To Have and to Hold, to Save and to Spend: Financial planning for two

I recently attended a wedding. The couple was in their 20s, and prior to the wedding I talked with the groom about some of their potential financial problems and stress related to money. That conversation generated several key take aways that are always good reminders.

Both parties want to be financially successful!

I have yet to find a couple in which one partner was intentionally trying to sabotage the finances to spite their spouse. There are certainly examples of financial addiction and abuse in marriages, but the vast majority of the time both paries want to be successful individually as well as together. The problem, therefore, is not one person, but an agreement on what it means to be financially successful as a team.

Definitions matter

At the wedding, the groom mentioned they experienced stress because the wife placed a lot of value on security (don’t all women!) and the husband had a mindset of “you only live once.” And guess what? They're both right!  Their conflict resided in the practical application of these values. Good financial planning is not about sacrificing all pleasures for future security, it is about a balance. That balance requires communication and reevaluation at every major life change.

Effective communication is the key to any successful financial plan

Finding the differences in attitudes towards money is only the first step. Being able to have conversations that effectively address those issues is absolutely essential to having a success financial plan and living compatibly with your spouse.

After this discussion, the groom and I were still left with the question of how to resolve this tension. The truth of financial planning is that there is rarely ever a solution that works in every situation. To me, this is what makes my job so interesting. There are always multiple solutions, and every client is going to need something slightly different in his or her (and in this case their) situation! Here are some of the potential solutions that the groom and I discussed, hoping to place both bride and groom on the same page.

Option 1: Find the definition of financial security.

The bride wants security, but security does not have to mean "always saving, never spending". If security is a driving force for a spouse, there may be ways to compromise while still allowing your spouse that secure financial net to fall back on.

This sense of security can be different for different people – a certain amount of money in the bank (this can vary greatly between people), a certain monthly income, a car paid off, a strategy in place to retire comfortably, a strategy for how they are going to pay for their children’s college or any number of things. Once these basic needs are met, it can free a person to begin to experience more enjoyable things in life and begin to spend more because – the groom is right – you do only live once. So begin by defining what security means to you and your spouse.

Option 2: Prioritize spontaneous spending.

For the groom, value was placed on enjoying the things that were important to him because life is short. To him, going through life without experiences, no matter how costly, would be failing financially, even if it meant that he was able to retire early or pay for his children’s college or never have to worry about money again.

Decide what’s important in spontaneous spending. Perhaps you and your spouse decide that you are going to value big spontaneous events – an exotic trip, tickets to watch your favorite college football team play in a bowl game, or that once in a lifetime front row seat at your favorite artist's concert. On the other hand, perhaps you and your spouse value the finer things in daily life – a nice car, season tickets to the theatre, ballet or sporting events, eating healthy, or regularly entertaining guests.

Option 3: Spend and save consciously

Know what the triggers are for spontaneous spending – is it something that you do when you are stressed or is it when you just can’t live without an experience? If it’s in response to a negative emotion, perhaps you can explore healthier ways of dealing with that stress then binge shopping. If it’s in relation to a positive event – you just couldn’t imagine missing the big game – then perhaps your household would benefit from setting up a “spontaneous fund” so that money can be taken out of “savings” without compromising security.

With a line item in your budget for spontaneous spending, you can better consider how that money is spent. For example, instead of buying the best seats at the game, consider sitting in a less expensive section or instead of staying at a four or five star hotel, you consider a three star hotel or perhaps lease your next car instead of buying a new car. This will allow spontaneous spending that keeps in mind both secure savings and future spontaneous spending.

While I enjoyed my conversation about marriage and finances with the soon-to-be newlywed, it wasn’t going to help fix their situation. Luckily, the groom knew that. His question to me was, “How do we talk about this?” which is a key question. He hit the nail on the head – it’s hard to talk about money. Working with a financial planner is a very effective way to begin the conversation around money. As a financial advisor, it is part of my job to provide a forum and the tools to help couples effectively talk about money.

Financial planning for two, forever

In the end, the newlyweds still had a lot of work to do. This was only the first financial planning conversation for the marriage, and there would be many more to come. It can be difficult in any relationship – new or old – to talk about money, but understanding the importance of communication and talking with a financial planner helped give this groom the tools he needed to start a happily-ever-after conversation with his bride.