Current Issue

My husband and I began our marriage as many couples do, long on love and short on cash. Our first financial problem began before we’d even said our vows. Richard had two more years of college to complete, and we’d spent all of our savings on the wedding, honeymoon, and setting up our new apartment. I got a job; and we struggled, but we survived. We learned to stretch our money, to live frugally, to search for bargains, and to buy used things. It was tough, but we were careful.

Richard graduated and got his first teaching job, and I continued to work, though part time. That’s when credit card companies began to court us. We accepted their invitations. We bought a mobile home and furnishings to fill it. And we stopped living on a careful budget. If we saw something we wanted, we bought it. If we didn’t have the ready cash, we charged it.

Then Richard lost his job, and suddenly we were deeply in debt—and scared. That began a nearly 20-year struggle with finances. Money problems bring some of the toughest stresses on a marriage. Couples argue, blame, and sometimes divorce when they’re under financial pressure. Through our long battle, though, our marriage stayed strong. Here’s what we found to keep marriages intact even when money is a problem.

Begin with prayer

James 5:13 says, “Is any one of you in trouble? He should pray.” We had spent a lot of time worrying about our finances. It was time to pray about them. We made a list of the debts we had accumulated and began to pray every day about each one. We prayed about our fears. We prayed for ways to communicate with the creditors. We prayed for insights into how to solve our immediate problems and learn from our mistakes.

Each time we paid off a debt, we crossed it off our prayer list. And each time was an opportunity to celebrate.

Talk about it

James 5:16 says, “Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.” When we lost control of our spending, we found it difficult to talk about the problem. We avoided it for a long time—not the fact that we were in trouble, but how we’d gotten there.

I finally said, “I’m afraid.” I was surprised at the look of relief on Richard’s face when he admitted, “Me too.”

Suddenly, we weren’t suffering alone. We had created the problem together. Now we were ready to work together to solve it. And once we sat down to talk, we were able to admit the mistakes that had brought the bill collectors calling, our credit being lost, and our needs being unmet.

Find problem areas

When financial troubles strike, the worst challenge to relationships is the temptation to blame: “If she hadn’t bought such-and-such,” or, “If he just made more money.” We realized that our financial difficulties were the result of a series of mistakes, emergencies, and bad decisions, and that we couldn’t pin the blame on just one of us. We had both made mistakes, individually and as a couple.

To find the mistakes you’re making, Deborah McNaughton, the founder of Professional Credit Counselors and the author of Financially Secure: An Easy-to-Follow Money Program for Women, suggests keeping a journal of where you’re spending your money. “It’s a reality check when you see it in black and white.”

Following are some questions to ask and answer: Where do you tend to needlessly spend—and waste—the most? How did your parents handle their money? Do you reflect their uses, misuses, obsessions, or spendthrift ideas? What issues crop up repeatedly? What attitudes and emotions are creating the inappropriate spending? Do you often spend out of revenge, depression, anger, or boredom?

Make your plans

McNaughton advises that when you’re ready to have a serious talk about finances, you make an appointment with each other at a specific time before your bill-paying day. We found it to be important to set aside a day away from home to do our planning. We spent our first planning day sitting at a picnic table by a lake. We began by talking about the dreams we shared: we wanted to adopt a child, to buy a home, to save for the future, and to pay cash for a car.

Now, every three months when possible, and every six at the most, we have a planning day. Whether it’s in a hotel, a park, or a restaurant, we review the past few months and look to the future. We’re honest. We listen to one another’s ideas. Sometimes we disagree. But overall, we leave the session happy with what we’ve accomplished. And we’ve found that when we talk about our plans, problems, solutions, and successes, not only does our financial situation improve, but we also grow closer to each other.

Share the responsibility

“Two heads are better than one,” McNaughton says. “If the checkbook handler doesn’t share what’s going on with the finances, his or her spouse won’t understand the family’s limits.”

Take equal responsibility for managing your money. That way you’ll both be informed, and you’ll understand your differences and plan around them. When you recognize your individual strengths and weaknesses, you can learn to use them to balance each other out.

Perhaps one of you is better organized and should be the one to pay the bills and balance the checkbook. The other may be better at finding ways to save money or to staying strongly—but not obsessively—tuned to the budget.

Get help

If your financial problems are too great and solutions seem impossible to find or you just can’t agree on what to do, you may need to seek help. Having a third party’s help—whether a professional financial counselor or someone on the staff of your church—is nothing to be ashamed of.

There are also numerous books and workbooks on the market that can help you set up budgets, find ways to get out of debt, and grow together in the financial area of your marriage. The important thing is to keep your marriage intact as you sort through your financial problems.

Pass it on

“Mom, why should I save money?”

“Couldn’t you just charge that and let me pay you back?”

“It’s not fair; I want to buy it now.”

Now we’ve begun communicating with our daughter what we’ve learned about finances. McNaughton says, “It’s great to begin early, but it’s never too late to start a game plan. The older you get, the more you realize the importance of saving and preparing for later.”

Some couples avoid talking about money. But the problems and conflicts don’t go away just because you ignore them. The present is always a good time to begin, whether you’re engaged, newlyweds, or have been married for 20 years.

During our 22 years of marriage, Richard and I have had our financial ups and downs. We’ve learned from some mistakes and created others. But through it all, we’ve learned to communicate.

It’s a cycle that changes and challenges us—a part of our marriage that has bent, yet not broken us. We continue to pray, to talk, and to learn.

Managing Marriage and $

by Kathryn Lay
From the February 2013 Signs