By Nancy Trejos
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 10, 2008
Alezandra Russell and James Guzman immediately bonded when they met at a barbecue in May 2004. Both grew up in suburban Maryland. Both have Latino parents. Both love to travel, go to the theater and eat out.
But it became clear, soon after they got engaged in August that year, that they were completely different in at least one way: their finances. Russell, now 26, was paying off student loans and credit cards and renting an apartment. Guzman, 35, had no debt and owned a house.
Since getting married two years ago, they have had many discussions -- and disagreements -- about money.
"I overspend. I really don't budget that well," she said.
"I'm just a little bit more disciplined when it comes to that," he said.
Money is the last thing couples want to talk about when they're falling in love. But it's one of the first things they should discuss when planning their lives together, experts said. That's because modern relationships have become so complicated. No longer are there defined financial roles, with the husband as breadwinner and the wife as homemaker. These days, there are many more two-income households, and the man isn't necessarily the one making the most money. There are also more financial pressures, what with so many households overloaded with debt and with the economy taking a turn for the worse.
People are increasingly considering a potential mate's finances before committing to a relationship. In a Money Management International survey released last week in time for Valentine's Day, 70 percent of the 1,049 respondents said they consider financial savvy an important trait when searching for a mate. Fifty-eight percent said they consider financial security more important than a person's looks, though it was women driving that phenomenon. (Men were still more inclined to consider looks more important than money.)
Once couples commit, money doesn't become any less of an issue.
"Money is one of the top three common sources of conflict that brings couples into therapy," said Karen Osterle, a licensed psychotherapist in Dupont Circle. "In fact, some people find it easier to talk about sexual matters than they do about money."
Therein lies the problem, several financial advisers, counselors and therapists said. America has become a society in which people openly dissect their sex lives but are reluctant to discuss how much money they make or how much debt they have.
Sure, it's not sexy, experts said, but people need to realize that when they cohabitate or get married, they are not only entering a romantic relationship, but also a financial partnership. There are many decisions to be made. Should they have joint or separate bank accounts? Which credit cards should they apply for? Who should pay the utilities? How should they divide the rent or mortgage? Should they buy a house? How much should they set aside for retirement? When should they start saving for their children's educations? "The couple that plans together is much more likely to stay together," said Osterle.
There are no uniform answers, experts said. One couple might be comfortable having separate bank accounts while another is not. One couple might want to buy a house; another might be happy renting. Either way, each couple has to come up with a plan. If left unanswered, these questions can cause tension, or worse, destroy a marriage. A GfK Roper poll commissioned by the Web site Divorce360.com and released last month found that money was one of the main reasons people get divorced, second only to verbal or physical abuse.
Financial differences can become even more pronounced in a weakening economy. "What comes out more strongly is that not having enough money to pay all the bills during the month is a huge source of couple distress, and for couples who are living together, it makes them less likely to get married, and for couples who are married, it makes them more likely to get divorced," said Pamela Smock, a sociology professor at the University of Michigan who has interviewed about 300 couples.
Several therapists in the area said many couples have recently started seeking financial advice.
"I think people have been lulled into living beyond their means, and so they're overextended and that makes them feel unsafe now that things don't look as rosy," said Elizabeth Sloan, a professional counselor who practices in Glenn Dale and Frederick. "That feeling of not being safe then drives their fears, and everything that their partner does regarding money is now under scrutiny."
Kathleen and Danny Goldstein said they don't feel overextended but are certainly worried about the economy. One of their priorities, they said, is to have an emergency fund with enough money to cover three months' worth of expenses. They are also determined to remain debt-free in case either loses a job.
"The possibility of a recession makes us nervous," said Kathleen Goldstein, 33, though not to the point of therapy. Her husband, 31, sells information technology to the federal government, and "if they are not funded, it affects his job," she said.
She is a communications consultant who works on contract. "It makes me nervous because in times of recession, companies and organizations cut their communication and marketing budgets first," she said.
Jill Foster, 37, and Sean Stickle, 35, are not in couples therapy but credit premarital counseling with helping them avoid huge arguments over money. Recognizing the consequences of not talking through their financial future, Foster insisted on having a frank discussion with Stickle before marrying him eight years ago.
"I said something like, 'You know what, Sean, I know it's about happiness and love, but in addition to that, we need to talk long-term about money,' " Foster said.
Stickle, a computer programmer, was happy to relinquish most of the financial authority to Foster, a consultant for nonprofit organizations. He admits he's profligate with money when it comes to buying books. He has also, he said, failed to pay a gas bill from time to time, not because he didn't have the money but because he simply forgot.
"She is the financial manager of the family, and to the extent that we are financially secure, it is all her doing. I contribute mostly by not screwing it up," he said.
Over the years, the couple merged their bank accounts, their incomes, their debt and their financial habits. They live frugally in a 600-square-foot, one-bedroom rental in Dupont Circle. Together, they make about $75,500 a year.
In January 2006, they had an epiphany. Despite having declared saving for retirement as their priority, they spent $11,000 on restaurant meals the previous year. "We were living a contradiction," Foster said.
Foster became even more of a strict financial manager. She started using Quicken to keep track of all their expenditures. She made sure 12 percent of their income went toward retirement. She cut their restaurant budget to $1,500 a year.
Her efforts caused some tension, she said. "I wanted to be fiscally conservative, probably to a suffocating degree, and Sean wanted to probably enjoy our money a little bit more," she said.
Stickle disagrees that there were any substantial disagreements.
"The only thing we've disagreed about is when I buy a book outside of the budget, and that is usually resolved by me apologizing and not doing it again for a month or so," he said.
Therapists, counselors and financial advisers said opposites attract when it comes to money. Impulse buyers often end up with savers. "When we partner, when we mate, we look for someone who represents the other side of the emotional coin," said Marty Tashman, a counselor based in Somerset, N.J., who has treated many couples who feud over money.
That can wreak havoc on a relationship unless couples learn how to communicate in a respectful manner. That means not accusing your partner of being a financial disaster when he or she makes a poor decision or has more debt than you do. It also means being considerate when you're the partner with the higher income, and allowing your spouse to have a say in financial matters. Experts advise coming up with a household budget together and having regular money meetings. One partner can be the financial manager, but both have to have input.
"For women, if they make significantly less money than their husband, especially if they're not openly discussing it, it can create difficulties in terms of decision-making and who has more input in financial decisions," said Susan Fago, a licensed clinical social worker in Dupont Circle.
When the woman makes more than the man in the relationship, "that has its own set of problems," Fago said. "In our culture, men are expected to be the providers, so it takes a very mature and open supportive relationship for people to be able to deal with those issues."
The bottom line, she said, is that the "ability to generate income is part of our self-esteem and sense of worthiness, unfortunately."
Russell often wonders if she should get a higher-paying job. She makes $32,000 a year as a parent educator at a nonprofit youth center. She has also taken a part-time job as a nail technician so she can contribute more to the household. Guzman, her husband, makes more than $100,000 as the owner of a commercial cleaning business.
He covers the mortgage on their Silver Spring house, sets aside money for their emergency fund and finances their frequent weekend trips to Miami or jaunts to Mexico. She pays utilities and any costs associated with their dogs.
Russell could be making more money doing other work. But she loves her job, so Guzman is willing to help her keep it. "I told her what you have to do is follow your passion," he said.
At times, Russell feels guilty about that, which, in a strange twist, occasionally makes her act out. "It's mostly me feeling like I'm not able to do as much, so I get frustrated, and I probably take my frustration out on him," she said.
They used to have a joint bank account, but she bounced a few checks. "He gets super-frustrated if I bounce a check," she said.
So they decided to use separate accounts. "It became very stressful for me to try to do everything," Guzman said. He has helped her with her student loans and car payment, and she's paying her credit card bills. She tries to make up for it by taking him out on a date occasionally.
Guzman and Russell have been honest with each other about their finances, which counselors and advisers said goes a long way. Too often, one partner hides his or her debt.
"You need to have full disclosure with your partner and be transparent with your finances," Tashman said. "Later on if it's discovered, a lie of omission ends up being the same thing as a lie of commission."
Guzman and Russell get along in every other way, so an occasional dispute over money is manageable. "I view ourselves as equal in the sense that I never say to her, 'You make a lot less money,' " he said. "I never feel any resentment."
"Despite our few fights, they're nothing compared to what I hear from other people," she said. "He's my life partner."