I have arrived at some financial advice for new couples with plans to be long-term, whether nearlywed, newlywed, or otherwise recently hitched. It’s two words: Stay together. There are corollaries to that prime directive that my own observation and systematic research have shown are closely related: Live within your means. Stay employed (not always under your control). Save, save, save: for rainy days, for education, for retirement. Have insurance (again, not always an option). But whenever possible without completely sacrificing all happiness, stay together.
I reached this groundbreaking conclusion during a conversation I recently had with my spouse of 32 years in which we talked over some financial planning decisions: whether to step up paying off our mortgage, whether to move some investment money into a cash account, what to do if he falls victim to the next round of layoffs at his large engineering firm, caught up in whimsical aeronautics markets like so many other companies (Just a threat of “we’ll get a better deal on the next Air Force One” meant 100 people out of a job right before Christmas. What, you didn’t hear about that one on TV?). We’ve had these conversations many times during our years together, some quite unpleasant, but this one might be the most delightful ever: Retirement is within sight, and we share a vision of what it will look like. Some months of each year we’ll live in a condo in the US within driving distance of wherever our children settle down, which could be anywhere. The rest of each year, up to 8 months, we’ll be in a tile-roofed hacienda with a wrap-around porch, hammocks strung between the trees in the garden where Jairo does his landscaping projects, a stream or pond for grandchildren to wade and splash, high-speed internet for me to teach online if I feel like it, all in the mountains a 40-minute bus ride from downtown Medellín, Colombia.
If this sounds like something only the 1%, or maybe the 4%, could think about, and how dare I cloak it as financial advice to stay married, let me say a few things about those 32 years together. One or the other of us was in school for the first 9 of those years, so we didn’t have two full incomes and thus, didn’t buy our first house until our 10th year of marriage. Dear Husband (DH) is an engineer, a well-paid profession to be sure, but not a stable one. He has been laid off twice, and missed a third layoff by the skin of hen’s teeth in November, 5 months shy of his 60th birthday. I am a college professor, which does offer stellar benefits, the best of which is tenure, but is nobody’s path to great wealth, particularly in the humanities.
Yes, we’ve been lucky (knock wood). We’ve had health insurance and at least one of us fully employed almost all the time we’ve been together (except for those few months when – oh, never mind. We had some lean times, but nothing dramatic). We could start saving for our children’s education when they were in grade school, and then they got scholarships and graduated debt-free and have been off our payroll ever since. The cost of that little house in the mountains near Medellin, and the cost of living in it 8 months of the year, is about a third of where we are in Iowa City, already a very affordable place to live. There’s a certain amount of wanting what we can have here, in with getting what we want.
Here’s the thing, though. We’re able to have this delightful, shivery, “I can’t wait, can you?” conversation about the near future because of the financial stability that came from a joint income within which we lived mostly amiably. When one person wanted a newer car and the other person wanted a nice family vacation, both agreed we couldn’t have both. In my observation, almost all couples have one member more inclined to save as much as possible and another inclined to spend a little since you can’t take it with you (guess which one I am). DH had constant ideas about “hiding” our income: increase the mortgage payment that came straight from the checking account so we never saw it. Max out the tax-protected retirement deductions from each paycheck for the same reason. Direct a small amount of each paycheck to this bank over here that we don’t pay household expenses out of, hoping we’ll forget it’s there (and I did), until suddenly there’s several hundred there, saved painlessly because we (I) never saw it. Yet he didn’t complain when I spent money in ways he wouldn’t have, buying a third sweater when I already had two, or taking us to a movie in a theater instead of yet another Netflix-and-chill night at home.
We balanced our budget with little conflict, and that’s an important way we stayed married. We can sit together and dream of a near future in each other’s company because we still enjoy each other’s company. Part of this financial advice is about money, and part of it is relational: It’s expensive to separate and live in different places for awhile because you need a break from each other, and that can set back your savings plan bigtime. It’s also pointless to have any amount of money if you don’t want to spend time with the other person whose name is on the joint account. Unless what you want money for is a chance to start a new life, independent of that person – but where I started was financial advice for YOUNG couples, not ones looking for a way to split up.
That’s my insight for today, and I wish for everyone the chance to realize at least some of their dreams for the future. More importantly, to dream of things within your reach – like staying together.Commenting is not available in this channel entry.