One of my clearest memories as a little girl was sitting in between my parents in the front seat of our big, red station wagon—while listening to them argue about money.
I remember thinking, Oh, they’ll figure it out. They eventually did, but the lesson that I took away from that experience was that money made my mom and dad mad.
It turns out that my parents were fairly typical. According to a nationwide survey conducted by LearnVest and TD Ameritrade, couples have about five fights a year about finances—and about 20 money conversations a year.
But what is it really like to communicate effectively about money for decades? We asked those who know best: three long-term couples who’ve spent years talking about—and dealing with—money as a team.
Cindy and Mike Harrelson
For Cindy and Mike, a married couple in their mid-50s with two kids in college, it’s all about being financially responsible.
Married for 29 years, they thrive on living within their means—without debt. They don’t have a dollar of credit card debt, and they own their home outright. This clear vision, which Mike likes to call being “downwardly mobile,” has allowed them to live in more posh locales like Jackson Hole early in their marriage, and Hawaii for two years when their children were young.
Cindy and Mike had hard-working, frugal parents, so they both feel strongly about never buying things simply to fill a void. And money was something that they made a point to discuss early on in their relationship—including on their first date.
“Before we got married, we said, ‘We’re going to need to communicate about everything—especially money,’ ” says Cindy, an academic administrator. “We’re going to need to pool it, and trust each other, knowing that we are sharing everything 50/50.”
“Consequently, the things that we’ve been able to experience as a family, because we are debt-free, have been invaluable,” says Mike, an avid outdoorsman who works in public relations. “Money doesn’t control us.” In fact, Mike recently took a surf trip to Nicaragua, thanks in no small part to the couple’s savvy approach to finances.
And while Mike is the big-picture guy who tends to keep an overall vision for the family, Cindy is more of the pragmatist-spreadsheet person. “She has a clear plan of when things are supposed to happen, which has been a relief for me because I didn’t always have a knack for the right timing like she did,” says Mike. “She’d say, ‘I think it’s time to buy a house,’ and that would feel right for me, too.”