When my husband and I started merging our financial lives, we approached it in what seemed like a reasonable fashion. We each had separate accounts where our income would get deposited and a joint account that we used to pay common expenses. We each contributed half of what was due to the joint account; the rest stayed in our individual accounts to be spent as we each saw fit.
The system worked fine for us for a while, especially when we were both equally broke. It seemed fair and it allowed us to maintain some autonomy. As time went on, we each started to make more money but not always in equal proportion to one another. Splitting up what we had into relatively equal, albeit small, pieces of pie became one of us having a big piece and the other a much smaller slice. The one with the big piece of pie wound up controlling where the ‘extra’ money went. Even though it often went to something to benefit us as a family, the decision-making process was as unequal as the helpings of pie themselves.
Negative feelings started to compound until eventually the truth came barreling out along with all of the pent up emotion that had been building up over time. My husband felt strongly that the answer was for us to start pooling the vast majority of our incomes so that we could make decisions together about where the money would be spent. Before he had even finished suggesting it, I knew I was totally against it. What I didn’t understand until later was why.
At the time, I just thought he was wrong. I didn’t see any reason why what we were doing wasn’t working. After many more conversations on the subject, something he said finally seeped into my brain. I’m not sure why but I was eventually able to hear that it wasn’t just about the finances, it was about having equality in the relationship and it was about feeling like we were making decisions as a team.
When I saw how important this was to him, I had to at least start considering his proposal more seriously. Even then I still felt strong resistance to the idea of combining the money. I’m not talking about “I don’t feel like going to the gym” kind of resistance; I mean “I’m afraid of heights, there is no way you are getting me to go sky diving” kind of push back. I started to ask myself why I was having such a hard time with something that seemed so simple and as I thought about it more, I realized that in just about every adult relationship I observed as a child, the combination of love and money had been disastrous. Without even knowing it, I had taken a lesson from those experiences: love and money absolutely do not mix.
Whether we know it or not, we have all taken away lessons about money from our experiences in life. Most of the time these beliefs are subconscious but they can be very powerful influencers over the choices that we make, both good and bad. The lesson might be something as simple as ‘a penny saved is a penny earned’ or ‘don’t put all your eggs in one basket’. It can also be a little more emotion laden. Think of the person in your life who grew up during the Great Depression. An experience like that has influenced a generation to believe things like ‘you can’t trust the banks’ or ‘I could be poor again at any moment’. Subsequently, those folks have made choices that align with their beliefs. Perhaps they diligently saved all their money (along with every plastic bag, twist tie and Tupperware container). Or maybe they kept the money under the mattress.
The tricky part about our money beliefs is that while they are based in truth, they often don’t reflect the whole truth. Consider someone who grew up in a family that faced a foreclosure. They might grow up to believe that debt is dangerous. That belief is absolutely true in some cases and it could lead to good financial behavior like not abusing credit cards. But if that person holds that attitude about debt in every circumstance, they might forego college to avoid student loans, never buy a home to avoid a mortgage, or never borrow money to start their own business.
It’s important to recognize that there is an underlying truth behind our money beliefs, so the purpose of identifying them isn’t to dispel them. It’s to see them more accurately and determine when they apply and when they don’t, so they don’t influence our behavior in detrimental ways.
For me, it was a process of first realizing what it is I believed, next figuring out why I believed it and finally challenging myself to ask whether that belief was true in every circumstance. I realized that even though my intentions were good, insisting on keeping the money separate wasn’t making things better; it was actually causing the conflict I had been trying to avoid all along.
Since sharing this with my husband, we’ve been able to create a system that works better for both of us. I don’t know that we’ve saved more or spent less but we have absolutely reduced our stress and conflict around money. It might not show on our balance sheet, but in my world that is worth a lot.
For more information on examining your money beliefs, ask us or check out the book Mind Over Money by Drs. Brad and Ted Klontz.