Marek and Lori Fuchs have never fought in their 16 years of marriage—except over money. In this column, Mr. and Mrs. Fuchs, a real-life married couple with three kids (ages 11, 7 and 5), will articulate their very different approaches to personal finance. Last round, they clashed on whether to switch to a cash-only budget.
This round: She says, “We should both be responsible for paying the bills.” He says, “That’s all you, baby.”
Mr. Fuchs says: You want me to do what? Really? Why not just put your credit score in a muddy puddle and stir it with a stick? Seriously, I should not—under any circumstances—play even in a cursory role in paying our monthly bills. Trust me, honey: it won’t end pretty. Look, the division of labor within our household has always been determined by our comparative talents. I excel in lugging things: garbage, baskets of laundry and leaf bags. And you excel at paying bills responsibly, without airhead errors or a fatal penchant for procrastination. I know I worked on Wall Street and write about personal finance, but I’m also cheap and hate paperwork. That’s hardly a favorable combination as the first of the month approaches. Our good friends Scott Gober and Daniella Saunders, married almost as long as us, divide to conquer. Once you start playing loose with who does what when, the wise Gober points out, “The outcome is often, `I thought you were going to do it.’" And we don't need the mortgage not being paid, especially in times like these.
Mrs. Fuchs says: Years of marriage, not to mention family therapy training and counseling bickering couples, have taught me a few things. Not much fractures a relationship more than lack of communication and I’d argue that is especially true in financial matters. In fact, money is one of the top issues that couples argue about. So I say couples should pay bills together, rather than assign it to one unlucky spouse. Listen, how are you supposed to know what summer camp we can afford or when is a good time to replace the couch if you don’t know where our money goes and how much is in the checking account? And although I admit that it is much easier to hide that purchase of a pair of terrific black boots (on sale, mind you) when I’m in charge of the bank statement, the truth is I want you to know where our money is going, too. Working together on the bills will give us an opportunity to discuss our priorities for money, reconcile our different spending styles, and make better decisions about our budget. And it’s not just me saying this. Fellow psychologist Alan Hilfer, the chief psychologist of Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn, told the story of a widow who recently came into therapy with a check, not even knowing how to fill it out. I don’t want you to be unable to pay bills or to become an easy mark for predators if I die first. You’re going to have a hard enough time trying to figure out how to work the answering machine.
Mr. Fuchs says: I was listening to that psychologist, too, and even he said that he pays his household bills because his wife, an artist, is adverse to it. Any other arrangement, he noted, could itself be a “source of friction.” That’s just what Gober said.
Mrs. Fuchs says: But Dr. Hilfer also pointed out that while he manages his private practice bill paying, his wife manages payment for her own art business. That means she has plenty of experience writing checks and managing expenses which, God knows, is what you need.
Mr. Fuchs says: Sez you. Anyhow, I’ll see your psychologist and raise you a financial planner: Jon Ten Haagen, of Ten Haagen Financial Group in Huntington. Mr. Ten Haagen, who has the best last name of any certified financial planner I’ve ever heard of, gets to the same area of compromise that Dr. Hilfer eventually did. He agrees that the downside of being an adult and playing no role in your family’s bill paying can be dire. If something awful happens to your spouse, you might be totally lost financially, or an easy mark for chiselers. At the same time, forcing a reluctant spouse to pay bills just for the sake of it is asking for trouble. However, the person who does pay the bills should make the time to talk to the more hesitant one about what they are paying and why. And the spouse who is not paying the bills should lend a patient ear. We have a lot to learn and it’s a small price to pay to avoid a seriously annoying monthly task.
Mrs. Fuchs says: I’ll be happy to meet you there. We won’t sit together and co-sign checks every month (or push the send button together, since it’s mostly done electronically.). But for our long term financial (and relational) health, we’ll sit together for at least a few minutes a month to discuss what we are paying and why.
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