In the ideal world, couples know what to do with their money. Every month, salaries go into a joint account, expenses are dutifully paid for from this account, each partner doesn’t spend more than they should, and whatever’s left goes into building a nest egg that will see them into their sunset years. Hands up, if you are in this enviable situation. My guess is, many of us are not.
I have to admit: I’m not always happy with my husband’s carefree attitude towards money. The way he manages his finances, it’s as if the dreaded R-word (retirement, if you’re wondering) will never happen to him. I, on the other, am a worrier. I worry about not having a big retirement fund, I worry about losing my job, I worry about not having a sizable bank account that I can fall back on in case of emergencies.
We are as incompatible, financially, as oil and water. But, thankfully, we agreed early on in our relationship to keep our finances separate. The fact that we’ve decided not to have children makes it easier to manage our money.
But what if things were a little more complicated? Say for instance, your partner may find himself in a position where he is suddenly unable to contribute to a dual-income household (due to circumstances beyond his control), and you find yourself shouldering the household expenses alone. And what if he seems to be in no rush to find a new job, or is reluctant to at least be a gig worker until he finds a permanent role?
Such situations can be fraught with tension and stress. You might find yourself trapped, unable to quit a job you dislike because you have become the sole breadwinner. Or, your spouse might think you are not being understanding of their problems and accuse you of asking them to “settle”.
Says Valentina Tudose, relationship coach and hypnotherapist at Happy Ever After: “The top three issues couples disagree on are parenting, money, and sex. When it comes to money, around 50 per cent experience issues usually related to differences in attitudes around earning, spending and saving.”
Valentina adds that it’s not typically about how much each person earns, but more about the meaning of money for each. “A balanced relationship is one in which there is an equal amount of giving and receiving,” she continues. “If a partner feels taken advantage of, a good place to start is to ask what it is they expect in return for the money they are providing.”
If your partner has taken the initiative to do more childcare and housework while you’re bringing home the proverbial bacon, perhaps that’s their way of balancing the dynamics in your marriage. If, after a day at the office, you’re coming back to a messy house, and the children are waiting for you to make dinner, then talk to your partner about how they can help meet your other needs. Avoid turning it into a “Can’t you do this while I’m at work? What have you been doing all day?” shouting match. Instead, give them and yourself a chance to share what your individual needs are and how they can be met – and whether your vision for the family still aligns.
It seems unromantic to bring up the topic of money when you’re in the throes of love and excited to start a new life together. But it is worth bearing in mind that financial compatibility is a key indicator of how successful your marriage will be in the long term.
Those who are planning to get married soon can talk to their partner about their vision of the future, and the role that each person would play in making that a reality. Agree to have regular discussions to see if it needs adjusting, or if your role needs to change.
That said, just because you’re a couple, it doesn’t mean you need to put your money into a joint account. Valentina’s advice is that if you don’t trust your partner 100 per cent with your money, you should not agree to a joint account.
“Joint management of family assets is risky if one partner is less financially savvy, and has little to no understanding of how the money is used. This can be risky, especially if the relationship ends in a divorce.”
Lawyer Aye Cheng Shone of A C Shone & Co agrees and adds: “It is best to maintain your own bank account, even if you have a joint account. This is so you’ll have your own money for your needs in the event of divorce proceedings.”
If you believe you’ve reached breaking point and every attempt to have such a conversation with your husband has been rebuffed, seeking the help of an objective third-party, such as a family law specialist, might be your next best recourse.
Aye Cheng would first sit her client down and guide her to work out the finances of the family, including drawing up a list of monthly expenses for personal, household, and each of the children.
“With clarity of an estimated amount, it is easier for the wife to know how to tackle the challenges facing her. The wife can go to the Family Justice Courts to apply for maintenance for herself and the children. The Court will assess his income (even if he’s unemployed) based on his potential earning capacity, and order maintenance based on the needs of the children and the wife. If the wife is working, however, she is unlikely to get maintenance,” she says.
Aye Cheng adds that the wife has to prove that the husband has neglected or refused to provide reasonable maintenance.
If you can’t count on your partner to look after you and the children while you’re still married, a divorce is certainly not going to change their behaviour for the better. If you’re not already financially independent, it certainly helps to start now.
“Sad to say, after the divorce, the husband can always default on the payment of monthly maintenance,” says Aye Cheng. “The wife should ensure that she has her own financial support. That’s why we sometimes push for a lump sum maintenance taken from the share of matrimonial assets or to get a bigger share.”
Talking to your husband about money doesn’t mean you love him any less. I maintain my advice that we have to remove emotions from money as much as possible. If you’re feeling stressed, trapped, and unsupported, find a way to have that conversation now before things turn irreparably ugly.
Deborah Tan-Pink is a communications director at Bitstamp and the co-host of the podcast Good Girls Talk About Money. You can find her podcast on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.
Claudia Doig, clinical psychologist and certified Gottman therapist at Psychology Blossom, shares what couples can expect should they seek counselling.
“If the woman comes to see me and says, ‘Help, I’m struggling because my partner is not contributing to our household income,’ first of all, I would say to her that it is important for her to come with her husband for a combined couple’s session. I would want his perspective on the matter, and for him to listen as she expresses herself, and then to provide his perspective on the current financial situation, what his resistance is to getting a part-time job, and so on.
Sometimes, if a man has had an acrimonious experience in a past job, this could be just a matter of processing that experience in order to rebuild his self-esteem. However, if the husband feels unmotivated to work for no reason, and is comfortable with the woman supporting him, that indicates likely different values between the couple, and it would warrant having separate bank accounts.
The advice would then depend on things like whether they have children or not, or their financial support circumstances. Perhaps he is not motivated to make more money because he already is comfortable financially. Ultimately, the therapist does not tell you exactly what to do, but supports the couple into reaching a decision whichever way that it takes them.
For women, building a nest egg is the most important thing that creates stability and security. Usually, for a man, having a job is his priority. It is common for a man without a job to withdraw into himself and possibly fall into depression. And if the man has a big ego, due to the ‘saving face’ sociological culture in Singapore and in Asia, he may refuse to take up part-time jobs out of pride. All these aspects need to be investigated.”
Additional reporting by Chelsia Tan