Check your assumptions at the altar
Q: I am getting married soon. As part of our pre-marriage counseling, my fiancé and I prepared a budget, talked about debt and things like that. What else do we need to be thinking about when it comes to being financially prepared for marriage?
A: Assumptions and expectations.
Imagine a couple on their honeymoon and they go out to a nice dinner. At the end of dinner, the husband pulls out some cash to pay the bill.
“You forgot to leave a tip, Sweetie,” his new wife says helpfully, noticing he only paid the amount of the bill left by the waiter.
“I don’t ever tip,” he responds offhandedly. “My dad always said it was a waste of money and if the waiter wants to make more he should get a real job.”
The wife is speechless. Then she offers, “But, Baby, everybody tips…and that waiter did a great job for us. Don’t you remember I was a waiter back when I was in college…?”
The husband’s tone flattens. The smile on his face is replaced with a look of benign concern. “I work hard for my money. And I don’t intend to waste it. This honeymoon cost me a ton and I don’t intend to compound the damage by tipping some mooch that can’t get a real job.”
OK, I’ll stop the narrative there. Suffice to say this night wasn’t going to be the warmest of their honeymoon, and two people just discovered that when it comes to money and marriage, it’s not adding and subtracting that matters.
Its assumptions and expectations.
All of us have assumptions. Without them we could not live normal lives. We assume others will stop when their traffic light is red, that the electricity will work today, that my car will start tomorrow morning and that the chair I am about to sit in will hold me.
If you’ve ever had a chair you tried to sit in collapse underneath you, or a car that mysteriously won’t start, you know it creates a mini-crisis in your life. You feel betrayed.
Assumptions are “just the way things are” in our minds.
We all bring assumptions into marriage. Mostly these are unconscious and learned from what we saw in our own family of origin. We can assume that “everyone” does it this way when it comes to who pays the bills, how financial decisions are made, how money is discussed (or is not discussed), how expenses are divided, whether earned money is community money or separate money (“what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours”), etc.
Expectations, though, are my assumptions about what you will and will not do.
So in our example above, it never occurred to this young bride that her new husband would think tipping is anything but a normal, natural practice. She expected it. It’s what “everyone” does, right? Well, not in the case of her husband.
The thing about assumptions and expectations is not to try to avoid having them. That would be impossible.
But as much as possible, bring them into the light before marriage so you can discuss them and find agreeable solutions to any significant differences. And if you find there are differences that are huge and that you can’t agree on…well, better to know that before you get married than discover this inconvenient fact after you’ve plighted your troth to one another.
Here are a few possible money related assumptions and expectations to get you started: is the money we earn community money or ours separately? Who will pay the bills? Where will the money come from? Will we have a spending plan? Will we have credit cards? Will we incur debt on these cards? Do we plan to have children? Will either of us stay home with the children for any significant length of time? How will that decision impact our financial situation? Are we OK with that? How often will we buy automobiles? What kind of neighborhood will we live in? Public or private schools? What kind of vacations? How much do we spend on Christmas and birthday gifts? How frequently will we eat out? Is it OK to accept gifts from our parents? Do we need to talk before either one of us spends over a certain amount of money? How much?
Yeah, that’s a long list and honestly I could make it ten times longer. The point is to spend time before the wedding discovering what assumptions and expectations each of you are bringing into the marriage.
But don’t make the mistake of thinking that money in marriage is only about financial matters.
Money is always a proxy for what we value and that’s where the rub comes in.
Many engaged couples assume they share one another’s values and unconsciously expect their spouse will live and spend money in a way congruent with those values.
So if you’re going to enter marriage with any assumptions, assume you and your fiancé have differing assumptions and expectations about financial matters.
I expect that would be a wise assumption to make.
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