Getting to Know Each Other Financially Before Marriage

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.

Opposites Attract

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.

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  1. Tim @ Faith and Finance

    Hey Matt – great article!

    Both of my parents worked hard (+extra jobs) to provide and we never ‘skipped a meal,’ so I learned the value of earning every dollar.

    BUT…if there’s one thing they could have done a better of teaching, it would be SAVING. At times it seemed like feast and famine (not literally famine 🙂 …just tight sometimes). I wish they would have made a more conscience decision to save during the good times.

    I’ll always be grateful to them for wanting to provide the best for us kids, but wish that they would have saved more for THEIR future.

  2. Matt Bell

    Thanks, Tim. There are so many things that influence how we think about and do the whole money thing, and I think it gets especially interesting in marriage to see how each spouse’s family background plays out. Fortunately, both my wife’s parents and my parents did a good job of living within their means. I do wish my parents had spent more time proactively teaching me about money — something I’m trying to do with our kids — but the lessons I “caught” were good ones.

  3. Susan

    My husband and I did talk about finances before we married, but we are from such different backgrounds that we see money from entirely different viewpoints. It is the one major thing we argue about (he considers time as money, so how we spend our time comes in, too).

    My parents had very little in the early years, and while they had more in the later years of my childhood, it was never with any extra. I suppose they fell into the pit of “the more you make, the more you spend”. They saw money as a means to do what you want and need…now. My Dad, even to this day, says that money is only paper.

    They did not spend extravagantly or have a lot of “things”, but we as a family DID a lot of things…whether we had the money or not. They did not mind using credit cards now, because they reasoned they could pay them off after we were grown. The memories needed to be made NOW.

    I came away from their credit card struggles with a more sensible approach. I learned from their mistakes. However, I do believe in spending some of what you have for family “non-neccesities” like vacations. I do not believe in credit cards, but I do have empathy for those who feel they need them sometimes…I have been there as a single mom of 3, when I didn’t know of a better way to put food on the table

  4. Matt Bell

    Glen – Thanks for signing up for the blog – and It sounds like you gave your friend some good counsel.

    Susan – You bring up a great point – that even those who do talk about finances before marriage aren’t going to avoid financial disagreements. I think every healthy marriage involves disagreements. The key is learning how to disagree without damaging the relationship.

  5. Pat S.

    My wife and I came from different financial backgrounds. She was able to complete college with no debt, and brought much more in the way of assets to the relationship. I, on the other hand, have a high paying job but as of a few years ago- close to 62k in debt (at age 22). Talking about finances, debt, lifestyle, and the like has helped us not only get rid of all but around 20k in debt which is the remainder of my student loans consolidated at 3% which we are steadily attacking, but also build up considerable savings in Roth IRA and 401k plans as well as building up a strong emergency fund. Her way of living helped me start my journey towards a more financially responsible life, and kicked off what has been a great time learning to save, pay off debt, and invest for the future.

  6. Matt Bell

    Karl and Pat – Thanks for such encouraging notes that speak to the importance of opening up some conversations about money before marriage. The research shows that especially when it comes to money, opposites attract. That can either be a recipe for lots of disagreements, or we can learn from each other.

  7. Lee

    I identify so much with this article! My husband (also the son of a frugal Leave it to Beaver/professor dad family) was schocked when I revealed my student loan debt to him while we were dating. He paid cash for everything- school, cars, honeymoon, etc. My own “colorful” divorced parents were not quite as financially savvy, although my mom could certainly stretch a dollar- it was out of necessity, not financial principles.

    We discussed finances somewhat before marriage, but after marriage reality *really* hit us hard and we started attacking the student loans and learning to live (happily!) on less. Now, after 3 years of marriage, we have paid off half of my $55K school loans while living on 1 salary and paying cash for my husband’s grad school. When he graduates this summer and gets a job, we are looking forward to knocking them out ASAP and starting to save for a downpayment.

    I agree with all of the advice in this article! Sharing our financial goals and ideas has been a wonderful source of strength in our marriage and I wish the best for other dating/engaged couples out there.