Love, Look at the Three of Us: Having the Money Talk Before Marriage

Love, Look at the Three of Us: Having the Money Talk Before Marriage

I nearly married a millionaire once. It didn’t work out and I won’t tell you why, but I’m willing to share some of our pre-aisle chats – intimacy of the non-pillow variety, so there should be no embarrassment.

There may be some pink cheeks, after all, as Americans don’t like talking about money. She and I didn’t mind: we’d been living overseas for ages, having picked up unabashed European good sense about finances, and we knew that getting hitched was traditionally a commercial affair. The Old World is still pretty old fashioned, so score a point for them.

Couples fight about cash, clash over investments, have a cold-blooded stake in life insurance. Yes, you need an intimate chat: just you, your lover and your money. It’s not as unsexy a topic as it seems; bear with me.

I was on the happy side of these talks, as she was the rich one. No Protestant shame for my Episcopalian lass: she’d earned it, invested smart, was proud of her successes, suffered not from gross materialism, though she sure had nice shoes. She was a peach of the Mensa variety, to a point.

Yet who wouldn’t be tempted to marry a girl with an apartment in the Bastille district of Paris? I’d walked through that neighborhood way back in 1990, found it ghostly, wondered vaguely if this was time to buy early. I didn’t, and can’t plead my poverty: good ideas always find funding. Lack of the vision thing, as the old president said. She, on the other hand, hadn’t missed out.

Once, she tried bribery. Wouldn’t I like to finish my PhD? No, not at all. Yes, she canoodled, but what would you write, if you could do it for free? Well, I’d show what happened to people in the Soviet Union – I’m a Russia specialist, purportedly – who were legitimately popular with the masses. Marshall Zhukov, Yuri Gagarin, Vladimir Vysotsky – it didn’t end well. Pop singer Alla Pugacheva finally broke the mold and… hey, are you still with me, my might-not-be soul mate?

A down-to-earth woman, she yet never swore, but just this once: “That’s a [expletive-ing] fantastic idea.” Tempting little devil, but… dissertation? I’d rather watch volleyball.

My opaque point is this: you can’t rely solely on intellect, common interests, admirable morals or naturally red hair: you’ve got to plan, determine your life needs, assess your earning capacity and money goals – all that and more, as is said – in this case, uneasily for me. It’s disturbing to think that portfolio structures and views on permanent life policies can derail marriage.

That’s not entirely why we went haywire, yet it occurs, generally because couples don’t have the right conversations before marriage.

One matter uneasy is debt. Reasonable loans are often revealed with shame – why? What’s wrong with a mortgage, a student loan, a car payment? It’s that American thing again: we’re supposed to be self-reliant, living alone in a cabin by Walden Pond.

I’d observe that Thoreau, who still brags about unfettered living from his ancient writing, is gossip fodder in Concord to this day. Some nature boy: the town center is four miles from Waldon. When Henry would get hungry, he’d stroll to his mother’s house, top-up on stew, then go back to his rustic life and scribble. ‘That big fay-kah’, the Townies still say.

Louisa May Alcott wrote to Emerson about Henry David’s vivid beard: “[It] will most assuredly deflect amorous advances and preserve the man’s virtue in perpetuity.” The man knew nothing of love, nor money. We can ignore him.

People walk into banks and take loans that sometimes turn into burdens – it happens. Spouses need to know, of course, because they’ll be on the hook. Debts, like all, are a matter of planning, not rejecting a potential life-mate,  unless we’re talking six-figure debts to casinos, say. Not a safe bet, there.

Reasonably acquired major debt anxieties can be relieved by a life insurance policy: term or whole, depending on goals and what the couple can afford. The pair can split the cost, though if one fiancée is strikingly wealthier, they usually pay the premiums. Big assets often mean big debts, so it’s only fair.

Life insurance works well here because, if tragedy strikes, the grieving party won’t face any dunning: the death benefit pays everything off. Covering joint bills is a traditional role of life insurance, sometimes neglected. Put it on your list, lovers.

We generally dislike prenuptial agreements, unless there’s a family fortune to protect: they tend to kill trust. Yet, if done right, prenups can have the opposite effect. Any objective the couple defines, like buying a home, funding education for upcoming kids, the proportion of earnings for investment, life insurance to protect the whole scheme – all can be established in a prenup.

If employed in this spirit – as a guide, a roadmap, an aide-memoire for the long term – a prenup can bust stress in a marriage. Much marital happiness involves money, alas: you can’t launch a surf school, work around the globe, get that apartment in the 11th arrondissement without it. The prenuptial agreement can codify goals to help keep the couple on course.

There are financial planners who specialize in marital counseling, if you please, who help couples plan for life and find ways to fund it. I recommend their services, and a less creepy word than ‘prenup’ can always be chosen to describe the consultation’s results.

How do I know so much? I haven’t done well on the marriage front. Yet I do know a couple: happily married for 20 years, three kids, all merry and bright. How? I asked them individually and they told me the same things, like they’d written the libretto together.

Marriage is a venture, a carefully scripted adventure, they said. When you can’t stand the sight of each other – that comes to all – you simply keep working the plan. Family, career, kids – garden, for heaven’s sake – whatever the task. Keep moving toward the goal.

One day, you look up and see them, right there: your best ally, dependable, never contrary without reason, moving things forward in tandem. Curiously, this heats up the blood, reports my friend, the female half of the whole. See, I told you: planning puts the sexy in marriage.

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