After Stephanie Walker’s husband lost his job in 2008, the couple faced foreclosure on their $799,000 mid-century, modern dream home in Los Angeles. So they gave up the home, with a view of the Hollywood sign, and declared bankruptcy. But these huge obstacles didn’t threaten their marriage. “It is because of our financial crisis that we are as happily married as we are today,” Walker said. They pledged to “rise above the depression, negativity and anxiety” and “took really good care of each other and our marriage in the process,” using the experience as a chance to spend more quality time together.
Walker and her husband started taking long hikes with their pug dog, cooking dinner at home together, and having conversations every morning about what they each intended to accomplish that day. They fought less “because we put each other first.” Now both employed, they’re renting a modest apartment in Chicago near their family and recently had their first child. “Our marriage has never been stronger,” says Walker, who has also written a book about the ordeal called Love in the Time of Foreclosure.
This would come as no surprise to Jason Carroll, a professor of family life at Brigham Young University. His new study shows that marriages in which both spouses were non-materialistic were 10 to 15 per cent better than those where one or both partners were acquisitive; and in marriages when one partner was materialistic, the couple was happier than when both partners wanted to shop ’til they dropped.
“Spouses who place a high value on money are often less responsive to their partner and less focused on the relationship. They seek happiness in possessions, not people,” Carroll said. On the contrary, in relationships where both couples are non-materialistic, there is an emphasis on basic values that can stand the test of a financial collapse, like raising a healthy family or giving back to the community, says Paula
Levy, a marriage and family therapist in the affluent area of Westport, Connecticut. “Those are the kinds of things that can survive difficult economic situations,” she says.
It’s no secret that divorces occur because of money problems. The new profile of an acquisitive couple – and how that sensibility can backfire – is a cautionary tale.
Five Financial Strategies for a Harmonious Marriage
Here are some tips from experts on how to avoid financial pitfalls that can threaten a marriage.
1. Define what you want, along with the tradeoffs. Sit down with your partner to better understand your spending habits and develop a financial plan that suits you both. This provides a “jumping off point that can help couples know what will trigger a problem,” says Susan E. Honig, a financial planner with Veritana Financial Planning, Inc., in Burbank, California.
2. Open a joint checking account. Honig says when everything is separate, that can lead to secret purchases and marriages that have more problems. Working together, as a team, to decide how money is spent, allows couples to operate on a healthier level, she says. Michael Fitzgerald, a CPA in Houston, Texas, suggests a family operating account for essential expenses and a separate “fun” account for discretionary expenses. He also advocates a spending threshold – a number that will trigger a requirement for both spouses to agree before a purchase can be made.
3. Set up a regular financial date night. J.J. Montanaro, a financial planner at USAA, says financial discussions must become part of a couple’s routine, avoiding a situation where “crisis management” becomes the beginning and end of the financial dialogue.
4. Use the old-fashioned envelope system, to save for gifts and other extras. Dr. James Roberts, a professor of marketing at Baylor University, says this may seem like a low-tech solution to saving money, but it works. This Christmas, simply put your spending money in an envelope. When it’s gone, you’re done shopping.
5. Develop a social contract, writing out what is expected of each other and the penalties associated with not holding up their end of the bargain. Mutually agreed upon goals are essential to peaceful financial coexistence, Roberts says.
Carroll’s study also revealed a surprising finding: Couples like Todd and Robin Wiseman, who differ dramatically in their spending patterns, have happier marriages than those in which both partners are materialistic. While money would be thought to be a wedge that divides couples with different spending habits, that’s not always the case. “People are often attracted to people who balance them,” and they can help each other towards a balanced way of spending, says Lisa Brateman, a social worker in New York City specializing in relationships. She says the spender also can help the frugal partner let go of the tight controls.
Todd, age 47, says he lives like a rock star, even though he can’t afford it, while Robin, age 48, is a saver always in search of a bargain. Wiseman, who lives in Florida, has a job staffing companies, including the Dallas Cowboys parking crew, and also installs art for companies like Walgreens. Despite the fact that he’s earned an average of $150,000 a year, the father of four has no savings. He happily spends money on extravagant family vacations, never looks at the prices on restaurant menus, and purchases the best seats at concerts and sporting events. Wiseman says his wife, a part-time teacher, is “thrifty and selfless by nature” and is uncomfortable with his spending habits. But unlike others he knows who are focused on chasing money, only to find that their family and relationships suffer, “we have a fantastic marriage,” he says. “She knows the money is being put to good use investing in our family.”
Carroll’s study found that marriages where both partners were materialistic fared the worst. When both are materialistic, it’s harder to keep each other in check, since they “both need the same thrill,” said Brateman. Materialism “goes well beyond the financial,” says James Roberts, a professor of marketing at Baylor University and author of the book Shiny Objects, which argues that a preoccupation with wealth negatively impacts relationships. The pursuit of money is a selfish one, he says, leading to stress and unhappiness. Another study by Carroll indicates that couples who reported that one or both spouses spent money foolishly increased their odds of divorce by 45 per cent.
That finding is consistent with what many therapists are seeing in their practices. “I have seen cases where both are materialistic, and it almost becomes a race to see who can spend the money,” Levy says. Those whose marriage was built on acquiring possessions – instead of developing a deep emotional bond – don’t fare well when there’s a financial crisis, she says.
Sharon Duffy, a marriage and family therapist in Woodland Hills, California, says she often sees couples who may fall in love, but then make accumulating wealth the primary goal. Their conversations are focused on how to get their children into the right schools, moving into the appropriate exclusive neighbourhood or business deals, neglecting discussions of fears and dreams, “the stuff that life is really made of,” she says. This lack of intimacy and emotional engagement can create a void that often leads to depression, eating disorders or even extramarital affairs, she says.
A focus on materialism “is one of the biggest factors causing divorce,” says Linda Lea Viken, president of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers. She says with the current economy, where money is so tight that a couple’s quest for material rewards is significantly affected, “it becomes an even greater irritant,” as couples resent each other’s expenses, which gives them less money to spend on their own purchases. Materialistic people also tend to be anxious, depressed and insecure, she says. “When you put that into the mix, obviously you’ve got a precarious marriage.”
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