Don't let money ruin your marriage

Financial tensions are partly to blame for boomers' record divorce rate. How to make love, not war.

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By Dan Kadlec, Money Magazine contributing writer

Dan Kadlec is co-author of The Power Years, a guide for boomers. E-mail him at

(Money Magazine) -- When we married 22 years ago, my wife and I started with two old cars and not much more. I had spent my last dime on our honeymoon; she was just finishing school. At the time it seemed as if years would pass before we'd have the income to travel again. So without telling her, I began to sock away $20 a week. It was my secret vacation fund - and, it turns out, my first act of financial infidelity.

Nearly every spouse occasionally fudges numbers. My wife once brought home a fancy flat-faced kitten that cost way more than she admitted at the time. We ended up chuckling about it - and my vacation fund too, after we raided it to make ends meet one month long ago.

But like most couples, we sometimes experience more serious tension when allocating our resources. Marriage counselors say that half of all couples fight about spending and that money issues are a driving force behind most divorces. Learning to peacefully resolve such disputes may be the key to a lasting relationship.

Certainly we boomers, who are splitting up at a record clip, could use the help. Among couples who married for the first time in the 1980s - yes, that's our generation, folks - just 60% were together 15 years later. That's down dramatically from the roughly 80% of first marriages in the 1950s that lasted at least 15 years. We confront money stresses that our parents never experienced, and while these aren't the sole cause of quicker breakups, they compound tensions that may already be there.

Let's tackle these boomer marital challenges one at a time.

Dual incomes, double trouble

Boomers are the first generation to have its female members enter the work force en masse, and the benefits are obvious - greater empowerment for women and more financial security for the family.

But the accompanying shifts in the balance of power between spouses can exacerbate clashes over spending, saving and goals. If he says, "You spent how much on what?" she's now more likely to feel mad, not guilty: "Hey, I work, it's my money too, and you can't tell me what to do with it!"

With two earners under one roof, it's also a lot easier - financially speaking - to break up. "When you both make money," says Gemma Allen, a family attorney at Ladden & Allen in Chicago, "you're both more able to pack up and leave, and the temptation to do that at times is strong."

Before you think about heading for the exit, try giving yourself what's probably a long-overdue attitude adjustment. Guys, take heed: The financial rules of marriage have changed, and it's time you started acting like it. Stop behaving like Lord of the Money, with the titular right to decide how much your household should spend, where to invest and what your financial priorities should be. In the post-Ozzie and Harriet era, managing the family's money is a team sport.

And ladies, remember: While it may be easier now to pull the marital rip cord, divorce is still a financial disaster for most couples - and the wife's standard of living takes the bigger hit.

When you do discuss money issues, frame the conversation in a way that defuses emotional land mines, Allen says. Start on neutral ground, talking over coffee or lunch, perhaps; getting out of the house sets a more businesslike tone and helps both of you stay on your best behavior.

And focus on the goal, not your judgment of your partner's behavior. How you can pay off a particular credit card given your income and expenses is a fruitful topic. Debating who charged more frivolously to run up the balance in the first place is not.

(Too) great expectations

Sure, couples have always argued about how to spend money. But they have never had quite so much to argue about. We are a prosperous generation, inundated with opportunities to buy things and only too willing to believe a media blitz that declares we deserve it all.

"We are in an era of unparalleled consumption aspirations," says Pamela Smock, a researcher at the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research. "We want the life we see all over the Internet and TV."

End the sparring over who's entitled to get more of what they want by setting a simple house rule: You are each able to spend up to, say, $250 with no questions asked. But above that limit you will consult each other. If your spouse nixes a bigger-ticket item that you want, try explaining why it's so important to you and find out why he is so resistant (you can always stomp off in a huff later).

If your husband knew you were eager to send your kids to sleepaway camp because you never got to go and feel you missed out on a great experience, he might be more open to the idea. And if you understood just how worried he was about big bills putting the family in debt, maybe you'd find a cheaper program.

The big squeeze

Our parents have lived longer than anyone expected, and they're reaching their feeble years at the worst moment - as our kids are off to college. There's a reason boomers are called the Sandwich Generation, and the financial stress of being the meat in the middle takes a toll on couples.

Part of the problem is that the expenses involved are so big they may threaten other important goals. If one spouse wants to take a leave from work to care for an ailing parent, the other may fear the move will undermine his or her own retirement prospects.

Divisions can also arise over how much support to give. Take college. Odds are, if you paid your way through college with loans, you think that's okay for your kids; if your parents paid, you want to pay. And it doesn't end: About half of kids who leave the nest move back home for a while.

You and your spouse need to find a level of help you can agree on- probably less than one of you wants and more than the other thinks you can afford. Resist the urge to make emotional entreaties and focus on finding practical solutions. Maybe you can shift to a part-time schedule instead of taking a leave. Have your kids take out loans to defray college costs, but promise to help with the payments.

Such compromises may do more than save your marriage. They can teach your kids the value of a dollar - and possibly a thing or two about how to work things out.  To top of page

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