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Spouses and Financial Discussions


The complexity of modern financial life has grown exponentially over the years, requiring both spouses have an increased level of financial sophistication so the family can survive and thrive economically.

When I was a kid, I remember my dad sitting down with my mother once a week to review expenses and give her household allowance. Being at the post-war dawn of the Modern Woman, she chafed at this one-sided custom, started her own business and became financially educated and semi-independent. Quite radical for the times, it was.

Over the intervening years, the household model of the husband as the sole bread-winner who manages all the finances has seen a sea change. Most women now have jobs, sometimes the highest earning one, and the division of labor at home has adjusted accordingly.

In addition, the complexity of modern financial life has exponentially grown over the years, requiring both spouses have an increased level of financial sophistication so the family can survive, let alone thrive, economically. Ignorance in financial matters is a particularly expensive luxury these days at home and, as we continually highlight, in the medical practice as well. The days of "I let someone else understand the money/business end and I just take care of my patients/family" are not so justifiable anymore on either side, if they ever were.

Yet, innocence of such things abounds in marriages in the traditional one-sided mode. But family counselors and lawyers tell us that unresolved money issues are a factor in at least 70% of divorces. And, happily, many divorces or just untold discord could have been prevented with proactive planning.

Even for thriving marriages, rethinking the money management process can bear both financial and emotional comfort. It helps to realize that dealing with money matters can be a relationship builder as well as a potential wrecker. It's not a matter of who's right or wrong, necessarily, but of understanding normal differences and making accommodations, just like other aspects of marriage.

For instance, once you establish your basic mutual goals in life then you can construct the means. You know, paying debts, buying a home, saving for college and retirement and so on. Acknowledge your individual spending proclivities and then factor in how to manage the emotional and aspirational differences.

Get the best advice that you can from a CPA, a financial planner, an estate lawyer, the Internet and so on. This vital education is not provided at any level of schooling, as I always riff upon, so you are responsible to do it. The good news is that you get 100% of the benefit and have to please no one but yourselves.

After the initial effort to get things set up properly and in motion, a scheduled periodic review with each other and with your advisors will keep you on track and comfortable that you have some measure of control of the things that you can control. For the things that you can't — like natural disasters, health surprises and financial market skews — you will have an emergency plan and fund, insurance and legal documents for probable contingencies.

Now the rub in all of this is emotion and unexpressed expectations. "That's not the way my parents did it!"; "I don't like paying the bills — you do it!"; "What do you mean you spent $XXXX, (and on something that I consider frivolous)!" And you cite more such things that you have heard, said or felt emotionally.

Let us also not forget that too often money becomes the stand-in for power struggles and other unresolved issues in relationships. So recognizing all of these issues and planning to manage them become both a prevention method and a step toward the resolution of existing problems.

Everyone needs to feel valued and respected in their marriage and wants to find happiness in each other rather than in escaping to an empty materialism. But it can and does happen to work out that way all too often. So knowing your financial role in your relationship is just as important for comity as your spousal and parental roles.

There is the promise of great success when we communicate, collaborate, follow through and then celebrate. Sounds easy when you put it that way.

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Victor J. Dzau, MD, gives expert advice
Victor J. Dzau, MD, gives expert advice