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Ask an Expert: How to manage money in your relationship, according to a marriage counsellor

Welcome to our new “Ask an Expert” series: our monthly column where we feature expert tips on all things money, health and life. In this month’s piece, we ask relationship counsellor Theresa Pong on how to blissfully and healthily manage your finances as a couple.

Finances are tough enough to manage on your own — but add another person to the equation and boy, does it get more challenging. According to Theresa Pong, marriage counsellor at The Relationship Room, money is a common trigger for relationship tension among the clients she sees. “The underlying issues for conflicts are often related to unmet needs and wants and different perceptions about money,” shares Theresa. 

As stressful as it is, money is a crucial subject to bring up a relationship to build trust early on. But how can you get on the same page as your partner? What are some questions to ask? What are some boundaries to set? And how can you set aside your differences and work towards a common goal? 

Below, Theresa offers her tips on how you can handle the delicate topic of money in your relationship and her expert advice for couples looking to bridge their differences in money matters. 

Q: How can couples bring up the topic of money in the early stages of the relationship?  

Theresa Pong: If you’re dating, this would be a good time to observe how your partner perceives money.  For example, does your partner view money as a means to security and safety?  Or do they view money as a way to enjoy experiences and build relationships?  Such perceptions can definitely have an impact on the relationship.   

How an individual perceives money can also impact and influence how he/she manages money.  For example, if someone views money as a way to enjoy experiences and build relationships, he/she is likely to be willing to spend more on areas that fulfil these needs.  However, if one views money as a means to security and safety, he/she is likely to make financial decisions to fulfil these. 

More importantly, courtship is a time to observe how one manages his/her money. Is your partner prudent about spending or lavish about his/her finances? Are they able to spend within their means or having difficulty in even paying the monthly bills?  

While it may be difficult, It’s good to set time aside and have a talk related to finances. Be open to listen to each other and avoid judging or criticising the others’ money habits. A safe space is key to building trust in a relationship and trust is vital in building a strong marriage. 

If you’re dating, this would be a good time to observe how your partner perceives money.  For example, does your partner view money as a means to security and safety?  Or do they view money as a way to enjoy experiences and build relationships?  Such perceptions can definitely have an impact on the relationship.   

Q: What kinds of questions should they be asking? 

If you’re seriously considering marriage, some questions that both of you should ask each other during courtship include:  

  • What are your dreams and goals in 5 to 10 years? 
  • What do you normally splurge on? 
  • What do you normally save on? 
  • What are your financial commitments?  (e.g. monthly allowance for parents, car loans, further education) 
  • Open communication about monthly income, expenses, or debts (if any) 
  • Do you foresee us combining our finances or sharing our debts? 
  • What’s your budget for wedding / marriage / house / renovation? 

 

Understanding each other’s perspectives can help couples build emotional resilience.  With emotional resilience, couples are able to better overcome their differences and work towards a common solution. 

Q: One partner likes to save, the other loves to spend: What advice would you give to couples with different money habits?  

Try to understand each other’s needs and concerns, and keep an open stream of communication in order to understand each other.  Often, individual perspectives are influenced by childhood and other experiences.   

For example, if one partner wants to send the children to multiple enrichment classes, while the other partner feels that it would put a strain on the family finances, I would highly recommend that the couple takes time to address the emotions rather than the actions.  In this instance, it could be that one partner feels anxious about their children struggling academically while the other partner is worried about struggling financially.  

Understanding each other’s perspectives can help couples build emotional resilience.  With emotional resilience, couples are able to better overcome their differences and work towards a common solution.

Image credit: Joanna Nix (via Unsplash)

Q: Joint accounts or separate accounts? If the latter, how can they decide who to spend on what?  

There is no one-size-fits-all answer to this question. Couples may need to consider how viable and convenient it is to keep separate or joint accounts.  More importantly, they should ask themselves if they have trust in each other regardless of what they choose to adopt.  

Whatever the decision is, it is important for couples to set boundaries.  For example, some couples can agree to consult the other party if they need to spend more than a certain amount – for instance, $1000. 

Q: What are your thoughts on “financial infidelity” (i.e. hiding existing debts, incurring expenses without the other party’s knowledge)? Should this be a cause of concern?  

Trust is key to a strong and lasting marriage.  All aspects of marriage require trust.  Trust, once broken, is hard to rebuild.  Given that, honesty and accountability to each other, especially in financial matters, are important in a marriage. 

A safe space is key to building trust in a relationship and trust is vital in building a strong marriage.

 

Q: What are some common causes of financial tension in relationships – and how can couples overcome them?  

We met with a couple who had been under marital tension for many years.  After processing with the couple, we realised that the cause of tension went back to courtship days when both husband and wife painted a vision of what their marriage would look like.  This [vision] involved them staying in a private property with the wife staying at home to care for their children.   

As time passed, however, they found that this ideal was not possible based on their current income.  The wife continued to work hard so that they could achieve the dream together.  On the other hand, the husband had a shift in his mindset.  He wanted to slow down and prioritise family relationships and mental well-being over work. 

This naturally caused a lot of resentment and tension in the relationship.  The wife, who had pressed on in achieving their dream, perceived her husband’s lack of drive as a failure to understand her needs/wants. At the same time, the husband felt sad that they viewed their finances and priorities in life in such different ways. 

Through counselling, we helped the couple to understand each other’s perspectives and personal struggles. This built a deeper emotional connection between them and they were able to pursue a common goal in their marriage. 

  

Q: How would you advise couples dealing with changing dynamics, whether that’s parenthood or dealing with changes in income? 

Marriage is not the means to the end.  Rather, it is a journey of growth that requires one to constantly learn to adapt to meet the others’ needs through every season. In every season, there are new changes – couples should have a mutual trust as well as the ability to safely communicate their needs and challenges with each other.  

 

A new tool to deepen your financial intimacy and compatibility 

Level up your financial intimacy with Autumn’s new Circles feature. Through Your Circles, you can add your significant other on the app, and use it as a pretext for your money conversations. Share your savings, key insurance policy information, and also create joint aspirations together as a couple. Download Autumn and try it for yourself today. 

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity. 

 

Enjoyed this article? Find more useful tips on money, health and life on the Autumn blog, and watch this space for more stories. 

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