Most research shows that financial problems are the leading cause of divorce. Of course, every couple has bills to pay, emergencies that force us to borrow and differences over spending and investing.
So how does a couple keep their eye on the financial prize without causing a major break in their relationship?
Here are some actions that will help you hit your debt reduction target and keep your marriage alive and well:
Set your goals and communicate often. Let’s assume you want to reduce your credit card debt by $5,000 at the end of the year. Decide how much each person can contribute monthly and track your progress. And if you can use a tax refund to help you achieve your goal, talk about how much money from the refund will go toward debt reduction.
Once your goals are set, don’t hope that it’s all going to work out. Set aside some time each month to monitor your progress, even if it’s only 15 minutes. Determine if you’ve hit your monthly goal and the outlook for the coming month. And if you’ve been successful, find a way to celebrate. Otherwise, the grind of paying down debt every month can easily become a chore that wears on both people.
Support each other, especially if one person is struggling. It’s likely that one person will do better than the other. They may earn more money, have more financial flexibility in their budget or just be mentally tougher. If your spouse is having a hard time hitting their target, don’t criticize them. Offer ways to help out, possibly by paying down a portion of their debt. Even better, offer them an incentive to hit their debt target during the following month, such as tickets to a Major League Baseball game or dinner at their favorite restaurant.
Be willing to forgive mistakes, even dumb ones. Paying off debt isn’t a lot of fun; even people with the best of intentions may feel the need to splurge after months of living lean. If that happens, resist the urge to give your spouse a lecture. Remember that you’re in this battle together and you need each other to reach your goals.
A corollary principle is this: Don’t fight. Once the gloves come off, resentment sets in and one or both people may decide the goal isn’t worth it. Once you begin to snipe at each other, even couples deeply in love will have a hard time recovering.
Keep the children informed. Even young children should be told about your plans to reduce spending. It’s also a good time to teach them how money works and the importance of having enough for housing, food and other essential items. Older children know how money works, but may have a tougher time accepting changes, especially if their friends have more to spend. Help them understand the importance of saving money for college. And if they’re old enough, it may be an opening to talk about looking into part-time work.
Finally, focus on the benefits of reaching your goal. Revisit the reasons for reducing or eliminating your debt and, as you get close to achieving your goal, begin to plan for the future. Knowing that you will have money to buy a home or make other investments once you pay down your debt is a strong incentive to see your plan through to the end.