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Money matters in a marriage

By Michelle Singletary
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 14, 2010; G01

The recession has unearthed another economic truism: Having a sound financial marriage is as romantic as roses and chocolate.

Money definitely matters for contemporary American marriages, according to "The State of Our Unions," an annual survey by the University of Virginia's National Marriage Project and the Center for Marriage and Families at the New York-based Institute for American Values. Although studies find that emotional intimacy, sexual satisfaction and individual happiness rank at the top of marital aspirations, the Great Recession that began in 2007 exposed an economic factor, writes W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project.

Wilcox says the economic downturn reminds us that marriage is more than an emotional relationship. It's also an economic partnership and social safety net.

"Of course, we would not want to advocate loveless unions for financial gain," writes Alex Roberts of the Institute for American Values in his essay "Marriage and the Great Recession." "But a greater societal appreciation of marriage's financial benefits could be helpful, especially among poor and working-class couples who are drifting farther and farther away from the institution of marriage."

This year, Valentine's Day spending is expected to reach $14.1 billion, according to the National Retail Federation. Instead of spending all those billions of dollars on flowers or candy, what if some financial sense (not cents) could be incorporated into the holiday?

We need to start a new tradition for Valentine's Day, one that includes a focus on personal finances rather than consumerism to demonstrate our love.

Take your sweetheart to see a financial planner or credit counselor before that romantic dinner. (You can find a nonprofit credit-counseling agency by going to http://www.debtadvice.org. Find a planner by going to the Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards at http://www.cfp.net, National Association of Personal Financial Advisors at http://www.napfa.org or the Financial Planning Association at http://www.fpanet.org.)

Engaged couples could spend a little time between sips of wine talking about how they might manage their money after they wed.

Dating folks could come up with a "How do I love thee?" list that counts the ways they plan to be a better mate when it comes to money if, or when, they marry.

I know what many of you are thinking -- this woman has lost her mind. Won't people end up fighting after a meeting with a financial planner?

Talk about money on Valentine's Day? How unromantic.

Well, what I'm suggesting is a lot more romantic then ending up in a relationship or marriage in which the financial fights overshadow the romance.

Couples who report that they disagree over finances at least once a week are 30 percent more likely to divorce than couples who disagree about finances a few times a month, according to research by Jeffrey Dew, a professor of family studies at Utah State University. People may say their divorce was a result of fights over money, but the truth is, it's rarely about the money -- either the lack or abundance of it. More likely, the romance obscured the emotional baggage -- at first.

Interestingly, the marriage report found that divorce dipped a little during the first year of the recession.

"Only time will tell if the cumulative economic consequences of this recession redound to the benefit of marriage or to the detriment of marriage, especially among less-advantaged Americans," Wilcox writes. "But what is not in doubt is that the Great Recession has once again brought into clear relief the enduring truth that marriage and money, the nest and the nest egg, go hand in hand."

Roberts hopes the latter view gains some currency because, as he writes, "once the Great Recession lifts, more couples -- especially lower-income couples who are in the greatest danger of missing out on marriage's economic benefits -- can take full advantage of the emotional and material benefits associated with marriage."

Want to spice up your marriage for Valentine's Day and the rest of the year?

Find a way to deal with the financial issues that are keeping you apart. You'll have deeper intimacy -- emotionally and physically -- and you won't have to spend a dime on teddy bears, roses or chocolates.

I hope you take the time to read the "State of Our Unions" report, which can be found at http://www.virginia.edu/marriageproject. One of the goals of the marriage project is to develop strategies for strengthening marriages.

It's a worthy one because in today's relationships, there's not nearly enough weight and work given to developing financial chemistry.

Readers can write to Michelle Singletary at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.

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