Editor’s note: I really like the 36 Questions thing I read about in the NY Times a few years back, this idea that you could pose these probing questions to your mate or prospective mate in order to deepen the relationship. Riffing on that idea, I came up with a series of Money and Relationships questions that might play a similar role in your relationship, albeit for shared finances. Can you help me make these better?
I need your help with this post. I haven’t really previously asked for help in developing my finance ideas, but in this case crowd-sourcing ideas may be the best approach. In exchange for your help (you have all already agreed to help, right?) I’ll offer a fun(ish) activity you can do with your significant other. Deal?
As a lead-in to the fun activity and request for help, I should mention that I’ve been informally polling friends in long-term relationships about money. Specifically, what kinds of arrangements do they have for managing their debts, creating savings plans, and all the other stuff involved in “managing the finances” for a household?
My first thought after asking a few friends how they manage things: Y’all are strange.
I mean, I have the experience of my own marriage, and how we do it. I had no idea that perfectly normal (seeming) couples have entirely different arrangements, and they do ok.
My second thought is that the problem of money and relationships is probably universal. While money is not necessarily the root of all evil, it is the root of tremendous problems in relationships.
A SunTrust bank study found that 35 percent of couples experiencing problems in the relationship cited finances as their number one concern. Only 25 percent of couples cited “annoying habits of the partner.” I mentioned that one to my wife while cracking my knuckles and she just looked at me in shock. That statistic must have surprised her.
A research study published in 2012 found a strong link between couples that argued about money before they were married, and the probability of later getting divorced. That study by professor Sonya Britt at Kansas State University found that money arguments predicted future divorce more than arguments about other topics like children, sex, or in-laws.
My third thought, and this is where you come in to help in exchange for my fun activity, is that dialogue and communication is probably a main antidote to money-stress in relationships. Speaking not as a couples therapist, but rather as one is who pretending to play that role today, it seems that if we could talk to each other more and more clearly about money, we might improve both our finances and our relationships. So that’s the premise for this activity, and the reason for asking you to help.
What if you set aside 30 minutes with your partner and committed to asking each other the following 12 questions? And then, what if you really listened to the answers?
- What life lessons about money did you learn from your parents that make financial planning today difficult?
- How would you feel if you knew you would only ever earn on average only one-quarter of what your partner earns, per year? Would that alter your personal identity, or your relationship?
- If you won the lottery, such that you never had to work again to cover your lifestyle costs, would you quit your current job? (Entirely theoretical question because mandatory PSA: Never buy a lottery ticket.)
- What secret belief do you have about money that you would be ashamed to share, except with your partner?
- What would “being wealthy” look like for you and your partner? Be specific. What would it mean that you could do?
- From a financial perspective, what worries you most about your partner?
- If your adult children struggled financially to make ends meet, but were otherwise healthy and able-bodied, how much would you feel obligated to support them financially? Do you get or expect any financial help from your parents?
- Does the idea of dying with unpaid debts bother you?
- Do you believe you will be wealthy someday, but aren’t sure how to make it happen?
- Imagine your partner proposes an investment opportunity that has a 10 percent chance of going to zero, but a 90 percent chance of doubling in value in a year, do you approve? What if this is a small portion of your investible assets? What if it is half your investible assets?
- How would you respond if your partner suddenly told you about $25,000 of debt you didn’t know about before, and that they had hidden from you? What circumstances would justify you hiding the existence of debts from your partner?
- Would you feel comfortable with your partner having a separate spending account and spending power that you never have access to and cannot monitor? Would you trust yourself to have a spending account that your partner never saw?
In addition to trying this experiment, could you help me make this better? These questions came from my own head, but I bet there are another 10 even better questions we should be asking our partners. Can you send me a few of your best ideas? What question do you wish you’d asked your partner before you got married? What question do you wish your partner would ask you, even now, about money? What money problems have plagued your relationship? Help me make this a more useful tool, and I promise to share the results. Anonymously, of course.
A version of this post ran in the San Antonio Express News and Houston Chronicle.
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