Surviving financial pressures - tips for couples

IT’S all about love and romance when couples first move in together. They are eager to spend more time together and get to know each other in new ways. They also believe they are making a good financial decision.

After all, they spend most of their time at each other’s houses so surely it makes sense to share one house and split the bills? But once the romantic haze lifts, many discover the answer is not quite as clear as it seems.

She isn’t impressed with his habit of spending €100 in the pub every Friday night.

He doesn’t think much of her expensive taste in shoes.

These are just some of the problems couples have when they start sharing their finances. It can get even more complicated once children come along; childcare has to be factored in and one parent often has to cut back on time spent in the workforce.

The recession has made money problems even more pertinent for couples. Accord, the Catholic marriage care service, reported that 58% of couples seeking help in 2012 cited financial difficulties as a serious problem, an increase of 2% on the previous year.

The pressure this places on couples is something the Money Advisory and Budgeting Service (Mabs) sees too. “By the time couples see us, it’s often too late for them,” says Michael Culloty, Mabs’s communications officer. “They have usually split up or are in serious trouble as a result of their money problems.”

Trish Murphy, a psychotherapist and chair of the Family Therapy Association of Ireland, has counselled couples with money problems.

“It’s one of the most common issues,” she says. “It’s not usually the only problem in relationships but from my experience, it’s often the one that breaks it.”

Lately she has seen couples blaming each other for failed investments. “They’ve been forced to make savage cuts in their lives,” she says. “Often, one feels they weren’t consulted in the first place and finds it hard to forgive the other.”

She has also seen couples with different attitudes to money. “One wants to shop at Lidl while the other thinks life is too short not to have the best. This can cause huge arguments.”

Bernadette Ryan, a counsellor with Relationships Ireland, has similar issues with her clients. A common theme is couples using money to gain power in the relationship.

“Whoever makes the most money has the most power,” she says. “I’ve seen stay-at-home mums who feel they now play a lesser role in the relationship because they are not making money. Such feelings can place a huge strain on couples.”

Both Bernadette Ryan and Trish Murphy encourage couples to look to their relationship for strength. “Look beyond money and value each other’s contributions,” says Murphy. “Couples commit to each other ‘for better and for worse’. Confronting the ‘for worse’ aspect can be the most unifying things they ever do.”

“See the relationship as a boat,” adds Ryan. “If there’s a hole in it, there’s no point arguing over who caused it. You work together to fix it so you get back to dry land. What can you do but work together to solve your problems?”

Other practical steps can be taken too. Bob Quinn, a financial advisor with moneyadvisor.ie, talks couples through their options. In his experience, most Irish couples have separate bank accounts.

They often set up a third into which they feed money to pay the bills. He sees this as a positive arrangement, provided it’s properly managed. “Ring-fence this account for fixed expenses such as the mortgage, electricity, oil, gas, phone bills, and food,” Quinn advises.

Having covered your costs, you can then plan for the future. “Look forward 12 months, three years, and five years, and plan financially,” he says. “By doing this, it’ll become clear what your goals are and if there is any incompatibility in how you see things.”

Open communication is the only way of overcoming these issues. “Too many people operate on an individualised basis financially,” he says.

“They pay their bills from a joint account but that’s all. There’s no joined-up thinking. They should know what the other is doing and plan for the future together. Money brings up all sorts of issues but the only way of dealing with them is by talking.”

Simon and Emma, a couple in their late 30s with three children, know all about this. Emma earns €28,600 working part-time while Simon earns €40,000 on his full-time salary.

“The way we manage our finances is very much a partnership and that’s down to my husband,” says Emma. “He’s a big believer in ‘what’s mine is yours’.”

They continue to use the bank accounts they had before marriage but there is a lot of crossover in how they use them. “The fixed expenses come out of his account while the day-to-day expenditure comes out of mine,” says Emma. “Towards the end of the month, he’ll usually transfer funds to my account to cover the shortfall.”

They may appear to have it sorted but Emma admits money causes problems in the marriage. “It’s the only thing we fight about,” she says. “He’s a cautious spender whereas I’m more optimistic.

I’m more likely to say that ‘it’ll be OK, the money will come from somewhere’.”

Emma also has the most say in how the family spends their money. “I may be more optimistic but I’m also the one who works out a budget so we can afford things. I make the plan and we both stick to it.”

Despite her positive outlook, she does worry. “I avoid discussions with Simon about money now. I know you’re not supposed to but I put my head in the sand and ignore the bills. I don’t have the money and I don’t have the energy.”

Nick, 55, and Fiona, 35, have an unusual relationship. “Everything about us is unexpected,” says Fiona. “Nick is 20 years older than me and was married with children before we met 10 years ago.”

She and Nick are self-employed and each has their own bank account. They share a mortgage on the house they bought in 2006.

“Our money is shared in some ways and in others, it’s not,” says Fiona. “Because we both have businesses, it’s important to keep our incomes separate as each business needs to pay its own way. But when it comes to household bills, we split everything 50/50.”

Fiona’s business went through a rough patch recently. “I had very little income for three months and had to ask Nick for everything. He didn’t mind giving me money but I felt demeaned having to ask. It showed me how much money is tied to my self-esteem.”

Nick’s children pose problems too. “We were raised differently,” says Fiona. “Nick grew up with plenty and has expectations as a result. I didn’t go without but I had to work for money for CDs, trips away, and things like that.”

Nick’s children are now at university. “I don’t begrudge them anything they need but it does bother me when Nick gives them money for holidays when we don’t have enough money for holidays ourselves,” says Fiona. “We have serious arguments about this.

“Nick has to look after his children,” says Fiona. “But he and I have to work on being a team, too.”

Frank, 34, and Shelia, 32, have two children and both work full-time.

Frank earns €32,000 a year while Shelia earns €24,000.

“Our wages go into separate accounts and we feed money into a joint one to cover the bills,” explains Shelia. “The children’s allowance helps pay for childcare and my mother lives nearby so she helps too.”

Generally she and Frank are happy with how they split their finances. Childcare is their only real concern.

“I’d always imagined staying at home to look after my family once I had children,” says Shelia. “But we couldn’t pay the mortgage without my income. I hate leaving the kids in the mornings and I hope and pray I won’t miss important moments while I’m gone.”

Frank feels guilty about this. “I’m supposed to be able to provide for my family and I see how much it hurts Shelia to have to leave the kids,” he says. “It makes me feel like a failure.”

Again, open communication helps them deal with this. “We both understand it’s just the way things are for us right now,” says Shelia. “And many people are worse off than us. We should consider ourselves lucky.”


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