Foundations for Strong Families 101. Making the Case: Common Ground between the Marriage and Financial Fields


Research suggests that those that have healthy and stable relationships are more likely to have healthy stable finances and vice versa. Stability in one area seems to reinforce stability in the other, and familial and financial stability share a common foundation.

Both the level and the stability of family income differ depending on family composition. For example, single parents, on average, have lower family incomes and experience greater financial instability for several reasons: they have only one potential earner in the household and at times face unpredictability of financial support from non-custodial parents; find it difficult to recover from economically destabilizing events such as unemployment; can suffer downward mobility following divorce; accumulate lower levels of wealth across the life course; and have access to social networks that provide short-term financial help but more limited access to those that foster long-term economic mobility.

Tip from the Field:

“Financial education is marriage strengthening. Money is the top problem for most couples. When couples are sitting together, hearing the same thing, doing spending sheets together—they are talking. Many couples have never talked like this before about money.”

Karen Oswald, Sonoma Community Action Partnership, California, an AFI Project

Source: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Community Services. 2005. Building Assets, Building Stronger Families: A Guide to Integrating Asset-Building and Marriage-Strengthening Services. Washington, DC.

Not only do family structure and processes influence finances, but lower levels of financial resources and greater economic uncertainty beget less marriage.19 Financial instability is associated with higher stress levels20 and presents challenges to effective communication and long-term planning.21 Of course, marriage does not automatically guarantee financial stability or high quality relationships. Even within marriage, financial issues such as budgeting, spending, debt, savings and asset-building have been identified as major sources of conflict.22 Thus, enhancing low-income couples’ communication, problem-solving, and conflict management skills in conjunction with providing support for financial planning and economic development could increase both family and financial stability.

In addition to offering synergies in service delivery, coordination of services in the relationship skills and financial education fields offers opportunities to reinforce and build upon similar skills sets. Marriage and family-strengthening education and financial literacy and asset-building education require similar foundations and skill development for families to achieve successful outcomes. Programs in each area generally include such topics as setting goals and self-awareness about deeply held expectations. Participants learn that stability, either financial or familial, requires a commitment to working hard and investing in relationships, jobs, or savings accounts.

A Helpful Hint:

Relationships are similar to bank accounts; to withdraw emotional support or financial support from a friend, you have to have invested some capital, time or trust in that relationship. To keep your accounts, you must balance them. Pooling resources usually leads to improved outcomes.

Another similarity between financial and relationship skills education is that both require participants to consider short-term versus long-term choices and outcomes. The most immediately attractive option, whether it is a partner, a consumer good, or a financial service, may not be the best option for achieving one’s long-term goals. The ability to pass up immediate rewards to wait for a better opportunity is a key theme in both family strengthening and finances. Saving money for retirement or a house may be less attractive than buying something today, or turning down an individual you find attractive because he or she has different long-term aspirations can be a hard skill to implement and teach, but is emphasized in both successful relationships and finances. P.I.C.K. a Partner is a curriculum that focuses on teaching youth how to make relationship decisions and is described in Figure 4.

Planning for the long-term also relies upon common expectations. Practitioners in the marriage field report that correcting couple’s expectations about marriage and the challenges they are likely to face is an important element. Similarly, practitioners at financial education and/or asset building programs help individuals understand what they can realistically achieve and what steps they must take to meet their savings and economic development goals. Individuals prioritize different aspects of their finances and relationships. Good decision-making and long-term planning requires an understanding of underlying priorities in both financial and romantic matters.

Figure 4

Example of a Youth-Focused Relationship Curriculum: P.I.C.K.* A Partner

One of the relationship curricula that is used with youth in the family strengthening field is the P.I.C.K. a Partner program by John Van Epp, Ph.D.. This program encourages individuals to carefully evaluate their partners on a number of different issues and to not rush headlong into a relationship without evaluating all their options. Similar logic can be applied to other important choices, like choosing a job or a mortgage. Understanding your potential partner’s credit history can have important implications for you.

Students are encouraged to evaluate their knowledge of their potential partner on a series of scales. Building knowledge of the partner, along the dimensions of family dynamics and childhood experiences, their attitudes, joint compatibility potential, examples from their previous relationships, and their skills of communication are considered perquisites to trusting and relying of the partner, which are prerequisites to committing to a partner.

*Premarital Interpersonal Choices & Knowledge

For more information:

Today’s attitudes, behaviors, and priorities are generally shaped by one’s past. Bad (and good) habits formed from previous experiences or behaviors learned from one’s family can affect current romantic relationships and financial circumstances. While early patterning and beliefs about family, relationships, and the role of money can be challenging to discuss, understanding how couples differ in terms of sharing responsibilities, expectations, priorities, commitment, and cultural ideals is important in successfully addressing issues in relationships and finances. Power and control of money is a challenge to navigate when a couple has reliable employment and surplus income; this can be an even larger challenge for low-income or financially unstable couples. Fear, shame, anxiety, and conflict avoidance are issues couples face in relationships with families and finances.

Openly and honestly discussing relationship and financial expectations is no simple task. As circumstances change, there are opportunities to revisit joint expectations. For example, the birth of a child or the loss of a job may lead to shifts in the roles and responsibilities within the family. These opportunities may be disguised by fear, shame, and anxiety that the role changes may involve, and thus are difficult topics of conversation. In addition, deception in relationships can be a problem. The dangers of infidelity are a main topic of some marriage education curricula, but secrets in the realm of financial decision-making can be equally destructive and are sometimes overlooked.

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