Leading up to Valentine’s Day, there are a lot of studies released about how couples handle their money.
A recent CreditCards.com survey uncovered a lot of cheating: Many people confessed that they are hiding a checking or savings account, or a credit card, from their significant other.
And Discover found that people generally prefer a partner who is fun over one who is financially stable.
I think about all this because a colleague, Rodney Brooks, who writes a retirement column for The Washington Post, and I were comparing how we address the most frequently asked money questions involving couples. Here are the questions and our quick take on each.
Brooks: Yes. Actress Tasha Smith had her five-year marriage annulled in December. The 44-year-old actress found out that not only did her husband have five wives before her, he had concealed the number of children he had and had not paid taxes in 10 years, all according to the judge.
Maybe that, in itself, is not reason enough to argue for prenuptial agreements; but, as far as I’m concerned, it comes mighty close.
While we all wish that love and marriage would last forever, many times they don’t. Most experts say that 40 to 50 percent of first marriages end in divorce. For second and third marriages, that number increases dramatically, 67 percent and 73 percent. Those numbers are downright scary. The record number of baby boomers in second marriages is the main reason that they, more than anyone, should consider a prenup.
Let’s deal with first marriages first. People are getting married older these days — closer to age 30 for men and women. Many people enter marriage with a decade of accumulated assets or, as importantly, debt. And as much as financial advisers say that people should talk openly about their finances before they get married, many don’t.
But it’s the second and third marriages where things get really complicated. Blended families can be wonderful. Attorneys, however, say there is often a conflict between caring for surviving spouses and providing for children from a first marriage.
And finally, don’t assume that a prenup protects only the spouse or partner with the most assets. “Contrary to popular belief, a prenup does not only protect the wealthier party,” says New York attorney Ann-Margaret Carrozza. “It is especially important that the party with fewer assets makes sure, within a prenup, that they are on solid financial footing in the event of a divorce.”
Singletary: No. My husband and I mentor about a half-dozen couples every year in a financial ministry we direct at our church. We also teach a course called “Mastering Money in Your Marriage.” My opinions are informed by research as well as by what I’ve seen over the years.
As to a prenuptial agreement, I’m not a fan. I think it puts couples into an adversarial position at the start of their marriage. It’s too much about money and assets they don’t want to share. But why don’t you want to share all your past, present and future wealth with the person you are sharing your life, bed and, perhaps, children with?
Yes, I know, the high divorce rate. But the answer to that isn’t a prenup. It’s getting good premarital counseling. And not a one-day session that mostly has you exchanging credit reports.
A prenup focuses on planning your exit strategy. Are you going to spend as much time and money planning for how to stay together? Take steps during your courtship to get counseling or take courses — communication, conflict resolution — that can help you make sure you share the same values, especially about finances.
One caveat about prenups: If you’ve been married before and have children from the previous relationship, you might want to do some premarital financial planning to provide for those children, whether they are underage or adults.
Brooks: Both. Many years ago, I was griping to a friend about the headaches my wife and I had with our joint checking account, with both of us writing checks. To my amazement, she told me she had been married for 20 years and she and her husband always had separate accounts. But then it made sense.
Let me first say that though my wife and I maintain separate checking and savings accounts, it does not mean that our finances are separate. Both accounts are joint accounts. We pay most of the bills from one, but we both have access to both.
So, what’s the point? We just found it easier, for both our sanities and for bookkeeping purposes, to write checks from separate accounts. And we’ve been doing that now for 20 years.
A TD Bank survey in 2014 said that 40 percent of couples who had a joint account also had individual accounts. Reasons ranged from independence to convenience to emergencies. And surprisingly, millennials were more likely than older generations to merge their finances when they married.
Singletary: Joint. I understand the fear about merging your money. You may be marrying a spendthrift. Or perhaps your man is a miser. You figure separate accounts will keep the peace. Or keep you financially safer.
Except separate doesn’t often solve the tension that arises when one or both partners have serious financial issues.
You may have a system in which having separate accounts is working. But in my experience, couples who don’t pool their money aren’t always fully aware of their financial situation. Fidelity Investments found in a survey last year that 43 percent of couples didn’t know how much their partner earns. That’s crazy.
A study funded by the National Center for Family & Marriage Research at Bowling Green State University in Ohio found that couples who keep their money separate are more likely to divorce than those who combine their funds.
This year, my husband and I will celebrate 25 years of marriage. I’ll be honest. Before we got married, I wanted joint and separate accounts, including a “home-wrecking hussy” account. My grandmother, Big Mama, suggested that I set up this secret bank account just in case my husband-to-be decided to cheat.
I never did. We merged everything. We never divvied up bills like we were roommates instead of lifetime mates.
Brooks: Yes. You might want to put it in that prenup. (Michelle Singletary, that’s a joke.) Even if you are a couple, you are separate people. You should be able to splurge on yourself, buy gifts for your spouse, children or pets, or even tithe without getting permission from your spouse.
How much should certainly vary from couple to couple. And I would in no way condone the actions of the Denver Broncos fan who spent $21,000 on Super Bowl tickets without telling his wife. (None of the stories said if he was still married after the trip, which he said would cost a total of $30,000).
One 2012 report by NBC’s “Today” show and Self magazine said that 36 percent of those surveyed were comfortable spending up to $100 without discussing it with the spouse, and 28 percent would not be comfortable spending even that amount without talking it over. Only 6 percent said they never tell their spouse how much they spend on anything.
Still, I’m a firm believer that each spouse or partner should have his or her own pot of money — however small it may be. The key for most couples is to have limits. For some, it may be $50. For some, it may be $1,000.
Singletary: Yes. Thanks to the premarital counseling we received, we developed a set of rules to govern how we would handle our money. Some couples call it an allowance. Some wince at that word. Whatever you call it, it can keep the peace if you agree on an amount of money you can spend with no questions asked.
Brooks: This is a loaded question. I have friends who pay their grown children’s cellphone bills every month, and get resistance when they tell their kids they should pay themselves.
I am a firm believer in helping your children when they need it and when you can afford it. But we have created a generation of children who have a sense of entitlement. And parents often help their children at the expense of their own well-being and their own retirement.
So, let me put it in these terms. Should you help your children with their college tuition? Yes. Should you be solely responsible? Not unless you can really afford it. At some point, you want your children to be independent. And that’s not happening if their parents continue to bail them out.
Singletary: It definitely depends. My husband and I have been witness to some epic battles between couples who disagree on how much to help struggling adult children. It’s usually a mama who wants to bail out her “baby.”
Any such help should depend on whether the financial aid ends up enabling the child. Sometimes, people who are irresponsible have to fall before they will get up on their own.
Whatever you decide, it’s vital that any help be a mutually agreed-upon decision. Your marriage comes first, and doling out money to an adult child against the better judgment of your spouse could jeopardize your relationship.
All year can be like Valentine’s Day when you find that sweet spot of financial harmony with your honey.
Want to join the debate? Singletary and Brooks will offer a live online chat about “Love and Money” at noon Eastern on Feb. 18 at washingtonpost.com/discussions.