Marriage and Money: It's Complicated, and Getting More So

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Marriage and moneyWhen my ex-husband lost his job, I thought I was being kind by telling him not to worry about it. Apparently, this translated in his mind as "Your job never really mattered anyway" -- not my intention, nor my best move. And, that was before the economy tanked. Apparently, couples arguing about money is on the rise. In an American Express (AXP) study, 61% of consumers admitted to argumentative discussions about household budgets -- up 17% year over year.

Few things affect the household dynamic and tenor of financial discussions more than losing your job. And, if you're not married, apparently you should leave the word "jobless" off your online dating profile. Jobs matter in relationships, and the lack of one can even preclude them, as highlighted by a new survey this month indicating three out of four women wouldn't marry someone unemployed. Marriage is an economic union, and the deal terms just don't look favorable when one partner's cash flow goes to zero.

Unemployed and Unmarriageable

Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project, points out that marriage-as-business is back in Forbes, yet another reminder of how the state of the job market permeates all aspects of life. The article by Meghan Casserly features a 31-year-old guy who was laid off and now struggles to answer the "what do you do" question on dates. I suspect -- just a hunch -- that it's even tougher for divorced men in their 40s and 50s looking to get remarried, in between jobs, living off savings and running out of runway. The roughly 9% unemployment rate has taken a particular toll on men, who make up the lion's share of employees in hard-hit industries like construction. Corporate America hasn't been immune either, and the demographic of men in their 50s has been crushed.

If the recent Newsweekcover story, complete with a picture of a suit-wearing man sprawled face-down on a beach -- "washed up," as it were -- is a sign of the times, the odds these men will return to their peak earning potential are about as good as the odds their hair will grow back. In fact, they currently face unemployment rates as high as teenage girls notorious for switching jobs between places like the Gap (GPS) and The Limited (LTD). Switching gears from the boardroom to the kitchen table can be a little more disruptive to the ego. But, boys will be boys and they seem to hold up well in turbulent times, not that the stress doesn't surface somehow, someway.

Women Feel More Stressed About Being Strapped

Men just don't seem to let us see them sweat money matters quite as much or as transparently as women. In fact, a new survey indicates women are three times more likely to feel "overwhelming financial stress." I think it probably has a lot to do with the "Mother Bear" instinct. Forget not being able to spring for a new pair of shoes -- when you can't provide for your children, you feel it to your core. Women also feel guilty about shopping. It can even make us sneaky. In a recent survey commissioned by Eversave, 30% of women admitted to hiding a purchase in the trunk of their car until they could sneak it into the house. At least when you're single, you might feel guilty, but you can prance right through the front door.

Breaking Up and Bouncing Back

Dissolved relationships lead to another economic reality: divorce. As Bonnie Kavoussi writes, "the burden of running a single-family household alone only adds to the pressure."
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Ah, pressure with no sign of respite. Not to suggest the economics of marriage aren't complex, but the economics of divorce with children is in a league of its own. Crazy Time author Abigail Trafford writes, "The bitter fact of breaking up is that divorce makes you poor, especially if you are a woman." She estimates, in general, it takes about five years for divorced women and their children to regain their pre-divorce standard of living. Not everybody gets there.

"Sitting back and waiting for another Mr. Right to come along to pay the bills -- or trying to squeeze more out of your ex-spouse -- is like waiting for the tooth fairy to dance on your pillow every night," she cautions. "Besides, it's not good mental health. It means you're still married -- to anyone who will pay the bills."

Billion-Dollar Divorcee Is Broke

And, the higher the bills, the harder the fall. For proof that whatever you get from your ex in a split -- even if it's millions -- you can burn through all of it, look no further than Patricia Kluge, who reportedly filed for bankruptcy protection this week. Her 1990 divorce from media mogul John Kluge yielded an estimated $1 billion.

When you're married, it's convenient to blame mismanaged finances on your spouse. But, as one prominent stock broker pointed out to me, "what happens after that happens on your watch." In other words, when it comes to post-divorce finances, you have no one to blame but yourself as you're grabbing stuff out of the trunk.


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