Finances are often a problem for Christian couples, but money doesn't need to be a divisive element in a relationship. Properly framed, a couple's shared approach to finances actually can be a source of strength that pulls them closer together.
Many couples, though, are reluctant to broach the subject. In our workshop, Better Halves™, we have found that many couples simply don't know where to start, and, if they do, they don't want to raise a potentially contentious issue. We have found that by showing them how to look at money as an emotional issue, we can set them on a path to build a sound financial future as a Christian couple.
New research continues to highlight the dangers that a dysfunctional approach to finances can bring to any couple. Recently, the Federal Reserve released a paper showing that individual credit scores can often predict the potential for couples to ultimately break apart.
According to the report, if the individual scores are far apart, then the couple likely will experience increased problems as they bring their separate levels of debt and spending habits into the relationship. A pre-marital counselor told me about the look of shock he saw on a face of a prospective bride when she learned her potential husband's level of student debt. It changed their relationship.
Through prayer and positive action, though, it is possible to confront financial issues jointly and successfully. The Fed has provided couples with a simplified yardstick to measure the well-known dangers of financial discord in a relationship. Once identified, different financial outlooks can be more than a challenge; they can also present an opportunity for growth.
How can that be accomplished?
In working with couples, we have found it is best if they begin talking about money early in their relationship. Beyond the simple arithmetic of saving and spending, they need to consider both the emotional and spiritual aspects of money.
In many cases, individuals pick up their attitudes toward money simply by watching their parents as they grow up. Attitudes about money are caught, rather than taught. Individuals need to reflect on how their upbringing continues to shape their attitudes toward money today.
As a couple, both need to ask themselves if their individual attitudes will form the bedrock — or the breaking point — for their relationship. Then, both need a judgment-free place to reflect on the values undergirding their decisions about debt, savings and spending.
While many existing approaches were learned in childhood, those are attitudes that can be examined together, in light of the new relationship. If a couple is far apart, we recommend they start with small savings and spending changes that can build and sustain new habits, ones likely to strengthen a relationship.
As the results of those small changes accumulate, couples begin to build their own joint approach to successfully handling money. They build a new financial outlook, one that is uniquely theirs, one that will allow them to grow as a couple and as Christians.
Beyond issues of paying for shelter and other living necessities, there is also the important but often overlooked issue of generosity. Christians are called to be generous, but muddled money attitudes can cause couples to pull back.
Our research shows that attitudes about generosity are shaped by the financial decisions a couple makes, such as avoiding debt, which in turn mold their emotional perceptions about money. Our research also shows that a feeling of financial security — even feelings of surplus — drives decisions on generosity.
For a new Christian couple starting out, those feelings can be built by a prayerful discussion of joint financial goals, followed by a series of small implementing decisions. As a couple works through their feelings about money, they will be able to allocate a suitable sum to support their Christian beliefs.
How to start?
We recommend they start by recognizing their physical posture when they discuss money. When couples face one another, such as across the table, it often feels like they are adversaries. But if they face the same direction, it fosters more collaboration and teamwork. We tell couples to put "it" (budget, computer screen, credit card bills) in front of you. And then get to work. "It's you and me taking on the world," I often tell my wife.
Begin talking about how to create sustainable financing to achieve those goals and others. As a couple, ask yourself:
- What is most important to us? What are we willing to give up to get it?
- What resources do we have to reach our goals?
- How do our faith and values shape our approach to generosity?
If the conversation begins to wander or become difficult, there are a number of online tools that can help keep the discussion focused. "3 Ways to Fight Fair About Money" is a tool that can help both partners move in the right direction regarding finances.
For Christians, marriage is one of the most sacred steps a person can take. To succeed, begin in prayer and follow up with a clear-headed approach to the pitfalls that are out there.