“I’m leaving him,” came my friend’s defiant voice through my mobile.
“Why? What happened”? I gasped.
“Money,” came her one-word answer.
Money and divorce have been linked in recent studies, including one by TD Ameritrade, which found 41% of divorced Gen Xers and 29% of Boomers say they ended their marriage due to disagreements about money.
But, as I sat thinking about my friend’s divorce, I started to wonder: is money really the issue?
I took this question to Karen McCall, the Creator of MoneyGrit., Founder of the Financial Recovery Institute and a trailblazer in money coaching. She’s counselled people from all walks of life, including many couples.
While McCall agrees that marriage draws money into especially sharp focus, she believes that money issues are symptomatic of much larger deprivation areas, such as a lack of communication and unmet needs.
“So many people chalk divorce up to money. But truthfully, money is often the vehicle people use to air their grievances, command attention or get revenge. Really, the breakdown of a marriage is due to a lack of communication and failure to meet each other’s needs,” McCall says.
The good news? She has seen couples transform their relationship by communicating openly and paying close attention to each other’s needs.
I talk to Karen about how couples can get on the same page with their finances.
LGY: How do you recommend partners build a healthy financial foundation in relationships?
KM: Communication and honesty are paramount when it comes to having a healthy relationship with money.
We often sacrifice our own needs, whether it be a golf membership, yoga class or help around the house, because we feel we don’t deserve it or it’s a burden. Ignoring our needs and desires is guaranteed to lead to a feeling of deprivation or resentment.
Some couples find a money coach or therapist helps to open up communication lines, but I encourage couples to carve out some time to talk about how their feelings and what they need from the other person.
LGY: How have you seen open communication help troubled couples?
KM: I’ve seen it repeatedly, but this one transformation has stuck with me throughout my career.
I counselled a couple who struggled to understand each other. The wife wanted the bills paid the minute they came in, and the husband thought it was ridiculous. It created a lot of pressure in the marriage because neither felt seen nor heard.
I asked each of them to write their money autobiography, an exercise where I ask people to recall their earliest memories about money from childhood through adulthood.
As a young child, the wife shared how she had to dodge creditors and lie to landlords on behalf of her parents. Even though the couple was now middle class, the memories of unpaid bills caused her great anxiety.
She had never told her husband before, and the minute he heard her say it, he said, “Honey, I get it. We’ll pay the bills as soon as they come in.”
It was an “aha” moment. She no longer needed to pay the bills instantly. Just being seen and heard by him alleviated the pressure she felt.
I’ve seen, time and again, the power and strength in being vulnerable and sharing your truth.
LGY: On the topic of truth, you’ve mentioned another type of cheating in marriage, which you refer to as “financial infidelity.” What do you mean by that?
KM: One of the things that will tear a marriage apart is financial infidelity, which means not being open and keeping secrets. I’ve seen people go to great lengths to keep debt or purchases from their spouses.
Secrets are bound to come out, and the typical reaction of a partner is, “why are you keeping this from me?”
Right away, the secret has undermined the trust in the relationship.
LGY: Let’s talk a bit more about why someone may “cheat” when it comes to money.
KM: The root of most problems in marriage comes down to lack of communication and unmet needs.
I once met with a couple where the wife felt deeply unloved and unsupported. Her response was to overspend to get revenge secretly. It didn’t matter that they could afford it. What mattered is that she was trying to fill an unmet need, and she never succeeded because you can never get enough of what you don’t need. She needed love and attention. You can have all the money in the world but still feel deprived.
LGY: What can a couple do to foster a healthy relationship with their money?
KM: I recommend couples sit down with a good bottle of wine and plan. There is so much power in detailed planning – actually looking at the numbers – and recognizing the possibilities.
I’ve recently launched a money management program called MoneyGrit. which is excellent for guiding couples through their needs, wants and big goals.
At the beginning of the year and each month, I recommend sitting down together and thinking about your desired lifestyle. You can include your kids if they are older.
Discuss trips you want to take, experiences you’d like to share and big purchases or investments you’d like to make.
Apart from modelling good money behaviours for your kids, it relieves a lot of pressure from couples by eliminating what I call “decision fatigue.”
LGY: You’ve been a trailblazer when it comes to examining how our thoughts and feelings about money affect our relationships. What parting advice can you offer that couples don’t often hear.
KM: Take the time to try to understand why your partner feels and thinks the way they do about money. Tuning into your partner’s needs (even if unspoken) is what makes relationships thrive. Money touches every part of our lives, but it shouldn’t define a relationship.
By no fault of my partner, I had opted to hand over the proverbial financial keys to him when we got married, trusting him to make sound financial choices for both of us. This is not to say I wasn’t advised on all financial matters, I was, but I never gave it too much thought and put full trust in him. After coming to this realization and speaking about it with him, he assured me all is, and will be fine, but it was still troubling for me to realize just how little I knew about my family’s financial status and what our immediate future looks like without my income.
After years of managing my department’s budget it was both shocking and frustrating to recognize that I had placed such little priority in managing my own financial well-being.
How could I have left something this important, my personal financial success and security, fully placed in the hands of someone else, albeit someone I trust unequivocally?
It turns out I wasn’t alone in this, according to a UBS report, 56% of women surveyed stated they defer to their spouses for investment decisions and household financial planning. Now recognizing this huge misstep on my part, I seized the opportunity to turn this gap into an opportunity to educate and empower myself to be the chief financial officer of my future.