If you’re looking to show your spouse how much you care this Valentine’s Day, bag the gift or night out and get your credit cards paid off instead.
It may lose points for romance, but the gesture is guaranteed to yield dividends in the long-term stability of your relationship, says Jeffrey Dew, a faculty fellow at the National Marriage Project and assistant professor of Family, Consumer and Human Development at Utah State University.
“Positive financial behavior can enrich a marriage,” says Dew. “When couples set goals together and they both contribute towards that goal, including financial ones, it strengthens the marital bond.” Indeed, the negative effects of poor money management have been widely established as one of the leading causes of divorce.
But the opposite is true as well: Couples who save together, stay together.
Fewer Fights, More Teamwork
Why? For one thing, those who practice good financial judgment are far less likely to accumulate debt, a significant source of stress in many marriages.
According to Dew’s study, “Bank on It: Thrifty Couples are the Happiest,” published in the National Marriage Project’s 2009 State of our Unions report, debt fuels a sense of “financial unease,” which increases the likelihood couples will fight over both money matters and non-financial issues.
His report notes newlyweds who take on substantial consumer debt become less happy in their marriages over time, while newlywed couples who paid off any consumer debt they brought into their marriage or acquired early in their marriage had lower declines in their marital quality over time.
By keeping a grip on your spending habits, Dew adds, you’ll not only reduce the incidents of conflict in your relationship, but also enjoy each other’s company more—which increases the amount of time you’ll spend together.
Couples who establish and achieve financial goals together, meanwhile, also develop better partnerships—the foundation for any healthy marriage.
“There is tremendous upside in identifying goals together and looking at each other and saying, ‘We’re achieving this,’” says Mark Flaherty, a certified financial planner with Virginia Asset Management in Norfolk, Va.
“Together you made the sacrifices," explains Flaherty. "On Friday night, you wanted to take the kids out for pizza, but you made the choice together to save money and have family night at home. It really builds teamwork in a marriage instead of becoming a symptom of a significant problem.”
It also reduces the odds that one spouse will spend blindly, unaware of budgetary constraints.
Flaherty recalls one couple with whom he worked was on the brink of divorce, largely because the wife overspent on their daughters.
“It was clearly producing significant stress in their marriage and she finally realized it was destroying their relationship and potentially her family,” says Flaherty. “We worked together to help change her [spending behavior]. She said that getting control over her spending saved her marriage.”
Communication And Cooperation
The mere process of sitting down together to monitor your household budget has another positive impact on relationships, as well—it keeps the channels of communication open, making it easier to engage in other difficult discussions like caring for elderly parents, career changes and child rearing, says Olivia Mellan, a money coach and psychotherapist with moneyharmony.com in Washington, D.C.
Her advice? Meet once a month to review your monthly budget, even if one spouse has the responsibility of actually paying the bills.
She also advises establishing ground rules for discretionary spending—say, anything over $200 must be discussed in advance.
“That way you’re both on the same page which helps facilitate open communication and ultimately greater intimacy because it’s a relationship between two people who respect each other,” she says. “It makes spouses allies, not enemies.”
When both spouses become active participants in the financial affairs of the family, they’re also more likely to head off the destructive parent-child relationship, in which one spouse controls all the money and the other is left asking for an allowance, says Mellan.
“This way the money avoider doesn’t stay in the over-surrendered child position,” she says. “They’re really on board as an adult.” To allow each spouse some degree of financial freedom, Mellan recommends couples maintain a joint account for paying household bills, such as the mortgage, utilities and groceries, which each partner funds proportionate to their income.
They should also, however, have separate discretionary accounts to spend without justification.
“I believe women, in particular, need some separate money for themselves,” she says. “They have that need to not disappear [into the marriage unit].”
Assets Equal Happiness
Unsurprisingly, Dew’s research found financial stability also makes marriages happier.
Couples with no assets at the beginning of a 36-month period were 70 percent more likely to divorce than couples with $10,000 in assets.
While assets decrease the likelihood of divorce, however, “the protective power of assets only works for wives,” Dew notes, largely because wives with more marital assets reported being happier in their marriages overall and, as a result, were less likely to seek a divorce.
It’s also, however, because assets made wives “more reluctant to pursue a divorce because they realize that their standard of living would fall markedly after a divorce.”
Couples need not be on the brink of bankruptcy or job loss for financial issues to impact their marriage either.
“Decisions like whether to make a major purchase using consumer credit or how much of a paycheck to put into savings can have substantial consequences for the short-term and long-term health of a marriage,” Dew writes. “In particular, couples who are wise enough to steer clear of materialism and consumer debt are much more likely to enjoy connubial bliss.”