Your marriage may be a meeting of minds – but that counts for nothing if you’re not fiscally compatible.
Last month, a YouGov survey revealed the biggest root of relationship rows was money. For a whopping 26 per cent of couples it’s the key source of tension – above issues of compatibility, child-rearing or even cheating. These days it’s financial infidelity we seem to fear: a 2015 poll by the Money Advice Service revealed a third of us have had a partner hide major debts from us. Unsurprisingly, one in 10 spouses now keeps a secret “escape fund” averaging £7,500.
Truth is, I too have an escape fund – it’s called our joint current account and my husband Mat doesn’t have the first idea what’s in it. His fear of finances leaves me in sole charge.
As partners, we are polar opposites with money. I’m a Scrooge. I like to save for a rainy day, then wear a carrier bag on my head rather than buy an umbrella. My husband wants to live to the full – try new restaurants, plug in the latest technology. To Mat, buying kit for a new hobby is an investment in happiness. Arguments ensue. I accuse him of excess. He berates my “false economy”: “Why must you buy five versions of a cheap thing that breaks every time?” he cries, opening the cutlery drawer to find more pay-as-you-go phones than teaspoons.
He has a grafter’s sensibility – you labour hard, then enjoy the fruits. I’m the classic middle-class hippy, who thinks Fate Will Provide, as long as we save on tinned beans from Lidl. It’s a rift that shows through every shared endeavour. Home improvements? I want to turn the garden into a veg patch. Mat fears a poor yield when we come to sell. Going out? I rage at Mat in the cinema foyer for spending £4 on Evian (“It’s just water!”) and £9 on popcorn (“It’s just air! With salt in it!”). Far better to smuggle in squished home-made snacks (then miss most of Rogue One looking for my sandwich).
When it comes to cash, we are poor communicators. This is no surprise to psychologist and author of Stop Fighting About Money by Corrine Sweet (corinnesweet.com). She finds today’s couples to be “more open talking about sex than money – it’s the last great taboo”. Why? “Because money means power and, on a fundamental level, survival. There’s a lot of anxiety attached.”
The potential for conflict is heightened by the fact that money itself has become “invisible”. Online accounts, store cards, credit cards – and long-buried student debt – can foster division. When you are forced on to open ground, battle may commence. A friend of mine moves in a Falcon Crest-style set in south London where the men earn big bucks, and expect to be treated as… well, big bucks. One graciously bought his wife a fur coat, which she then had to wear indoors all winter because he refused to turn on the heating. Another spent vast sums on his trophy wife, but refused to give her any. (She decked out their house with charity-shop furniture, then draped herself on it in Dior.)
“Do you spend because you might die tomorrow – or save because this could go on for years?”
Back in the real world, it’s rare for both partners to bring in the same amount of cash – and even then, contexts shift: a relationship may have to adapt to redundancy, career changes – and kids. Mat and I lost any earning parity when I gave up full-time work for adventures in child-rearing and the “gig” economy. Having shouldered the responsibility to earn the dough, Mat – not unreasonably – wants to enjoy it. Conversely, I’m desperate to “add value” by scrimping. Our family holiday takes the brunt. A few years ago, for our billionth camping trip, I booked us into an “economy hut” – then economised further by selecting one without a loo. Mat still tells horror stories of our “prison camp holiday”.
Of course, some fiscal differences can be healthy: I spare Mat the horror of wrestling with our family finances; he tells dinner guests they don’t need to bring their own food. Between us, we shall continue to grapple with the eternal conundrum: do you spend because you might die tomorrow – or save because this could go on for years? We sat down with a real-live accountant last week. True, we had to ask questions like “what is profit?” – but we agreed to focus on saving. Then went for an overpriced coffee to cheer ourselves up.