Five months into their dating relationship, Julie and Sam went to see the Chicago Cubs play at Wrigley Field. In the midst of an enjoyable outing, the topic of money came up. When Julie mentioned that she was carrying a $1,200 balance on a credit card, the flow of conversation suddenly turned into an extended awkward silence. Sam remembers feeling stunned, like a batter hit by a hard curveball that seemed to come out of nowhere. To him, carrying a balance on a credit card was nothing short of irresponsible.
Scrambling for something to say, he only made matters worse by offering to loan Julie enough money to pay off her balance. Julie felt judged.
As difficult as that conversation was, it ended up spurring more conversations that helped this couple learn more about the source of each other’s financial habits and attitudes.
Sam came from a stable, middle-class family. His dad was a college professor and made extra money in the summer painting houses. They lived within their means, always bought used cars, and saved diligently for their annual family vacation. They weren’t rich, but they always had enough money in the cash drawer in the kitchen for groceries and other essentials. For most of his growing-up years, Sam’s parents bought everything with cash. Julie jokingly says that Sam’s family is right out of Leave It to Beaver, a sitcom from the fifties and sixties about an idealized suburban family.
Julie describes her own family as “somewhat more colorful.” Her parents divorced when she was five. While her mom had a reputation for knowing how to stretch a dollar further than most, money was always tight. During the years between the divorce and Julie’s leaving the nest, there was just one family vacation, a trip to Florida. Julie’s mom still reminisces about it.
A few days after the credit card conversation at Wrigley Field, Julie told Sam of a time when she had to help her mom make her mortgage payment. Sam felt much more empathy. Julie also told him that she once had a balance of over $10,000 on credit cards and had paid it off before they met.
Still, she felt comfortable carrying a balance and was in the habit of occasionally letting balances build up on her cards. She always found it manageable on her salary. However, as she learned more about Sam’s upbringing, she understood why he hated the idea of carrying a credit card balance, and she quickly paid off her balance.
Tracing the Roots of Our Financial Beliefs and Behavior
Julie’s and Sam’s spending habits and attitudes were clearly influenced by how each of them was raised. The same is true for all of us, which is why it’s so important to spend a lot of time talking about money with the person you are thinking about marrying before you actually do get married.
Talk about how each of your families dealt with money. Was money always scarce or was there enough? How often did your parents fight about money? What were some of the main lessons you learned from your parents, either through their direct teaching or through their example? In what ways are your current financial beliefs and habits similar to those of your parents?
Today, after about a year of marriage, Julie credits those first conversations about money that she and Sam had with leading them to a place of greater freedom. “When we got married, there was nothing about our spending habits that we didn’t know about each other.”
How did your parents influence the way you use money? Please leave a comment below.
This article was adapted from Matt Bell’s new book, “Money & Marriage: A Complete Guide for Engaged and Newly Married Couples,” which has just been published by NavPress. This week, Amazon is offering the Kindle edition of the book for free.