The Effect of Income Roles on Relationships
If you are a couple, your spouse's contribution to the family finances is a critical component to your relationship health. When one spouse's idea of a fair contribution is different from the others or if something causes the financial balance to shift unexpectedly, that's when problems arise. The best way to avoid this is to have an understanding of what the roles are. These guidelines will help you to have this discussion with your mate in a cool, positive way.
First, take a birds-eye view of your financial situation. Write down where you are today versus goals in four main categories: Debt, Cost of Living, Savings and Income. These all play a critical role in your financial soundness and ultimately your happiness as a couple.
It's important for you both to understand and acknowledge where you are in relation and where you want to be. Start your discussion with the facts. What are the current debts? List them, and include payments, balances, and interest rates to help you prioritize. Also list your cost of living expenses. This includes food, gas, utilities, and any other recurring day-to-day costs that are not from a lender.
Don't forget to list irregularly billed expenses such as taxes, insurance, car registration, tuition, etc. As far as savings, how much are you paying yourselves first before everyone else gets their cut? Is there anything in particular you need to save for besides retirement? Are you meeting your savings goals?
Once you have these figures in front of you, the goal is to come to a mutual decision about appropriate next steps. If you are in a one-income relationship, you may have to approach this discussion carefully. Your significant other may feel threatened or get defensive or claim they are "not good" at this sort of thing and you are so much better. Let them know it's important for you to work on this together, that you don't want to make all the important decisions alone and you value their input. It may also be a kinder, gentler way of telling them that you need help. This is a stressful responsibility, and you should not have to go it alone.
• DEBT: What is your current debt load compared to your goal? Is your debt load higher than you are comfortable with? Has your debt been growing?
• COST OF LIVING: Do you and your spouse feel that the day-to-day expenses are reasonable, high, or unmanageable? The question is not whether they are necessary but whether they are manageable and reasonable. Set yourself a reasonableness threshold for expenses. Lenders consider 35-45 percent of housing expense (mortgage, insurance and property taxes compared to gross monthly income) to be a reasonable level of expense. Decide how much of your net income you choose to spend on daily maintenance and how much you choose to put away for yourselves or spend on quality of life purchases. If you are simply maintaining without saving or making occasional luxury purchases, you are setting yourself up for marital stress. Healthy relationships need down time that isn't spent worrying about how you're going to pay for everything.
• SAVINGS: Is it enough? Is it what you both wanted? What was the plan? Do you have one?
• INCOME: Is it enough? Are you both comfortable with the status quo? Do you, as a couple, need or want to earn more? What are you doing about it? What's the plan?
• Come up with some specific tactics/agreements around each of the four areas above. What can you do in each category to become more harmonious in your thinking and closer to meeting your goals? What's the game plan? Be specific. "I'll try harder" is not a tactic. If the conversation starts to go there, gently remind your spouse how much you love them and how important it is that you are in this together. Leaving decisions and plans around these important issues to one spouse is not healthy or right. You need to be equally vested in the plan or there is no plan.
• Have a deadline. Each action item should have a specific deadline attached to it. For example, you might decide to pay a $500 debt off in two months and a $10,000 debt in one year. You might decide to get off the Starbucks train immediately or start working out at home. Maybe it's as easy as keeping the thermostat at a particular temperature. Have a time horizon for all activities and tactics. What are you going to do? When are you going to start?
• Prepare for the deadline. If you decide that one of you is going to start working part time or start an online business, for example, it takes time to properly research, prepare, and get positioned for success in this endeavor. [Side note: This is where a business coach or mentor can be especially useful and recommended.] Allow for prep time as part of the plan. Help plan out the preparatory steps together. Understand that there may be some small investment necessary to get things started (i.e. wardrobe, website, sitters, etc.). Planning the details together makes the transition far less scary. Putting yourself or your spouse in the right mindset for change is an equally important part of the preparation. You have to want to change in order for it to work.
• Review your situation annually, and make adjustments as you go. This open, honest dialogue will keep you both feeling much more secure and supported. It will be a reminder of how important your financial health is to the family. It will be a recommitment that will get you to your goals sooner and keep you growing and thriving - together.
• The hardest part is over. You've talked about it, you've had "The Discussion" with your significant other. You know exactly where you stand. Is your mate in, or are they out? If this is a relationship that's for keeps, they're in, and they are grateful to you for bringing up a difficult subject and caring enough about your future together to do the hard work of figuring out how to make it grow.
• Now it's time to deliver on the promise. Did you agree to stop your dependence/addiction to spending? Did you agree to change some of your daily expense habits or look into shifting or paying down debt? Did you agree to a new savings plan? Did you agree to start working, work more, or do something different? Put your money where your mouth is. Show your spouse how important your relationship is to you. Live up to your agreements.
• If you are the non-working spouse or your earnings are not equivalent, make up for the income inequality in other ways. Provide equal non-monetary value. Do a great job taking care of the children and/or household, be a nice and pleasant person to come home to, be neat and clean, keep your personal expenditures within your budget. Understand that sole wage-earning responsibility is stressful. If what you are doing is equally stressful, opt to find work that pays better, hire help and go back to work, do something to improve your stress level and wage-earning capacity. If you are the wage-earning spouse, you are not off the hook for being pleasant, neat, and expense-conscious. Each person has to do their part. The most important thing in your relationship is the health of the relationship and your equal happiness. You won't find this equilibrium if one is more burdened than the other.
• Finally, set up a reward system for reaching milestones (one that doesn't involve buying/spending as a reward). And work in a big reward (i.e. a vacation, spa day) at the end when the goal is achieved. Take the time to enjoy each other's company and find ways that don't involve spending or worrying over money. A day of hiking, taking the kids/dogs to the park, having a poker night with friends, etc., can provide quality time together. And don't forget date night. Use this night not only to allow each other to be corny and sappy, but expect it. Fawn over each other from time to time. Flirt, do something sexy, dance, kiss, be alone, and love every minute of it.
Too many relationships end because of wedges that are caused by money issues. Inequalities lead to deteriorating respect. Less respect leads to less passion. Less passion and more worry lead to disaster. Don't be part of that statistic. Buck the trend. Recognize your issues before they have a chance to become serious. Put these commonsense tactics into place, and give your relationship a fighting chance.
Cindy Tansin is author of the book Lead With Your Heart and the Rest will Follow. Her expertise is in promoting personal and professional growth, addressing issues of mind, body, spirit - and financial soundness. Follow her at cindytansin.com.