Holly Todd realized money was a problem in her marriage from the beginning.
Soon after tying the knot, she moved to Virginia where her new husband was stationed in the Army. Before they were married, they had similar incomes and split everything evenly. But once she left her job to move with him, she stopped contributing to the bills. Then her (now ex-)husband created some conditions.
“He always thought I was taking extra money from him and hiding it,” 29-year-old Todd says. “He checked receipts after I went shopping. He would give me an allowance, and he always wanted to know how I was spending money.”
The Margate, Florida resident didn’t realize money was a huge factor before marriage, and she isn’t the only one. A January survey from Experian shows that nearly 60 percent of divorcees admit that money played some role in their breakup. In relationships where finances played a major role, most blame their spouse’s spending and debt.
Rod Griffin, director of public education for Experian, says it’s those couples that didn’t even talk about money to begin with.
“A large percent of respondents said the only thing they knew about their future spouse [before getting married] was their annual income,” Griffin says. “They really didn’t know the person.”
Todd admits neither her nor her ex were good with money, but being in the Army meant they didn’t worry too much.
“We were doing really well. I kept track of the bills and made sure they were on time,” she says. “But he had to have the latest of everything — video game systems, phones, expensive food. Our cars had to look perfect.”
They worked on their problems. They went to marriage counseling a few times — but Todd says it didn’t help. Within a few weeks, they discovered she was pregnant and the arguing stopped for awhile.
They were together for three years before saying “I do,” and divorced after five years of marriage. One-third of marriages in the Experian survey lasted 1-5 years — the largest bracket when it comes to length of marriage. Experian’s Griffin says it tends to go back to the person you married.
“A lot of people don’t want to dive into money issues and stare at them openly because they think it will create conflict. But the lack of open, positive conversation is what creates conflict,” he says.
And that conflict can be big. Two-thirds of survey respondents said their ex’s spending habits were different than expected before getting married. It’s higher among women: 71 percent vs. 60 percent of men.
Across the board, divorced couples knew less about their spouse’s salary, student loan debt, bill payment history, long-term financial goals, retirement savings, and credit score. Forty percent say they discussed finances monthly and 21 percent said they talked about them weekly. But Griffin isn’t convinced they were productive conversations.
“Were they talking about money in terms of achieving their financial goals together or were they arguments?” he asks. “If the talk was about something that already happened, it doesn’t help the financial situation. If the talk is how to work together to hit common financial goals in the marriage, that’s a completely different thing. That’s a positive thing.”
For her part, Holly Todd admits money talks should’ve happened early and often. If she had to do it over again, she would’ve made it a point to talk about budgeting for everything, including emergencies.
“As uncomfortable as it is sometimes I learned you have to talk about money and be on the same page,” she says. “You need to know who’s going to pay for what and what’s going to happen if one person becomes unemployed or injured. It was tough to talk about and we just didn’t.”
Griffin seconds that, saying money should be talked about near-daily and before marriage.
“Put credit reports on the table, get copies of them together and look at your financial situation to set realistic goals,” he says. “If you work together to have financial goals, to make it a positive environment, you’ll avoid money arguments later.”
How to talk about money
It might be uncomfortable to talk about money in any form — Griffin says it’s still taboo — but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be happening.
“When you’re dating, the question shouldn’t be ‘what’s your sign?’ but rather, ‘what’s your score?’” he says. “We tend to approach money from a perspective of being a problem, like not having enough, or not being able to do what we want.”
But we should stop thinking about it as a problem and more about how to utilize it.
Uncomfortable conversations are going to happen whether you want them to or not. To avoid a divorce where money was a factor, make sure you talk about your finances before even considering tying the knot.
Griffin says to learn each-other’s credit histories. Talk about your financial goals, like when you’d like to buy a home or if you’d like to have children. If you have issues you need to work out, maybe things like home-buying get delayed, but at the very least, you’ll be on the same when it comes to money. Regardless of your choices, Griffin says you should talk about money regularly.
“Secrets in marriage can be problematic,” he says. “Financial secrets will undermine marriage more than anything else.”
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