Foundations for Strong Families 201. Talking about Money and Credit in Relationships

01/09/2009

Many Americans frequently see or hear about how credit can increase family funds or solve money problems, whether by opening a new credit card through an application received in the mail or in advertisements about how people who have credit troubles can access new lines of credit. While talking about credit has become an everyday phenomenon in the media, understanding the intricacies and implications of various credit offers and possibilities is far less common.

When contemplating the future of a relationship, people frequently ask themselves, “Am I ready for a serious relationship?” However, people often do not ask, “Am I ready for a serious relationship with someone else’s credit?” Both marriage and relationship skills educators and financial experts recommend that individuals in a relationship explore how they can make financially sound decisions together. These advisors may offer educational programs to help couples think through deep emotional relationship and communication issues, as well as the financial dos and don’ts that may surface when two lives merge. This “financial intimacy” is a core element of a solid relationship or marriage.

Bringing couples to a shared understanding of what they want to do financially as a team requires that they understand themselves and each other, as well as learn more about money and credit together. Figure 1 presents a couples quiz suggested by the well-regarded American Institute of Certified Public Accountants’ 360 Degrees of Financial Literacy effort. Although specific program approaches may differ, many of the underlying messages are the same in numerous curricula about marriage and financial planning. First, avoiding the topic of finances altogether may be tempting, but it is not constructive. Second, there is no universal right answer, but the process of working out a financial plan tailored to the needs and goals of a couple is essential because honest communication is the core of both healthy relationships and healthy finances. Third, regardless of the financial plan, life circumstances change, and developing skills to revise and implement the plan together may build confidence and resilience. Overall, from the perspectives of both the financial educator and the marriage and relationship skills educator, differences in approaches to finances between life partners are inevitable and natural. How these differences are reconciled is what matters.

Typically, in the transition to becoming a couple, the task of retaining one’s personal identity and creating a new joint identity can be tricky. Navigating this transition requires sensitivity and developing a shared understanding about what each person brings to the relationship and wants from it. One model of relationship attachment, summarized in Figure 2, highlights the importance of sequential development of knowledge, trust, reliance, and commitment to a partner based on increasing time with and understanding of each other. Many components of this sequential model can be applied to individual relationships with credit as well. It suggests that gradually demystifying the unknown in marital or financial relationships—instead of rushing forward—can be helpful in avoiding some of the downsides of relying on partners or financial institutions that one may not understand.

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