Friday, August 12, 2005

Recipe for Divorce

     It seems like such a minor thing, and not at all what I was originally going to write about. Originally I was going to write about the impact of Hispanics in Texas. But as exciting as that might have been, the Living section of my local newspaper caught my eye. A "human interest" story, it was highlighting a recent trend of married couples having separate finances (Free Login).
     Let me just say, "Worst. Idea. Ever." (Except maybe for putting Ewoks in Return of the Jedi. You suck, Lucas.) I know I may get trashed for saying this. There are, of course, a lot of different types of marriages. But some things remain true across all of them. For example, having sex with people other than your spouse is bound to cause problems. Selling the house and moving while your spouse is out of town (and unaware) is bound to cause problems. And pretending like you are two separate financial entities is bound to cause problems.
     This being said, there are good reasons to keep some property separated. When one spouse comes in with significantly more assets, for example. Or when there are kids from a previous marriage involved, they need to stay protected. But there needs to be community property, and that pool needs to be large enough to cover regular expenses, unanticipated expenses, and preparing for the future. Otherwise you're not married - you're leading separate lives going in different directions.
     Last summer on a business trip, I was in the hotel hot tub with other people from my company, drinking rum and talking. (Don't ask. It was business during the day and like being back in college at night.) One guy was agonizing about whether to ask his girlfriend of 8 years to marry him. I think everyone else was married - most for 5-20 years. I had been married all of 2 months. They were almost unanimously trying to convince him not to get married - what they had was good, so why change it? They dismissed my protestations as those of a newlywed in love. But when I brought up the financial perspective, they all got quiet. Who pays when you go out for dinner? Who makes more money? When you have kids, how will it work if she stops working or goes on leave? Who will pay for the kids? One of the most liberating things about being married, for me, is not having to wonder who will pick up the check at dinner or whose turn it is to buy groceries. Maybe it sounds petty. But it's a big deal, because it means we're on the same team. We have the same goals. What's good for me is literally good for her. Suddenly, gifts from the heart have more meaning than gifts from the pocketbook. No matter how much you think you've gotten past money issues, it's always there in the back of your mind.
     In the article, 24 year old Lekeisha Massey, who will be demanding separate checking accounts when she gets married, says, "I don't care if I have a dusty duffel bag when I start; I want it back when it ends." When it ends. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure she's on a self-destructive course. She's got "Future Divorcee" written all over her. I guess maybe I should be happy that she at least has some idea of financial responsibility, unlike my next-door neighbor. But if you can't trust the person you're marrying, what's the point of marrying? I've always said love isn't enough to justify a marriage. There has to be a whole lot more. I mean, I love my parents, my sisters, my cat. I love me some ice cream. I'm not marrying any of them (with the possible exception of the ice cream). But I love my wife, who's my best friend that I trust with my life (including my wallet). If you can't say that, maybe worrying about joint checking accounts should take a back seat to not getting married in the first place.


Mainline Mom said...

Wow, Scott, for once in my short history of reading your blog, I agree with you 100%. Separate finances IS a recipe for divorce. The thing is, people like that girl you mentioned EXPECT divorce. They don't go in with that whole "till death do us part" attitude. Being able to trust my husband with our money is so freeing.

Ben said...

This is totally off topic, but I just wanted to mention that Boortz and Linder's FairTax book is out, it will debut at #1 on the NYT bestseller list a week from Sunday, and it's getting huge press, great reviews, and even the local liberal rag, Creative Loafing, gave it a thumbs up. I know Scott and others on here dismissed the concept without even looking in to it, but a lot of people smarter than I or you are giving the idea a lot fo credence, so maybe y'all will want to step out of your preconceived notions for a minute and check it out instead of just dissing it because it comes from the right.

kaitlin said...

I agree with you as well, Scott. I think that it's absurd to think that they can keep money separate and have a lasting relationship. Some people do it, and I give them a lot of credit, but it just seems quite difficult.

My boyfriend and I have had a number of discussions about money, financial goals, etc. We've talked about the pitfalls of 2-income families and each of our career goals in relation to finances, and have also talked about how to address money if one of us makes considerably more than the other (on the one hand, there's a sense of entitlement--I worked for this money, I should get to spend it as I please, and on the other, the aspect of partnership). In the end, we decided that if we do get married, and one of us does make considerably more, that we shouldn't be living beyond our means (and have enough saved for a rainy day), and that we'd both have equal "free money" (as we call it in our budget). In the end, people contribute to relationships in a variety of different ways, including financially, but that's not the only contribution, nor should it be.

I think when it comes down to it, more people really need to sit down and COMMUNICATE their financial goals. Perhaps part of the problem is that people feel uncomfortable sharing information with others (You're MARRYING the person for crying out loud!) or they just don't have identifiable goals. Those shouldn't become barriers to communication.

Living separate financial lives? That's like being single, together.

Raemius said...

Well said! Many people enter marriage with a 'just in case' clause in mind. Seperate financials is a big one. If you're not committed, you're doomed.

Alisa said...

Yikes... after watching what my mother is going through I am going to have completely separate finances and my poor future hubby will have to be very understanding about this. Granted, my family's situation is VERY unique.

My father is a Missing Person. They shared everything from accounts to home loans to car loans.

With his disappearance, a bulk of the finances dried up.

She is facing financial ruin because, even with a notarized Power of Attorney, she is limited in what she can do to liquidate the assets to stay afloat. If she files for separation, she is even more limited and since his whereabouts are unknown, filing for a divorce is going to be very complicated.

Before disappearing, he had filed for an August extension with the IRS on back taxes owed. August came and the IRS demolished the retirement income (what little was left) and several creditors withdrew (unauthorized) from it. They don't care who they go after, as long as they get their money. So my mother is SOL.

After watching this horrific experience of sharks circling my mother like chum in the water, I am not going to be able to ever trust anyone with my financial state of affairs.

I know that this could be catastrophic towards the overall workings of a marriage, but after seeing the devestation wreaked by a freak disappearance, it's something I will never ever let myself be a victim to.

Scott said...

That's a pretty crummy situation, Alisa. But I don't know how much of that your mother could have prevented by having a separate checking account. The IRS (and any other creditor) would have gone after your mother regardless simply because of the marriage.
I guess one thing I forgot to say was that separate finances is only a fiction. When you get married, legally what one person does impacts the other. I know I don't have the whole story, but your mother seems blameless in her current financial situation. The only way to have truly separate finances is to not be married in the first place.

scorcho said...

Meh. Call me cynical, but I have some reservations entering into anything without a back up plan, marriage being included. The trick is to never mention this separate account, and then you have it when you need it. Then, you're not lying because it never got brought up, and it's not stealing, because it's your income. Then, if something does go sour (the divorce rate is pretty high, unfortunately), you're prepared. Yet you work for the best, not because you're worried about your finances, but because you can breathe freely knowing that everything is in control. Call me radical (and a feminist, if you must!), but I like to be prepared.

b. robertson said...

To be honest, I had never even thought about a married couple having separate finances. I mean, the thought had never entered my mind, it's simply ridiculous! I guess I have heard of some husbands having their paycheck go towards the things for the house and yard, and they make their wives pay for whatever the kids need. Hearing that just made me so angry! It's not just the wives kid, and it's not just the husband's house - it should be both. You said it all - basically, if you are going to get married, be committed - completely!

And like Mr. Advertisement above, I quite enjoyed this post. Unlike Mr. Ad, I actually read it!

sideshow bob said...

Sylvana and I don't sepearte our finances, but we do take turns opening accounts and such. For example, I may have the cell phone and electric bill in my name, and she might have the car loan and cable in her name. That way, we both can have a good credit rating. I've heard of women who have a husband die, only to find that since everything was in his name, she had no credit record, making it hard to get a loan for a car or a mortgage.

And your blog is encouraging thoughts of fondness in me. Please to put you in my sidebar.

kaitlin said...

You might have that separate account on the side that you don't ever mention, but if you put ANY money into it during the marriage, in many states, that money is then marital property, whether the other person knows about it or not, and whether it was in one name or both. Granted, they may not find out about it, but you can bet that if things go that sour, they'll be looking for it.

Stephen (aka Q) said...

I think you're leaving the door open for a "his, hers, and ours" approach, but I'm not sure.

My partner and I have a joint account that covers the mortgage and other shared expenditures. But we each keep a small portion of our personal income in an account that is entirely our own.

The two big subjects that couples argue over are sex and money. If we each have a little money to indulge ourselves with, we have the freedom to make frivolous purchases, within our personal budget, without ticking each other off.

Also, my partner's previous marriage was problematic from a financial perspective. She was responsible to pay the bills. He would make personal purchases the day before the rent was due, so that she was always left cleaning up his messes. It was basically impossible to keep the financial ship afloat; and the weight of that burden was entirely on her despite his irresponsible behaviour.

That kind of scenario is very, very commonplace, Scott. You've got to make some kind of accommodation for it; don't be too idealistic in your view of love, marriage, and money.

Mainline Mom said...

I don't think having any kind of separate accounts is a good idea if you actually intend to stay married forever. Having a back-up plan of any kind, not trusting your partner with your money 100%, is a recipe for divorce, pure and simple. And it's true that someone else can wreck your credit rating, but marriage is about 'for richer or poorer' and through communication you learn who will be more responsible to pay the bills on time. The excuse that the divorce rate is pretty high is just that, an excuse. If you go in thinking you could end up divorced, you probably will.

scorcho said...

There's no way of guaranteeing a marriage is going to work, regardless of whether you keep separate finances.

And I like to anticipate bad things could (not necessarily are going to) happen, because it's naivete to believe that everything will always go 100% how you planned it. Not many people are that lucky in life.

scorcho said...

Oh and I forgot to mention, I think Sideshow Bob has a pretty good set up with his wife. I could see myself doing something very similar. My parents have things set up in a similar manner as well, and they make everything work out.

Abby said...

In regards to this post, I have but two words for you: TRUE DAT. 'Specially the bit about the Ewoks.

And thank you for alerting me to your change of address. Quite courteous, I must say.

Stephen (aka Q) said...

Mainline Mom:

You wouldn't want to plan for your funeral either, in case it hastens your death.

canis lupus said...

As a newlywed to be in the not far off future, I get where Scott is coming from. Some say it might be a case of classic romanticism but I've always felt marriage was about sharing and compromising. I don't talk much about my fiancee's work but she earns slightly more than I do. Not a big deal to me. I recently became a homeowner, and despite the fact that I paid for the entire house. I've already established that this is OUR future home. We already planned on having a joint account. Some have said that this is naive on my part and "what if". And by "what if", they mean divorce. We're realistic people. We're going into a marriage for the long run (til death do we part). We've had our quarrels and there will be others on the horizon, the difference is there is always a compromise. ALWAYS. I've bent over backwards to accomodate certain things for her. And she has done the same for me. We both found each other at romantically low points in our life. It is corny, but I'll say it ... she is one of a kind. And you don't let women like that slip through your fingers.
Nothing says "unsure" and "insecurity" like separate bank accounts (and maybe, hyphenated names).
Compromise, sharing, and communication. Hey, it worked with my parents.

Sylvana said...

"That's like being single, together."

Kaitlin, I totally agree! Even before SSB and I were married, we shared our money. There were times that I was working and he wasn't, and there were times that he was working and I wasn't. But we were in it TOGETHER. If we really meant anything to one another, there would be nothing that we'd rather spend our money than on each other.

When money was tight, we made ALL the money decisions together. We wouldn't even think of buying something as mundane as a music CD without first talking it over with the other. Now that is a partnership!

ORF said...

Mainline Mom: I'd say that stating that separate finances IS a recipe for divorce is a bit Papal of you. While I agree with you that people who go in with an expectation of divorce will probably reap what they sow, I also feel that there are a million different compromises and agreements that people make between themselves that as outsiders, we cannot begin to fathom. Furthermore, there are an equal number of reasons that unions, unfortunately, do not work out and a lot of them don't have a thing to do with finances.

The Doc said...

Scott - thanks for writing this. I agree with you 100%, and while I'm not married myself, it's likely that I will be at some point, and you have articulated my feelings on the topic better than I could have.