Honey, my money is mine but yours is ours! The politics of money in our relationships

Disagreements over money have been cited as some of the leading causes of divorce. How can couples avoid fueling resentment when they manage money? Counselling psychotherapist Chris Hart offers some useful tips

SUNDAY: In your experience as a counsellor, what are the biggest issues concerning finances that you hear from couples? Are financial wrangles a big issue?

Chris Hart: Money can be a huge issue in relationships, causing endless disputes both large and small. Couples fall out over individual purchases, investments and loans.

But the biggest problems are usually around who's making the decisions; secrecy about individual incomes, spending and investment; and the partner's different money styles and expectations –scrimp and save versus big spender for example.

Manipulative or insecure spouses also often use money as a way of controlling their partner, keeping them short, for example.

Having said that, many couples have no problems with money at all –providing they have the right values.

Should they disclose all the sources of income to their partners; show their pay slips to one another?

The key value that predicts a successful couple is complete openness and honesty about every aspect of their lives, including their finances.

So you should be completely open about sources of income, spending, debts and investments. And share the paperwork: bank statements, payslips, loan agreements and so on.

Do you think that with society deeming the man the 'breadwinner', he should take charge of all the finances in the home? Are there men who resent their wives for this?

It's true that in earlier years, society's ideal was for the man to be the 'breadwinner' and the woman the 'housekeeper.' But in modern urban settings the ideal's now the 'dual income' couple. And so most men nowadays actively expect their wives to earn, and many feel resentful when they don't!

Dual income couples also tend to be more assertive financially, and to manage their finances together. But every couple's different, and there are still many where only the man earns, at least for a time, such as when the children are small. And where he's the money manager.

But the clear trend's towards joint earnings and shared financial decision making.

When is the best time to have the money talk between couples?

Definitely before you marry. Because couples who only start talking about their finances after they marry often have much more difficulty managing their money together. It's best to start talking quite early on, as part of the 'gradual mutual disclosure' that draws you closer together during dating.

At that stage, it's enough to talk in ball park figures about your sources of income, side businesses, investments, and possible future financial plans, such as for further study, working abroad, buying a house and so on.

Later on, as you approach marriage, you should start to talk about how you'll manage the household expenses together, savings and investments, and so on.

This point's also the best time to get out all the paperwork, and start being completely open about the details.

What is the ideal financial roles splitting scenario for a harmonious marriage?

The most successful couples manage every aspect of their money jointly, as if they were the executive directors of a small company. But whoever has the greater aptitude and skills, should be the family 'accountant', filing the receipts and so on, unless you like doing such tasks together.

But above all, the sooner you stop thinking of money as 'mine' and 'yours', and start thinking of it as 'ours', the less likely you are to fall out about your finances.

Joint accounts? A good idea or a really bad idea?

Every couple's different, but the happiest couples tend to have three bank accounts. A private account each, and a joint account for managing all their household expenditure and investment. All your income goes into the joint account, and an agreed amount's regularly transferred into each of the private accounts. Not much, because it's purely for your personal spending.

His beer money, her shoes, gifts etc. Everything else, the household bills, savings, investment, support for your extended families, should be done through the joint account. No more 'he pays the rent and I pay for the food' schemes, which inevitably come unstuck sooner or later.

Doing everything through the joint account makes for transparency and accountability. And prevents secret personal investment plans and inappropriate spending. Like on an illicit second family...

During dating, should the man be paying all the bills for his lady? If not, what is a way to politely decline?

When couples are just hanging out casually, it's entirely appropriate for them to split the bills. But once he realises he's dating a possible future wife, he should arrange the dates, and pay for everything!

The man paying for everything is a marker that the couple's serious. Of course she should buy him the occasional small gift and pick up some expenses, just to show that she's not just in it for the money!

But gradually, as the couple becomes committed, they start to plan and manage their dating, travel and living expenses together. And that of course, is also a great way to start talking about how they'll manage their finances together once they're married.

Some of the problems, especially in our African setting, emanate from the 'burden' of taking care of the extended family. eg, supporting siblings and ageing parents from both sides of the family. What advice would you give to couples on tackling this?

The financial burden of an extended family can create huge problems, especially when this falls on just one successful sibling. The key is reducing expectations and effective budgeting. And I know this will sound awful, but it also helps to keep your lifestyle simple, and hide the money!

And for you to privately agree what you can commit to family support, and then stick to your budget. And be tough. That includes persuading the whole family to plan and contribute, according to their abilities.

Because otherwise you might get regarded as a bottomless pit of easy money, while others shirk their responsibilities.

If say the woman brings home more money, does that make a man feel impotent?

Some men do, certainly. But better educated men are usually quite OK with their wives being the bigger earner, so long as he's able to make an equivalent impact in a different way, either within the family or elsewhere.

Perhaps by being creative, building up a business, or working in the community etc. It's important that it's a joint decision to emphasis her earning potential that he's hard working in his role, and that he actively contributes to the family's financial management. It doesn't work if he starts coasting along on her income!

Do marriages where the man makes more money stand a better chance than the vice versa?

I hate to admit it in today's enlightened times, but there's no doubt that couples who prioritise his career over hers, while giving her more say in the home, are generally more successful than the other way round!

But there's no rule about this, and plenty of examples of very successful couples where she's the higher earner. But if she starts to get controlling about money, then things will go pear-shaped very quickly!

What are the common expectations by typical men and women getting into marriage regarding finances?

The most common expectation amongst men, is that very little will change once they're married, while women expect lots of changes. Both are usually disappointed! Most couples don't think enough about the need for transparency and joint decision making. And few understand the need for both to have a little personal spending money.

Most expect things to be a lot easier than they really are, and underestimate the costs of raising a family. They expect a higher standard of living than is practical for a young family, and rarely save enough early on.

What role can parents play in modelling their children's attitudes towards money?

This is where all those inappropriate expectations come from! Parents need to teach their children to be skillful with money, and to understand its value. And what it can't buy –like happiness. They need to emphasise just how hard a couple has to work to reach the standard of living they see their parents enjoying. And to enjoy the simple life while they're young. And the value of compound interest!