What My Students Learned By Grilling a Financial Therapist
By Brian Page
October 17, 2017
Kids have a lot of questions about money and relationships, and that is good. Finances are a leading cause of divorce. Four in five parents report that money is a source of stress. Sadly, bearing witness to a money fight at home is nothing new for most students.
With this in mind, I recently invited Alycia DeGraff, a marriage and family financial therapist in Austin, Texas, to meet with my students. If you’ve never heard of a financial therapist, you’re not alone. These are professionals trained in psychology that help couples work through money-related issues.
As I wrote earlier, my students submitted questions about money and relationships both before and after marriage. They then voted on which questions they most wanted answered. Examples:
• How do you decide who pays for meals on a date?
• What are the best ways to start a conversation about finances with your significant other?
• What is one of the most important financial questions you should ask a significant other before marriage?
• What are some signs when speaking to our partner about finances that should make us aware that marriage isn’t ideal?
Whew. This was going to be interesting.
We did this all in Google Hangout sessions, and with the exception of a few technology glitches it all went very well. If you are curious, check out my 40-minute video of the session with DeGraff.
To make the conversation more digestible, DeGraff sliced pre-marriage relationships into three phases: beginning to date, dating, and getting serious. When beginning to date she suggested being mindful of your own interactions with money and of your own emotions and choices. Do not be judgmental.
As you become more serious, she suggested sharing career goals with one another and privately considering whether your vision of how you want to live aligns with the kind of life both of your career goals will provide. Even more important is recognizing whether your financial values are similar. This can be done through casual observation and conversations.
If you decide marriage is a possibility, realize that you will be marrying their financial history. She suggested checking their credit report to review how responsible they are, and to understand any debt burdens you may be taking on. That’s when you should begin to work through any financial values discrepancies.
What if their credit report is bad? She suggested at least waiting until it is cleaned up. For some, it may cost them their marriage.
While reading through the kids’ questions I could see they were grappling with whether earning more money equated to more control and power in a relationship.
• Should a spouse’s spending be limited to what they contribute?
• Is it best to have separate accounts or to share one?
• What are the best coping strategies a couple should use when in the middle of big fights about finances?
In the day following the lesson I interjected a couple of my own thoughts. I believe prior to marriage the most important conversation you can have is understanding how many kids you want, what kind of life you want to give them, and what kind of life you can afford. I also suggest meeting with a financial planner. You will have to pull together credit reports, bills, debts and investments. Having this information on the table for a conversation with a third party is perhaps easier and less confrontational than asking your loved one for a credit report.
Following the session with DeGraff, students used the NEFE Life Values Quiz as a tool to better understand themselves. We concluded the lesson by reflecting on what they each learned and how they would apply it to their lives. You can follow along in the comments section.
Here is an abbreviated look at the questions and answers:
Q: What is the most important financial question you should ask someone before marriage?
A: Depends on your values and concerns. How much debt do you have? What do you spend money on? What are your goals (car, house)? Who should pay for what? Be explicit and upfront about money concerns and values prior to marriage.
Q: Do you pool your money in one account?
A: Some do, others don’t. What’s important is understanding how you will handle things once together.
Q: Should you see your partner’s credit report before getting married?
A: Yes, because it reveals your partner’s financial behavior and because their credit history could impact your future. You may not be able to get a loan. Their debts may weigh down your quality of life. You may not be able to get an apartment.
Q: How do you decide to pay for meals on a date?
A: Anything goes. It is important to have these conversations in advance of the date so there is no awkwardness.
Q: What are the warning signs that your partner might not be ideal?
A: On the second date, if your partner refuses to discuss money when you bring it up. Money secrets are red flags. They should at least be willing to work through differences.
Q: In a marriage, should a spouse’s spending be limited to what they earn?
A: No, but there should be spending expectations. Set a budget together and allow for the flexibility for each person to make individual choices.
Q: Do you recommend sharing accounts or having your own individual accounts?
A: One shared account for shared expenses, and individual accounts for small discretionary choices.