What was your last fight about in your marriage? Money? Disagreements about money are very common, but dangerous. The more disagreements, the more likely a couple is to divorce. Professor Jeffrey Dews quantified the risk as 30% higher for couple who disagree about money once per week vs couples who disagree a few times per month. He cites other research that a feeling that a spouse spends foolishly increases the likelihood of divorce by 45% for both men and women. That is higher than even unfaithfulness or substance abuse. He also found that newly married couples with high levels of credit card debt spend less time together, fight more often, and report lower marital happiness. Clearly a healthy marriage must develop financial unity.
The Rule (and the Exceptions)
My wife, Melanie, and I build unity with the Fifty Dollar Rule. Neither of us can spend more than $50 on any one item without permission from the other. There is no magic to the $50 amount. For our income and spending, it represents more than an incidental splurge. We have to communicate about relatively larger decisions, but we are not handcuffed over simple choices like a meal out or the purchase of a book. You might choose a different amount for your marriage; the key is to agree on a limit and stick to it.
We allow a few practical exceptions. Monthly household bills (like electricity, etc.) are exempt. For gifts, we decide in advance how much we will spend on each other for Christmas and birthdays and any other special events. Then we stick to that budget. The grocery store is an exception, too. While no one item would be over $50, we expect the shopper to easily spend over the limit for the whole trip.
Last Christmas I was going to surprise Melanie with a new piece of jewelry fashioned from a tanzanite stone passed down in my family. It was much more expensive than I thought – about $600 for a pendant. That was far above the limit we had set for Christmas. I decided to abide by the rule and potentially ruin the surprise. I stepped outside the shop and called Melanie. I explained what I wanted to do for her gift. While she was touched by the idea, the cost was just too much. We agreed that we would not make the purchase. The surprise, though, was the phone call I got a few minutes later. Melanie was in tears as she said, “thank you for calling me about the jewelry. It means more to me that you wanted to make the decision together than the necklace ever would have meant.”
Melanie knew a couple many years ago who demonstrated why this rule is so critical. The husband went out one evening and brought home a new ATV, complete with several years of payments, without even discussing the purchase with his wife. The wife, rightfully upset at the new bondage of debt, spent her next lunch hour at the mall. She wasn’t just eating at the food court. In a binge of retaliatory spending, she bought over $400 of new clothes and shoes — on their credit card. Her spending wasn’t at the same level as his, but both of them damaged their marriage with reckless, unapproved spending.
Why Does it Work?
This simple rule works because of its assumptions. First, our money is our money. No matter whose name was on the paycheck(s), it all goes into one account. There is no separate money. That is why we need agreement on the use of our money. Secondly, the rule assumes consistent, practical communication. When we have higher dollar items to purchase, we have to work together to prioritize, shop, and select. More communication is always a good thing. Even at the toughest points of our marriage, we have always followed this rule, and it has been a big factor in our marriage’s success. Talk to your spouse today and agree on your own spending rule. It will strengthen your marriage.
Sean has been married to Melanie for almost 18 years. Follow him @SeanDurity.
Jeffrey Dews, The State of our Unions: Marriage in America 2009, University of Virgina Marriage Project
Catherine Rampell, “Money Fights Predict Divorce Rates” New York Times
For more insights from their marriage, try these articles by this contributor:
Marriage Communication Rule #1: No Green Peppers
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Hope when There is no Cure