are your most important financial goals?” Me: “Being comfortable.” Him: “Having enough money to get what I want.”
10. “What are you willing to do differently around money? Both: “Earn more.”
But how many people actually know what “earn more” means to their partner? When the 2015 Fidelity Investments Couples Retirement Study looked at the financial knowledge of 2,102 individuals, researchers found that 43 percent don’t know their partner’s personal income — 10 percent were wrong by $25,000 or more! On the other hand, a 2014 Money magazine survey of 1,010 married adults showed that 60 percent check their bank accounts more often than they have sex.
“Money doesn’t just represent money,” Olivia Mellan, a money coach and author of Money Harmony, told U.S. News & World Report. “It represents love, power, control, self-esteem, freedom.”
That’s why the biggest secret to avoiding money fights is knowing how something as small as buying a Coke can feel as loaded as buying a new home.
As a way to facilitate our financial transparency, my husband and I check in with each other at the end of each month as to what we’ve spent and what we’ve saved after we’ve split the bills and paid the rent. “I wish I could frame this check,” I said when I got paid for a recent project that had been more successful than I predicted. “No, actually, scratch that. What I really wish is that I could have all the money I’ve wasted over the years from the time I was 13 so that this check would be adding to a flush banking account that had accrued a ton of interest.”
“You’ve got to stop beating yourself up about that money. Think about how responsible you are now and also how cool you were in all that neon and leopard in the ’80s,” my husband responded kindly. “No regrets.”
He’s right. And, as far as relationship advice goes, that’s nothing short of priceless.