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Money troubles don't have to be at the expense of marital bliss

Experts say couples need to communicate better and understand that they perceive money differently. And they should set goals together and put emotions aside when they discuss their finances.

July 30, 2009|Ylan Q. Mui | Mui writes for the Washington Post.

WASHINGTON — For many couples, the financial crisis has come down to a test. How good are they at tackling tough money issues? The question for Lorne Epstein is this: business or pleasure?

His wife, Alicia Korten, planned to take about a month off to recharge after more than a year of 80-hour workweeks at the consulting firm ReNual while writing a book called "Change Philanthropy." Joining her on the trip would cost him about $2,000.

Usually, Epstein wouldn't wince at spending cash for some quality time with his wife. But his contract position as a recruiter is almost up, and he's unsure where his next paycheck will come from. That $2,000 might be better spent on in his side business developing an application for Facebook.

"We've been having to make hard decisions about what we're doing and not doing," said Epstein, of suburban Arlington, Va.

Some couples may be confronting job losses, foreclosures or ravaged 401(k)s. Even seemingly small changes such as eating out less can ignite larger debates. (Who will do the dishes?) Couples who have been married for years can be surprised by the rapid economic fallout and the ensuing stress on their relationships.

"The recession brought a kind of suddenness," said Dave Ramsey, personal finance author and radio host. "The wind came, and we weren't ready."

When counselors advise couples on dealing with financial questions, their refrains are remarkably similar: communication, communication, communication. And recognizing that men and women often perceive money differently can make the conversation easier.

Ramsey said women often view money as a pathway to security. Women may rebound from financial problems more quickly than men but face more fear when dealing with the problem, he said.

Men, on the other hand, think of money as a score card for a game they want to win. When times are tough, the male self-esteem takes a hit.

Several financial and relationship experts said the key to surviving a personal financial crisis is putting emotions aside to talk frankly about money. Couples should set financial goals together, but each partner should remain open-minded about how the other holds up the bargain.

At the Assn. of Independent Consumer Credit Counseling Agencies, President David Jones said the number of cases his group sees has doubled during the recession to about 4 million a year -- and about 60% of clients are women.

"The male seems to be embarrassed more than females in admitting that their finances are not on a good footing," Jones said.

But Olivia Mellan, a psychotherapist and money coach, said the differences she sees in couples are determined not necessarily by gender but rather by personality. Often, couples will adopt dueling roles even if they had similar financial philosophies at the start of the relationship, a phenomenon that Mellan calls polarization: "If opposites don't attract right off the bat, then they'll end up opposite anyway."

Big differences in attitude can be more difficult to reconcile. Financial advisor James Ludwick, president of MainStreet Financial Planning in suburban Odenton, Md., said he often sees angry couples in his office with their arms crossed. About a third of his clients are in dire situations, such as a home foreclosure or short sale, he said. Many are realizing that the financial plans they made five years ago are no longer viable.

Epstein and his wife said a tighter budget forced them to decide what is most important to them. For Epstein, it was spending time together: He'll meet his wife in Sedona, Ariz., for the last leg of her vacation.

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