Dear Divorce Coach: My spouse manages all of our finances and I’m totally in the dark. When we got married and merged our accounts, he just naturally continued to handle all of it. But as we’re getting older and more financially secure, I’m wondering should I play a more active role especially in long-term planning or is it okay for one of us to handle all of it?

– Love and Money

Dear Love and Money:

There are a lot of reasons why it’s “convenient” for your spouse to solely manage the household finances. But I’m glad to see you want to take an interest because it is really important that the responsibility be shared. To start, I’d like to dig a bit deeper and understand the possible reasons behind the imbalance and then suggest a game plan for how you can navigate a conversation with your spouse that is positive and will help you meet those long-term goals.

Reflect on your personal relationship with money

  • Do you believe you aren’t good with money?
  • Does your spouse believe that you are bad with funds and remind you of this?
  • Do you spend either too little money in fear of poverty or too much using a “throw caution to the wind” approach?
  • Did you grow up with parents who behaved in one of those two extremes?
  • Has your spouse reinforced this message or actively kept you from engaging in information about finances?
  • Have you never had to manage your finances and the thought makes you nervous?

Try to shed all of your childhood beliefs around money. Raised rich or poor, you probably grew up with some idea about it. Perhaps you learned It is bad form to talk about it, it’s the husband’s job to manage it, you never expected to work for more than “pin” money, etc. Whatever the root of your money management beliefs, and whether you stay married or divorce, this dynamic should change.

It is still a startling and terrible fact that many women, when confronted with the death of a spouse or a divorce, are unprepared to manage their own assets and liabilities.

It’s not because we can’t. Obviously. It’s often because we haven’t done it. Inaction sometimes turns into feelings of “can’t” rather than “don’t.” Stop that pattern now.

Express you want to manage your finances as a couple

For some this is a difficult conversation, but an important one. Your first step should be to sit down with your spouse and learn the facts of your current financial situation. You’ll gain an understanding of the ins and outs of your household as it relates to: money coming in, money being spent (and where), money being saved or invested.

If your spouse resists this conversation, it is important to persist. This may be difficult for you to do especially if you were raised with beliefs that talking about money is impolite or you don’t feel secure in your knowledge about how to manage it. However, there are very few more important issues that may impact your life than your ability to understand and manage your money. If your spouse will not cooperate, it is important to seek assistance to continue a productive conversation. Rarely, a spouse is exhibiting something called coercive control to keep you from knowing about shared resources. Coercive control occurs when one spouse uses money, or something else, to make their partner believe they aren’t allowed or can’t have money they need. It’s a way to keep someone from acting independently and can do real damage to the relationship.

If the money discussion is a surprise to your spouse, they may wonder why it’s important and worry about your intentions. That’s ok and it’s still necessary to keep talking about it.. Sometimes a professional financial or conflict coach can put both of you at ease in a way that empowers each of you and can certainly make sure no red flags, like coercive control, exist, and suggest additional resources if it does. This isn’t a problem to ignore and hope it never arises as money is the number one reason women tell me they cannot change what is occurring in their marriage. In fact, it is also too often the reason they feel helpless and out of control if their spouse wants a divorce or dies.

Once you’ve communicated with your spouse, alone or with a coach, work to create your shared financial plan, including a current and long term strategy that comprehensively pulls together your approach to financial decision making:

Track your spending:

  • This is an easy first step to get involved in your finances as a couple. By sitting down and having an open conversation about the state of your finances, you can limit the friction, frustration and stress involved in managing money as a couple.
  • Creating and following a budget opens the door to building a financial plan together; it also is the most reliable way to hold each other accountable and eliminate debt (if you have any).

Pay your monthly bills together:

  • Once your budget is established, it’s important to also sit down and pay your bills together.
  • This step allows you to assess your current habits and how they are impacting your future plan. You can discuss where you may need to budget more, where you could cut back, or where you could put any extra if you have it.

Manage your debt as a couple:

  • Regardless of how you incurred the debt, it is so important that you eliminate it together
  • Hiding debt fosters distrust and can ultimately destroy your relationship
  • A shared budget and financial plan keeps everything transparent as you work to shed the debt

Build your financial plan:

  • Communication is critical both as you assess your current financial situation and as you look to your long term financial goals; those goals for each of you can be very different, but important to take into account as you set your savings strategy
  • One option to help navigate creating the plan is seeking out a financial planner; they can help craft a plan that incorporates both sets of goals while ensuring you’re taking into account the milestones that can impact that plan along the way: unemployment, family planning, retirement, or death
  • If you go that route, schedule quarterly and annual sessions as a team to review progress and determine any changes that may impact the plan

Put simply: you cannot afford not to be a part of your finances. Your own future, married, divorced or widowed may depend upon it. Given that money continues to rank as the leading cause for divorce, it is imperative that you take an active role in your financial situation. Taking these simple steps will give you confidence and strength in your marriage, reinforcing that you are a partnership.

If you are faced with the death of your spouse or even divorce, you will be far better able to participate in a fair division of assets and a clear understanding of them. Understanding is the beginning of participation. Participation allows you to have power. Equality around money in a marriage allows spouses to have more respect for the contributions of their partner. It also enables you to prepare for a future over which you may not have total control. Managing finances needs to be a 50 50 partnership. Don’t cede your power by default or inaction. It’s your life. Make sure you play a role in managing it.

–  Cherie Morris