All the money questions you’ve ever wanted to ask a relationship counsellor

“How could you spend R500 on golf balls when I have no petrol?”
“What? You used the grocery money for another scatter cushion!”
“How can you afford new shoes when you said you had no money to put into our savings?”
Sound familiar?

Fights over finances are amongst the most common kinds of couple disputes. Janet Winterbourne, relationship counsellor in Cape Town, says if couples don’t discuss how to manage their finances, they’re likely to have clashes over who pays for what.

Winterbourne says, “When things get serious – like you move in together or get engaged – I suggest discussing financial responsibilities very early on. Despite the intimacy couples have on other levels, they’re often very awkward and uncomfortable when it comes to discussing what they each earn – plus their debts and assets – and how they plan to go forward together financially.”  That’s when it can be extremely rewarding to involve a counsellor or financial adviser.

Here, Winterbourne and Kenosi Magosha, Head: Client Solutions Savings at Sanlam Personal Finance, answer the money questions that couples typically want to ask a relationship counsellor.

If one partner earns more than the other, what’s the best way to discuss this? How does a couple make things feel fair? And how does a partner avoid feeling dependent on his/her significant other (S.O)?

JW: When there’s a discrepancy in what the partners earn, it can be helpful to agree upfront which elements of the household costs each person can realistically cover. It is important that the partner who earns more does not behave in such a way as to make the other feel insecure, awkward or inadequate.

How should families discuss the implications of one partner staying home for a while to focus on raising the children?

JW: Firstly, it needs to be viable financially on one income to allow this to happen. Assuming that is the case then I would suggest the couple prepare a realistic budget for anticipated expenses so that both know exactly what to expect going forward. It’s also vital to communicate for how long this will be viable and to agree on a date when the other partner looks for new job opportunities.

How do you deal with one partner having a great deal of debt?

JW: This need not be the end of the world, but disclosure is necessary so that the other partner knows what they are exposing themselves to. I have found in some couples that one person helps the partner who is in debt by demonstrating good financial responsibility, which they can learn and go forward from.  A plan to manage the debt needs to be discussed and followed through. If there are deception or impulse control issues around debt, one must be wary of making oneself vulnerable due to the other partner’s irresponsibility.

KM: It’s all about transparency. Be completely open about the extent of the debt. Secrets can be tremendously destructive so it’s definitely best to work together to discuss how to tackle any credit issues. When married in community of property, you need your spouse’s consent to accrue additional debt. Additionally, your spouse’s credit position or judgements can affect your ability to take on credit. It is crucial to have conversations upfront to avoid friction down-the-line. It can be very beneficial to involve a financial planner as an objective mediator in difficult discussions.

Lots of couples are supporting children, parents and sometimes extended family as well. What’s the best way for couples to discuss these responsibilities?

JW: A couple’s best tool is discussion and communication to agree together how best to go forward. You need to agree on what is and isn’t OK and stick to the agreement.

KM: Money is a sensitive issue. It’s so important to consider the emotional side. It’s not just about coming up with a set of rules for the partnership – it’s about how to have a good money management foundation as a couple, and how to talk about the sometimes-tough things. On the subject of supporting families, it comes down to being honest, upfront, and knowing what you can afford – where possible look for sustainable solutions rather than creating continuous dependency e.g. supporting education to help with employment opportunities.

Should couples consider aligning their savings and retirement goals?

It’s important to also consider retirement planning for the partner who stays at home to ensure your lifestyle in retirement doesn’t fall short.

What’s your biggest piece of advice for couples who continue arguing over finances?

JW: Stop arguing and start talking! Lay all the financial cards on the table. Resist judgement of each other, air your personal grievances, and work together or through a counsellor or financial adviser to discover the fundamental issues that cause repetitive conflicts.

KM: Your responsibility to your partner is to be responsible with matters dealing with finances and honour your agreement to ensure the success of your relationship, plus your individual financial success. If you continue to argue over finances, it is important to unearth what the underlying causes of the argument are. Get help to sort out your finances if you continue to argue and ensure that you don’t discuss money matters when tired or not in the right space emotionally. Create a safe space where you also acknowledge and celebrate the good things your partner has done – finance related or otherwise. Constant “nagging” can lead to defensiveness on the part of the partner in need of changing their ways, which can lead to a vicious cycle of arguments.

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