When a couple gets married, one of the first things that have to decide is who will pay the bills and make financial decisions.
Ideally, both people in the relationship would make joint decisions and have open discussions about their finances, but unfortunately, this seems to rarely happen. Instead, they may talk out large purchases, but the day to day household spending, budgeting and bill paying seems to fall on one partner.
This is generally a bad idea for both parties.
What Can Go Wrong When One Spouse Handles the Finances Solely
Trust Violation in the Marriage
When I was in graduate school, I had a friend whose family had recently survived a bombshell. My friend, who was 30 at the time, had found out within the last few years, that not only had her dad been cheating on her mom for over 20 years, but that the relationship had produced a son who was then 13. In addition to her younger sister, my friend had a 13 year old stepbrother she had just found out about.
How is infidelity for this long possible?
My friend largely attributed it to her mother’s disinterest and lack of involvement in family finances. Her dad had handled all of the bills and budgeting for both the household and his construction business; her mother was happy to let him handle it and had no part in the family finances, which made it very easy for her dad to maintain a separate relationship and later pay child support for 13 years without anyone being the wiser.
Likewise, we have all heard stories of financial infidelity where one spouse racks up thousands of dollars of debt and the other partner has no idea. In a recent edition of Money, one woman confessed,
I was married for a very long time and we had a kind of unspoken agreement that he would pay the household bills. My understanding was that our income was adequate to cover our expenses. I never really questioned him. But he was using his credit card in order to take care of household things that we didn’t have the money to pay for.
We separated about two and a half years ago and, through the course of the divorce, I was shocked to find out there was $80,000 of credit card debt.
Because she is the high wage earner, she is still responsible for paying down the debt they held jointly, even if she just found out about it. She herself admitted that she had little interest in their finances; had she been more proactive, perhaps he wouldn’t have accumulated this much debt.
Death of a Partner
If one person handles all of the finances and suddenly becomes incapacitated or passes away, the other partner may be at a loss.
In my family, I am the one that pays all of the bills and budgets. My husband really has no idea what accounts we have, who to pay, when bills are due, etc. I have made a list of each account we have and when payment is due as well as contact numbers and website addresses and the passwords to use.
As much as I have tried to get him involved, he is just not interested. If something were to happen to me, he would have no idea how to proceed with our finances, which is why I created the cheat sheet. Still, it would be difficult for him to put the bill paying process into motion, especially during the grieving process.
This can be alleviated by having automatic bill paying, but it is still important to know when the bills are paid to make sure there is enough money in the account.
Stress on Both Partners
If the money coming in isn’t enough to match the money going out, the partner handling the finances will likely feel stress as he is the only one trying to handle how to juggle the money and get the bills paid. He may resent his partner’s carefree attitude since she doesn’t know the true details of their finances.
On the other hand, the partner who doesn’t handle the finances may be resentful of the spouse paying the bills if she is put on an allowance and only given a certain amount of money to spend each week. This resentment typically occurs when one partner makes the most money but doesn’t handle the finances. That partner may resent not being able to spend money as freely as she would like since she doesn’t know the true scope of the family finances.
In a relationship, one partner may be the finance geek who likes to handle the finances and the other may just as soon prefer to let the spouse handle it.
That is the case in my own relationship. While you may never get your partner fully on board with handling the finances or vice versa, it is imperative that every month or two you sit down with one another for a few minutes and discuss the state of your finances.
On a yearly basis, it is a good idea to review what accounts you have, how much you owe, when the payments are due, and where the passwords are stored.
Just taking these small steps can help both partners become more fully involved in the finances and avoid devastating financial situations such as financial infidelity or the inability to take over the finances once a spouse dies.