I walked into my conference room this morning and introduced myself to the dark-haired young woman sitting there, working on her smartphone. She had told my staff that she wanted some legal advice, she thought maybe collaborative life planning. Nothing more.
She had only been married for two years but she and her partner had already run into conflict. “What about?” I asked.
She answered my question with a question. Several, in fact. “If one partner makes more money than the other in a relationship, in this case, a marriage, should bills still be divided evenly between the two partners? Or should the person who earns more money shoulder more of the financial responsibility? And if so, how much?
“What is the best way to approach a partner and ask for help financially, if you’re the one who makes less money?”
“Do you have any advice for those who are in a relationship with a partner unwilling to split bills down the middle? Or any advice for the one who wants to share the financial burdens equally?”
I caught myself trying to figure out if she was the person who made more money or less, but I couldn’t tell from how she had presented her inquiries. She clearly wanted an objective response. And my answer would be the same, in any case.
There Are No Rules
“Marissa, there’s no rule. Every family makes its own. So my question to you is . . . did you two discuss this issue before you got married?”
“It was never an issue before.” Her voice hit a high note on the word “issue.” She continued, “I guess it never occurred to either of us. When we were dating, she usually paid. But since we got married, that’s changed. And I can’t afford the places she’s used to going. In the past two years, I’ve spent most of my savings, just going on our three vacations.”
“And now you have discussed it and you can’t agree?”
“Sort of. I’ve brought it up but it’s hard to be direct about it. And it’s worse than that. Now she wants to move, and I can’t afford my half of what the monthly payments would be, much less my half of the down payment.” She started to tear up, her brown eyes filling until the heavy droplets spilled down her cheeks. She made no move for the box of tissues sitting in the middle of the table, focusing instead on my response.
“Now I know why you thought collaborative life planning might help.” I paused to collect my thoughts. “A team approach could certainly help the two of you to talk to each other about how you feel about money, about spending, about expenses, and about your jobs, among other things. A facilitator could help you express your thoughts, while a financial neutral would identify the issues, as well as possible solutions. And your lawyers would counsel each of you and draft up any agreement you two reached.”
I gave her a minute, while she digested that information. Then I went on, “In fact, I would suggest you both consider the following questions before you decide whether life planning is an acceptable approach:
- For any given expense, is it personal or marital? Can you separate your personal expenses from your marital bills?
- When you ask if bills should be split evenly, are you referring to all bills? Or only all marital bills?
- Have you completed a budget? For your current expenses? For your individual expenses? What about all of the marital expenses? Can you separate the two? Can you prepare a separate budget for each set of bills?
- If you have a personal budget, does your spouse have one, as well? If so, how do your personal budgets compare?
- Is your spouse [the person with more money] paying more or less personal debt? Does one of you have more personal expenses than the other? Student loans? Car payments? Car insurance? Anything else that jumps to mind?
- Is your spouse willing to live a lifestyle limited by the income you make, as the less wealthy of the two of you?
“If you haven’t discussed these topics yet, perhaps, if you can, it will help her realize how you feel. Maybe if she knew, she might be willing to pay a greater amount towards lifestyle items (like eating out) that she wants to do together that are more expensive than you can actually afford?”
Marissa smiled, ruefully. “I think it would be very helpful if you could help me have that conversation with her. Meantime, can you email me those questions? I’ll get to work on answering them. And I’ll bring her in to talk to you about life planning and see if we can get her on board with, at least, having that conversation.”
As I ushered her out the front door, she smiled again, offering me a hug. “You give me hope, Joryn.”
Life planning services can help with any difficult family conversation you need to have. This is true or will be true for many of us at some time or other. It is the cycle of life. At Open Palm, we can help you at any stage of your life or your marriage. You don’t have to have all the answers, but Open Palm can help you ask the right questions. We offer the services to help you throughout the changes in your life.