How Divorce Lawyers and Marriage Counsellors Manage Money With Their Partners
They spend all day thinking about money and relationships—so what do they do with theirs?
They spend all day thinking about money and relationships—so what do they do with theirs?
Divorce lawyers and couples counsellors see how often money leads to the end of a relationship. When these professionals return home, they put into action several steps to make sure they have a healthy relationship with their finances and their partners.
Lisa Zeiderman, 61 years old, a divorce lawyer in New York, and her husband, Lloyd Zeiderman, an 86-year-old wealth and business manager, spent the better part of their respective careers thinking about money and relationships. They have front-row seats to how financial issues can tear couples apart.
At home and at work, Mrs. Zeiderman preaches “the mailbox rule.”
Every weekend, when she and her husband drive out for breakfast, she stops the car at the end of the driveway and checks the mail. While they share money, he takes the lead on managing their investments and communicating any new developments to his wife. But she said checking the literal receipts—both in the mail and digitally—can offer peace of mind.
“If the credit-card statements are no longer available or passwords are changed or you used to have discussions about money and now you don’t, that may be the sign of something brewing around you,” she said.
Sharing money with a romantic partner leads to greater overall relationship satisfaction, and combining financial power in turn leads to greater wealth for the household, studies have found. Despite these demonstrated benefits, many couples see talking about money as a gateway to more fights and less peace.
But many seasoned legal, financial and counselling professionals say they have seen firsthand the repercussions of letting money problems fester. We asked some of them to share even more lessons they have learned and put to the test in their own relationships.
“Just talk about it” is some of the most common—and occasionally infuriating—advice quarrelling couples receive. But in practice, maintaining a low-stakes, ongoing daily discussion about expenses, savings and your respective financial habits can lessen the tension many people feel around these money conversations, said Matt Lundquist, the 46-year-old founder and clinical director of Tribeca Therapy in New York who also counsels couples.
For the Zeidermans, who have been married for almost 25 years, the conversation never stops—and that is intentional, they both say.
“There’s no scheduled sit-down, and it isn’t an organised event,” Mr. Zeiderman said. “But the bill comes in, we talk about it. If we’re buying something for her daughter or my son, we make a joint decision.”
They both admit they aren’t always in perfect agreement. Over the years, Mr. Zeiderman has lent money to an old friend. When she first saw the wire transfer, Mrs. Zeiderman had some questions. But in talking about the issue, she said, they agreed to call a truce: when a particular expense is especially personal to the other partner, they can allow some leeway.
When Mr. Lundquist and his wife of 13 years talk about coming expenses, savings plans or the impact of inflation on their budget, they don’t only talk about the numbers, he said.
“Don’t just sit down and go through the budget, but parallel to that, say ‘how do you feel about that?’” he said. “It’s astonishing how many couples don’t talk about that and the consequences of that.”
Valentina Shaknes, a 43-year-old New York City lawyer and one of the founding partners at Krauss, Shaknes, Tallentire & Messeri, has become familiar with a certain story: A successful, confident woman in the throes of divorce proceedings realizes how little she knew of the overall household finances.
“They would really rely and defer to their husbands to manage their family finances, which is so different from their professional lives, where they’re running the show,” Ms. Shaknes said.
In divorce proceedings, Ms. Shaknes describes a document she says she has since come to love: the statement of net worth. Each party fills out expenses, income, assets, liabilities and more in granular detail, so that each has the complete picture of the other’s financial situation. Ms. Shaknes recommends couples try doing this exercise while they are still together, rather than waiting until a breakup.
At home, Ms. Shaknes recreates the process with her husband of 23 years. Each time, they discuss mortgage payments, real-estate taxes and credit-card spending, and adjust for new factors like education costs for their children. The exercise may be tedious, but she’s adamant they both have eyes on the numbers.
“Our lives are so full with all of the responsibilities and obligations, and you have to divide and conquer,” she said. “But you also need to know.”
Adam Kol, a mediator, tax lawyer and former financial adviser based in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., calls himself “The Couples Financial Coach.” When he and his wife got married at the start of 2023, he said they had been sharing money for almost a year, in part to more easily manage the expenses related to their wedding.
At the start of their relationship, Mr. Kol identified as “the saver” and his wife as “the spender.”
They have since learned to spend money on things that enrich their lives, and vice versa. When they were first decorating their apartment, Mr. Kol said his wife took the lead on thrifting many of their artworks. Whenever he looks at the variety of pictures and art, Mr. Kol said he sees a visual representation of the middle road they found together.
“Like all couples, we moderate each other,” he said. “She helps me loosen up a little bit and enjoy the day-to-day.”
Chris Dixon, a partner who led the charge, says he has a ‘very long-term horizon’
Americans now think they need at least $1.25 million for retirement, a 20% increase from a year ago, according to a survey by Northwestern Mutual
Many people are spending more than they think as inflation stays elevated
Many people have a gap between what they think they spend and what they actually spend. This gap has widened recently as the financial and psychological effects of higher prices further strain people’s budgets.
Elevated inflation has rippled through American’s wallets for more than a year now. Some have cut back, while others have increased their spending to keep up. Credit-card balances were staying relatively flat for a while, but have jumped higher recently.
In the fourth quarter of 2022, the average household’s credit-card balance was $9,990, up 9% from in the fourth quarter of 2021, according to WalletHub, a consumer-finance website. Meanwhile, the average credit-card interest rate rose to a record high of about 20% last week, according to Bankrate.
Financial advisers say the larger amount of credit-card debt while rates are higher is one indication that some Americans are spending more than they think they are. This type of spending can reduce people’s ability to pay for important items down the road, such as college for a child or even fund their own retirement. More immediately, it will put people in costlier debt.
“If people spend too much on credit, they could end up trapped in a cycle of debt,” said Courtney Alev, consumer financial advocate at Credit Karma.
Spending less isn’t always possible when everything from groceries to travel is generally more expensive. Still, people can find ways to cut back if they understand more about why they are overspending and take a closer look at their finances.
The power of compounding is a boon to investors, but not to shoppers.
Money grows much faster than most people expect because interest is earned on interest, said Michael Liersch, head of Wells Fargo & Co.’s advice and planning centre. A similar concept applies to inflation: Prices rise, and if inflation remains high, prices continue to grow on top of already-inflated prices, leaving people off guard.
“People get constantly surprised that their money isn’t going as far as they thought it would,” he said.
The cost of eating out and going for drinks continues to take Dina Lyon aback. Even though the 36-year-old married mother of one is dining out and ordering in far less than she did a year ago, some prices still give her sticker shock.
“The difference between cooking at home—about $10 for nice pasta and quick sauce from canned tomatoes—versus Italian takeout of $50 is astronomical,” said Ms. Lyon, who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.
People tend to underestimate their future spending in large part because they base their predictions on typical expenses that come to mind easily, said Abigail Sussman, a professor of marketing at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.
She and other researchers found that when people are coming up with predictions, they tend to think about what they usually spend money on—such as groceries, rent and gas—and base their predictions primarily on these expenses. They are less likely to consider atypical expenses, such as car repairs or birthday presents, the researchers found.
This pattern is particularly problematic when inflation is high, said Prof. Sussman. When the price of the same basket of items rises, people might not account for these price increases in their future budgets, she said.
Further, times of stress cause people to be less intentional about tracking their money, said Mr. Liersch. They might also spend more than they know they can afford to soothe feelings including anxiety and depression.
According to a recent survey by Credit Karma, 39% of Americans identify as emotional spenders (defined by the study as someone who spends money to cope with emotional highs and lows.)
You have a better chance of staying under budget if you become more aware of your spending instead of sticking your head in the sand, financial advisers said.
One thing Adam Alter, a professor of marketing at New York University’s Stern School of Business, does is create a line item in his monthly budget for one-off expenses, such as an unexpected medical bill. This gives him a cushion in his budget and enables him to more fully examine how much he is spending each month, said Prof. Alter, who has studied overspending.
People might also wish to include an escalating buffer into their budgets of say, 2% to 5% a year, to account for inflation, he said.
Jay Zigmont, a financial planner in Water Valley, Miss., looks at clients’ total take-home income from the year, subtracts everything they must spend money on such as their mortgage and how much they saved. The remaining number is how much they spent on discretionary spending.
In most cases, clients are surprised they spent so much, he said.
Once people know how much they spend, Britta Koepf, a financial planner in Independence, Ohio, suggests they practice mindful spending. Before any purchase, ask yourself if you really want or need what you are buying. Frequently, the answer is yes, but sometimes waiting five seconds will prevent you from overspending, she said.
You can also practice mindfulness by delaying purchases further.
“A lot of the time, if I tell myself that I will purchase it next week, I find that I am no longer interested a week later,” she said.
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