How We Learned to Finally Stop Fighting About Money

This is a story about money issues and arguments and how it takes years, not days, to finally find a formula that works for both of you.

by Richard Martin

The curves on the Taconic Parkway create enough tension as it is, but my wife and I were adding to the drama with a heated discussion about finances. I glanced into the rearview mirror: the kids, five and three, stared at their iPad screens with eyes locked in even as their little heads swerved back and forth from centrifugal force. I steered left, then right, hurtling home from another weekend in the country. “So let’s write it all down, make a budget,” my wife pleaded.

No, I insisted. Writing it down, making a budget wouldn’t work. Or, rather, it’d require too much work. I wanted ease, a positive checking account at the end of the month. In my mind, if she’d make better decisions — maybe eschew the expensive sweater in favor of the thriftier version — we’d be in the black, instead of scuffling to pay the latest preschool tuition bill.

I did not relay this calmly.

Here I was, badgering her again. When we met, I was a divorced homeowner with a fairly lucrative magazine-editing job; she was a single restaurant marketing employee with barely enough salary to get by in a shared apartment. I knew what I was getting into and so did she: I’m 11 years older than her, not as exciting of a character as the bad-boy chefs her age that she gravitated to in the past. But we loved one another.

In other words, trade-offs exist, in courtship and, as I’m realizing a couple years down the line from that white-knuckle drive–slash–family-finance-discussion, in economic situations. Once you get married and/or start having children together, you’d better get on the same page.

“Hopefully, you and your partner have had some conversations when your relationship moved in a serious direction about your thoughts, values and concerns about finances in general,” Dr. Marni Feuerman, licensed marriage and family therapist, tells me. Hopefully being the operative word.

The trouble is, we hadn’t. We, like the more than 50 percent of couples who don’t have true financial talks before marriage, should have had “some conversations” when she moved out of her closet-sized room in that shared apartment and into the house I co-owned with an old college friend and her husband. Or when we found out soon after, and sooner than we expected, that our first attempt at conceiving was a success. Even, perhaps, when we sold the house and added a few more zeros to the end of our bank account.

Er, my savings account. You see, we have separate bank accounts.

Is that where things went off the rails? Should we have consolidated our finances and started as equals? Was my wife’s plea on that drive down the Taconic — just write it all down — the correct path? These are the questions I should have been asking, but I’m a typical type A, and my general point of view is that I can figure it out on my own.

So I soldiered on, through real estate deals and a second child and my wife’s job changes and uncertainties with my own employment. I contributed to my 401(k) and squired bonuses into college savings programs. My wife and I would have the occasional chat about finance, but mostly we focused on getting the kids to school or picking the hot new restaurant for date night or bickering about whose family would have the pleasure of spending holidays with us.

And when money surfaced as an issue, whether to fund back-to-school clothes or help out with the mortgage payment, we fought. We fought about finance in our living room. We argued about it during date nights. We fell into eerie silence during those drives on the Taconic to avoid substantive discussions about where we wanted to be in five years — or even next week.

In my mind, the primary fault lay with my wife: I’d brought savings and real estate and a superior financial sensibility into our relationship, and she’d contributed credit card debt, paltry take-home pay, and a blasé attitude about money. I let the resentment build, and I took it out on her. If she insinuated that I didn’t change diapers willingly during a casual conversation with friends over dinner, I’d caustically reference her spending habits on our way home, torpedoing a needed night out without the kids.

As anyone who’s ever been through divorce can tell you, it’s a thing best avoided. But even as my brain told me to back off my free-spending younger bride as a form of self-preservation and divorce attorney avoidance, my temper heated up faster than a high-tech induction burner. I cajoled her and ranted and brought up petty arguments.

Then, one day, it stopped. I didn’t have one revelation, but a series of them, and I never wrote out a budget or wasted valuable post-kids’-bedtime Netflix bingeing to achieve this.

Instead, common sense solutions to shoring up our marriage and achieving financial peace of mind metastasized after oh, eight years. That’s what you don’t realize: these things take time. So how did it happen? Here, with input from experts that’s 20-20 hindsight for me, but hopefully helpful to anyone entering the dominion of wedded bliss and parenthood together without the benefit of a trust fund or a hedge fund broker’s bonus structure, is what we eventually figured out.

Come to Terms With Your Financial Differences — the Sooner the Better

A wedding, childbirth, moving into a home — all very stressful things, and all very expensive. No matter where you and your wife started, here you are, so you’d better be in it together.

“Differences in finances at the beginning of the relationship are okay and expected,” says Roger Ma, Certified Financial Planner at lifelaidout. “The important point is having a similar money mindset moving forward. That means determining what the two of you value, what financial goals you want to achieve, and making sure how you spend your money is aligned with those values and goals.”

Ma suggests that it is helpful to put your finances into perspective at the outset. The first step he advises for all clients, whether they have children or not, is to figure out where they are today. “That means determining net worth and annual savings and expenses,” he says. He recommends doing this manually through a spreadsheet or syncing all of their various accounts to a site such as Mint or Personal Capital.

You can also wing it. But take it from me: if you’re not accepting of any financial differences you have with your spouse, there will be (metaphorical) blood.

Find the Balance That Works For You

I’m sure some people can put their kids to bed on a Sunday night and sit down to a family budgeting spreadsheet. I can’t. My wife probably could, so this one’s on me. Still, it doesn’t mean we let our finances spin out of control. Now that we’ve been married a few years, I’ve learned to stop berating her and she’s become more communicative about money. We are far more proactive in our discussions.

Dr. Feuerman confirms that this is key. When an issue arises, a couple should deal with it head-on, when possible. “Avoidance will not be helpful. Choose a time when you can talk privately and have no distractions,” she says. “Don’t talk if you are tired, hungry, or overstressed from work.”

It’s even okay, per Ma, if, like me, you don’t have shared bank accounts. It obviously makes things easier for the spreadsheet set, but Ma advises clients that it’s acceptable to maintain separate accounts.

“Combining all of your finances together is not for everyone. Some couples choose to combine all of their accounts together, while others choose to have a joint checking account for some expenses, while maintaining separate accounts for everything else,” he says. “Having separate checking accounts could be helpful if you’re trying to buy a gift for the other person and want it to be a surprise or if your partner would question you on every purchase if you only had a joint checking account.”

That last point is prescient. When my wife emerges from the bedroom in an ensemble I’ve never seen before, I’m more likely to compliment her on it than to worry about how much she spent on it.

Find the Roles That Best Suit You

When I write to Dr. Feuerman, I ask her about a recent story I read on Fatherly disturbingly titled “When Husbands Don’t Work, Marriages Fall Apart,” which features an interview with a Harvard sociology professor who provides statistical proof about finance and divorce to back up the headline’s claim.

Central to my arguments with my wife was that I’d always worked hard and strived to make more money, and she should too; she’d counter that women are often paid less than men. When she had a brief spell between jobs, she enjoyed spending more time taking care of the children — and better care of herself. I’d noticed this, but our reality didn’t allow for her to be a stay at home mom. I’ve been out for beers with other dad friends trying to live the one-household-income idyll, and few appeared secure. “We’re talking about her getting a job,” they almost always say.

Ask any guy who either doesn’t work or who has a flexible schedule about which parent they see at school events and even in these enlightened times, it’s almost always majority moms.

“A man’s sense of identity and purpose is often tied up in work and making money,” says Dr. Feuerman. “It takes a very self-assured and confident man to handle being in a relationship where the woman is the primary source of income. It also takes a woman who won’t look down on her husband if he stays home with the kids while she works or if his income is significantly less.”

The needle has moved, per Feuerman, but not enough. “The theory that this should be acceptable does not match up with the reality.” But, at the end of the, it’s what works for you.

Understand that the future is unpredictable

The insurance companies call it a “qualifying life event,” which is to say that people can change jobs or lose a job or change their mind about the job they want.

“Situations,” as Ma points out, “are very fluid. The partner that has the higher-paying job could lose their job tomorrow, seek to move to a lower-paying job, transition industries or go to graduate school.”

Managing finances with children adds even more fluidity. From school expenses to unforeseen circumstances like hospital visits or orthodontist bills, today’s cute little sidekicks can become tomorrow’s bank account drain in the time it takes to say, “They grow up so fast!”

While my wife and I have gravitated toward a more enlightened approach to our finances, I’m also keeping in mind that we’ll need to be emotionally prepared for future triggers. What happens when a couple can’t reach an agreement?

“Impasses are not uncommon around this topic,” Dr. Feuerman writes, and then provides an approach that even I, a list-phobic dude, will heed should the occasion arise.

When you’ve reached an impasse, Feuerman says each of you should take out a piece of paper and write down the particular issue you are both gridlocked about. Then, create two columns to list what you are willing to be flexible on and what you are inflexible about. Go over the lists and take turns talking and listening for a while. You should make a point to discuss the deeper meaning of your position: What does this financial decision mean to you? How does it reflect your core values, your dreams and needs? Can you find a path to supporting each other’s positions? And, the most important question of all: Is it in the best interest of the family? “If all else fails to move you passed the impasse,” says Feuerman, “do not hesitate to reach out to a financial advisor or couples counselor for help.”

Always Remember: Family Comes First.

This last point is essential, and one I wish I’d tried to drive home during financial conversations with my wife rather than focus purely on money. In the end, that’s all I was concerned about. It’s what she was, too. We just didn’t see it that way.

“We all want to be supported in our personal needs when we come together with a partner. When it comes to finances and you have a family, the needs for safety and security are often top of the list,” says Dr. Feuerman. “The emotion and financial needs are woven together. Recognize that the financial decisions you make impact your family. You both have a family to think about and must make decisions that are beneficial to the long-term security of the family.”