Our children are now reaching the age where talks about romance have gone from the theoretical to the practical. We are past the ‘what is most important in a person’ discussion and the ‘what a person does means more than what they say’ conversation. It is down to the real business, the basics, of romance. In 2018, there is perhaps no more urgent topic than the intersection of love and money.
The longest relationship I had between my first marriage and the Queen, was an 18-month stint with a divorced mother of two. Her endearing qualities were regularly overshadowed by her eldest daughter’s incessant whining and credit card balances that led me to wonder if she had a secret life. We often talked about her debt woes, how the interest and payments were too high and as things stood she would never pay it off.
What began as a mostly passing concern on my part, when our relationship started, it was her problem, not mine; grew into a hesitating fear with the prospect of marriage. I began to realize then, what I am telling our kids now, that to marry-or date-is to do so with the whole person; the parts we like and those we prefer to do without. We fall in love with her beautiful smile and his quirky cute habits. We bring into our lives his family beach house and her six-figure salary with a 30% discretionary annual bonus. But we also get his mood swings, her short temper, and their horrific financial habits. We do not get the convenience of choosing what parts we date and the ones we don’t. We get the whole person, and that includes what and to who they owe money.
It would be that debt and her generally poor finances that made my decision to end our relationship all the easier.
There is a lot of conversation happening right now about the burden of student loan debt on millennials. Student loans so massive they prevent college graduates from moving out of their parents’ basement, buying a car, or having children. NYU recently announced they would begin offering free tuition for their medical students in response to ‘overwhelming student debt’, though it remains to be seen if this will be sustainable in the long term. As Lee Iacocca, the legendary CEO of Chrysler once said, ‘Volume times zero isn’t too healthy.’
Compared to my generation, student loan debt is now so pervasive, and excessive, that it will forever change the dating game for our kids. Where I only cared to know if she had a job or a venereal disease, today’s young adults need to worry less about physical health and more about financial health. I have told my stepson, a college senior, that excessive student loan debt should be a deal killer in a future spouse. She may have a fun personality and great body, but if both come with a $100,000 student loan for her 17th century French Literature degree, after ‘I do’ that will become his French Literature degree.
Yet the problem of money and romance is not just a millennial thing. As I experienced, it can be just as big of concern, or should be, for single and divorced parents.
Research indicates that money is an often-cited reason for the failure of second marriages. The first is by and large the kids, or more precisely intractable differences in parenting values. But the thing with money in any marriage, the first or fifth, is never really about dollars and cents – it always comes down to trust. The only real difference in a second marriage from a first marriage is that the values, habits, and expectations of each spouse have taken root in the soil of a previous relationship, have budded into anxiety and uncertainty, and will blossom almost immediately after the wedding. Most millennials do not have enough experience in life to establish such hard and fast views about finances, or much anything else. Like the rest of us, that comes after years of trial and error. Young newlyweds usually learn as the go.
But a woman whose former husband of ten years was financially controlling will recoil at allowing another man to dominate her financial decisions. She was there and knows where that ends. A man whose ex-wife was financially irresponsible will cringe at surrendering the authority of the family checkbook. He learned his lesson the first time. Both have opinions and beliefs about money formed in the crucible of past relationships. And nearly without exception, those experiences were in some way negative, which means that both are left to wrestle with the question, ‘In light of those past experiences, how much should I trust this person?’
But while every single and divorced parent may be nodding in agreement, where so many will fall short is taking the next step and doing the work of talking through all of it with their partner. Sometime back in a small group of blending families, a wife was sharing her resentment at her new husband’s child support obligations. She was comparing what he paid with what she received, and how that difference meant they were unable to do things she wanted for the family, upgrade houses, nicer vacations, a new car. While she had been aware of his support payments all along, they did not talk about what that could mean if and when they became a married couple.
A husband was frustrated that his wife’s credit card balances were preventing them from getting out of the apartment and into a house. Though she was upfront about her debt, they had not talked through what the implications of all that debt might be or how it might impact their lifestyle and future plans. In both situations, their failure to do the hard and tedious work led to predictable relationship problems even before their new marriages got off the ground.
Talking about any financial matter is never sexy. It is such a loaded topic that most of us hate to even think about it. I’m not aware of greeting cards that express thankfulness for financial prudence. The money talk feels so rehearsed, sterile, and methodical. But it is critical and to avoid that conversation is to build a home-and marriage-upon the sand. Not only must it happen, and must occur earlier in the relationship than one might guess. Waiting is to risk that deep emotional attachment forces the whole thing to be avoided fearing the outcome should it be brought up.
While no couple can check off every conceivable scenario, below are thoughts on a few of the more essential topics the Queen and I have experienced in our relationship or observed in others:
Transparency: Each person must be painfully honest about the details of his or her financial pasts, experiences, fears, and most importantly expectations. This may center around experiences with the family of origin or most likely a prior marriage. What were the lessons learned? What does money mean to each of you and how has it changed over time? Absolutely nothing can be hidden because the truth will eventually come out.
Divorce Decree: The details of any divorce settlement(s) or financial agreements ought to be shared. What is the spousal or child support situation, are there prior marital debts hanging around, have unique financial commitments been made, or are there lingering miscellaneous expenses from a previous marriage(s)? The Queen and I did this about a year after our relationship began.
Debt: Share your credit report details. We did six months into dating. Explain your current debt obligations. Ask yourself, will I be OK helping pay a debt from his prior relationship? Do not buy into the myth that it is ‘his problem.’ It will be yours as well. Would you be alright if her poor credit means you cannot buy a house after a marriage? Be honest about your credit profile and, if necessary, explain what and why there are deficiencies?
Child Support: This is the third rail for many remarried couples. The handling of child support, receiving or paying, must be spelled out very early in the relationship. What might it mean for your future hopes and goals? Is there a chance the payment might be reduced, or even raised down the road? We started talking about this soon after we started dating.
Lifestyle: Blending two families will always have an impact on lifestyles. The money challenges of single parenthood are usually compounded amid the complexities of blending family life. What are each other’s lifestyle expectations now and in the future? What about retirement goals, vacations, and, if necessary, which are willing to be negotiated?
Children: The financial obligations and expectations to and for children is a massive danger zone, and it much more than just child support. This one thing has been the predominant cause of the Queen’s and my financial disagreements since our marriage. What promises have been made to your kids, how have you handled finances as a single parent, and how does it all differ from you and your kids? Cars and auto insurance, cell phones, future weddings, clothing and college costs are examples that need to be understood. If she has agreed to pay for her kid’s colleges, but he says the kids are on their own, how will this be handled and explained to the respective children when they discover the difference? Should the new family situation make it unfeasible to meet those promises, what then?
I cannot express strongly enough that these conversations, and it is ongoing not just one-and-done, must happen before the marriage, and they must start as soon as the couple believes their relationship has a long-term future. Being proactive is critical; waiting until after the marriage means that the work will be harder and the consequences of failure higher. These talks will, at times, be intense. You will learn things about each other that will surprise and even disappoint you. But it is better to know and work through them early in a relationship than to deal with them after the wedding bells have stopped ringing. Do not avoid, ignore, or brush them off, to do so is a sure recipe for unhappiness.