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Color of Money: Love and Money - Coping in a marriage with your financial opposite

Michelle Singletary on

WASHINGTON -- A dating couple recently asked my husband and me, "What's the secret to a good marriage?"

My husband said, "Don't let your wife see you drink from the orange-juice carton."

We all laughed -- and then came the serious answer.

For us, the secret is shared values, and this is particularly true when it comes to money.

This doesn't mean that if you're a spendthrift you can't marry a saver. Life will be challenging if you marry your money opposite, but if you have common goals and work to find a middle ground, you can have a successful marriage.

But what if you married without realizing you were on different pages financially?

We're coming up on Valentine's Day, so I wanted to address an issue that arose in a recent online discussion. A reader expressed concern about her money-opposite marriage.

The backstory: The wife is a U.S. citizen. She didn't indicate the nationality of her husband, but they both are living abroad and plan to move back to the United States. They met and married as middle-aged adults, and they have no children. It's a first marriage for both.

"The plan is to buy a house in an area we like and can afford. I have enough savings to cover at least half of the cost of the house. I am the current breadwinner, with a long-term, part-time contract gig."

The problem: "My concern is that my husband's highly specialized work, his passion really, has never paid well and has dwindled to very little over the past few years, and he just doesn't seem worried about it. Or rather, he can't see himself doing anything else."

They have an idea. The husband could get a master's degree in a career area he would find interesting, and for which more jobs would be available.

"But he has taken little initiative in figuring out how to get started picking a program, applying, etc.," the reader wrote.

OK, maybe he contributes in other ways, right?

"He does some work around the house, but he's not really a great candidate for a house-husband, as he doesn't fix things (that's more my skill set) and he doesn't notice dirt. I'm left feeling like I'm always the one who's nagging at him to keep these important life threads moving, and worrying that he is inclined to drift, be dependent on me, and simply not pay attention to our finances. He may be depressed and/or anxious about all this but also has not taken steps to address this either. I'd happily pay for, say, a job coach. Mostly, when the issues come up, he goes silent and avoids them. We even got short-term marriage counseling a few years ago and -- go figure! -- nothing happened on his end. He is a lovely man, my soulmate in some ways, but I just hate having to do all the money thinking and earning and the emotional work that goes with it!"

So much to unpack. First up: At this point, it's not helpful for me to criticize the soulmate choice. It's done.

I'm also not in the camp that believes what's hers is hers and what's his is his. Her income is their income. I like that she appears to be in a "we" state of financial mind. And if the situation were flipped and she was a stay-at-home wife, would we tell him to kick her to the curb because she doesn't want to work?

I will say this to the working spouse: You can't carry the load for everything. That's not a marriage. That's a parent/child relationship.

My recommendations: Don't nag about the cleanliness of the house. But I wouldn't pick up after him, either. It's only fair that he do more of the household chores if he isn't working or motivated to help financially. Let the laundry pile up. Let the dishes stay in the sink. If you keep doing, he's not going to do.

Only pay for a job coach if he takes the initiative. For coaching to work, the person has to want to be coached. Same goes for the master's program. I wouldn't waste the money.

Go back to marriage counseling. If he won't agree to counseling as a couple, get individual therapy for yourself. You'll need some tools to deal with this situation, which could turn very ugly if you lose your job.

You have a partner who is choosing not to be engaged in the financial running of your household, and you are right to be very concerned.

If you're having a financial conflict in your relationship, maybe I can help. Email your questions to colorofmoney@washpost.com. In the subject line put "Romance and Finance."

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Readers can write to Michelle Singletary c/o The Washington Post, 1301 K St., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20071. Her email address is michelle.singletary@washpost.com. Follow her on Twitter (@SingletaryM) or Facebook (www.facebook.com/MichelleSingletary). Comments and questions are welcome, but due to the volume of mail, personal responses may not be possible. Please also note comments or questions may be used in a future column, with the writer's name, unless a specific request to do otherwise is indicated.

(c) 2018, Washington Post Writers Group


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