February 10, 2020

Money and Marriage

author photoBy Karen Sternheimer

Romantic rituals like Valentine’s Day emphasize marriage and relationships (often via commercial means), and social media posts often celebrate proposals and anniversaries. Marriage means many things to different people, particularly across place and time. But one thing is somewhat consistent: marriage is intertwined with money.

While it might be crude to think of marrying for money in the U.S. in the twenty-first century, financial factors are often part of the reason that people don’t marry (or don’t stay married). Why are the two so inextricably related, even as people may be most likely to marry for love and companionship today?

Historically, marriage was a way for families to secure their children’s financial futures. Historian Stephanie Coontz describes in her book Marriage, a History, that economic arrangements dominated the practice of marriage until the late nineteenth century. Arranged marriages are still common in much of the world, as is the practice of paying a dowry (or a transfer of wealth, typically from the bride’s family to the groom’s family) upon marriage. In fact, common law marriage, when a couple essentially lives as a married couple but has not been formally wed, is so-named because centuries ago families without wealth did not have the resources to share property or prestige.

How are marriage and money related today? According to the Pew Research Center’s 2019 report “Marriage and Cohabitation in the U.S.,” the vast majority of married respondents—90 percent—report that they married their spouse for love, and two-thirds reported marrying for companionship. Only 13 percent responded that “it made sense financially.”

But cohabiting couples are likely to report that financial issues are major or minor issues preventing them from getting married. More than half report that they feel that they are not ready financially (59 percent) or that their partner is not ready financially (53 percent). Forty-four percent say they would like to be further along in their career, another financial indicator. According to another Pew report, young people are staying single longer.

Much of marriage involves being part of a financial partnership—paying for everyday living expenses, paying for children, if applicable—these are among the mundane and unromantic aspects of marriage. There is no shortage of advice from financial planners on how couples can better deal with conflicts over money.

The Pew report found that while married respondents trust their spouse a great deal to be faithful (84 percent), act in their best interest (74 percent), and always tell them the truth (68 percent), far fewer (56 percent) reported that they could trust their spouse to handle money responsibly. The percentages are even lower for unmarried cohabiting couples.

The likelihood of Pew’s respondents being married varied by education level, a good indicator of earnings and financial stability. Just over half of those with a high school degree or less (54 percent) were married, while two-thirds (66 percent) of those with bachelor’s degrees or more reported being married.

Although marriage might be more likely to be culturally defined as an emotional or spiritual partnership, the states where married couples reside have very specific laws that focus on finances. Couples might work out a means of managing their money together, such as having joint and individual banks accounts—for those who can afford a bank account at all, let alone three (see this definition of what it means to be “unbanked”)—but as this CNBC article explains, state laws clarify marital assets. For instance:

[T]he benefit of this money management system is mostly psychological, rather than legal. If you live in a community property state, anything acquired during the marriage — including the income used to fund those separate accounts — is considered “community property” and therefore belongs to both spouses. Residents of Alaska, Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Washington and Wisconsin fall into this category.

While many people getting married focus on planning a wedding and a honeymoon, it also makes sense to figure out how to best pay bills together and understand a spouse-to-be’s spending habits and consider whether they are compatible with yours.

I have an acquaintance who married a very wealthy man years ago and felt like it wasn’t her place to pry into his financial life, lest she seem like she was overly interested in his money. His lavish spending and bad investments caught up with him, and after he declared bankruptcy she ended up paying quite a bit to his creditors years after, even after they divorced. She might not have married for money, but the divorce cost her quite a bit in the end.

How else is marriage related to money?

Comments

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