Couples and money: Lessons from The Queen of Versailles
I recently got sick for the first time in almost a decade, and was bed/couch-ridden for a good four days.
Since I had some time on my hands, I was able to watch a few documentaries on my Netflix queue. One of those was The Queen of Versailles, a film that will make your jaw drop like an episode of Hoarders. It's hard to believe people really live like that.
El Nerdo also did a review of this documentary, and he does a great job of explaining the film. If you aren't familiar with the film, The Queen of Versailles depicts Jackie and David Siegel, owners of Westgate Resorts, as they build the largest and most expensive single-family house in the U.S. The Florida mansion was modeled after France's 17th century Palace of Versailles and is a staggering 90,000 square feet. What does one do with 90,000 square feet? The plans include 30 bedrooms, 23 bathrooms, a 30-car garage and amenities like a roller rink, baseball field, children's theater, and bowling alley.
When the film starts, construction on the mega-mansion is well underway, but then the economy tanks. The business is in trouble, and David Siegel admits that they have no real personal savings to speak of.
There are a lot of great money lessons in the film, even for those of us who live in houses the size of Jackie's closet. But what struck me the most was Jackie's position in all of this: she had no idea where they stood financially.
One Spouse is in the Dark
“We don't talk about financial problems,” Jackie says in the film. “I guess I'll have to watch the movie to find out what's going on in my life.”
Okay, sure. Jackie is a trophy wife who is 30 years David's junior, and she's depicted as a mostly-clueless shopaholic. But before she was a pageant queen and a model, she earned an engineering degree and worked at IBM.
Yet she has no idea where she stands financially.
That makes her position even more precarious than David's. His decisions affect the entire family, yet she's unaware of what those decisions are. For instance, in one scene, David yells at the whole family because someone left a light on, angry that their carelessness would run up the electricity bill. Yet he then takes out a loan to hang onto the unfinished mansion they could no longer afford. Meanwhile Jackie has no idea if they're actually selling the home or not.
Also, what happens to Jackie if something happens to him? He's 30 years older than her, if he were to become incapacitated or worse, she wouldn't have a clue how to take over the family finances.
So why would someone who is obviously capable of understanding their finances remain in the dark?
There are probably a lot of reasons why it happens. David was a wealthy businessman when he met Jackie, who was a model. In their relationship, he took care of everything, and they aren't exactly equals or partners in their marriage.
But more commonly, since the Siegels are anything but common, I suspect that it happens unintentionally. One person is better at dealing with numbers or likes handling the money, so they wind up paying the bills and checking the credit statements and the other person falls out of touch with how much is saved where.
Get on the Same Page
If you're reading Get Rich Slowly, I think it's safe to assume that you have an interest in your finances. But what if your partner doesn't? Or what if life has gotten in the way, and they just aren't up-to-speed anymore?
Even if you're the one balancing the checkbook, your partner needs to know the basics about what accounts you each have and what's in them. It allows you to work as a team and ensures that, if it's ever necessary, your partner can take over the family finances.
But don't bust out the spreadsheets just yet. There's a right way and a wrong way to get them involved.
How to Get Your Partner Up-to-Speed
To learn more about how to involve your partner in the money decisions, I spoke with Jacquette Timmons, the author of Financial Intimacy.
Here's her 5-step plan to get your partner on the same page.
Ease them into it. If your partner is totally in the dark, let them spend three months just looking at account statements, says Timmons. “They could see a pattern of expenses they weren't aware of, like automatic deductions for services they don't use or incorrect charges on the credit card,” she says. “At first, just let them look and start to ask questions.”
Be open to questions. Encourage them to ask questions, and “don't take it as questioning your knowledge or skills,” says Timmons.
Get some context. Take the time to understand each of your money backgrounds, advises Timmons. “We all come to the table with our own little money stories,” she says. “Try to understand your differences and how to integrate different financial philosophies.” For instance, one of her clients assumed he and his wife would have separate finances because that's how his parents handled their money. This was a foreign idea to his wife, whose parents shared everything. “To compromise, they created yours, mine, and ours accounts,” says Timmons.
Share info the way they learn best. There's more than one learning style, so make sure you present information the way your partner learns best, says Timmons. For instance, one man asked Timmons how he could get his wife involved in their finances. “I asked, ‘how does she take in information?'” says Timmons. “He was going to her with Excel spreadsheets, but it turned out that she's more visual. So I told him to turn those spreadsheets into a Powerpoint presentation, or something more visually appealing.”
Schedule a money date. Make a weekly appointment for a 30-minute money date. “The purpose is to handle some aspect of your finances together,” says Timmons, “but don't go more than that 30 minutes.”
And try to make it fun! A money date doesn't exactly sound like a great time, but “it doesn't have to be a dreaded experience,” says Timmons. “Schedule money dates when you aren't stressed, like Sunday night or some other downtime,” she says. “And build reward system for when you keep the date. Give yourselves a treat.”
That's some practical advice. But getting back to la-la land, where at the Siegels at today?
David Siegel filed a lawsuit over the film for defamation, claiming that it damaged the reputation of his company. Jackie, who is considering a reality show, still promotes the film, saying that she and her husband “simply don't discuss the lawsuit.”
Construction has resumed on their mansion.
Judging a film by its DVD cover, I assumed The Queen of Versailles would be a vapid Real Housewives-style production. But it actually delves into the serious issues of their rags-to-riches, “American Dream”-on-steroids lifestyle.
It also made me incredibly thankful for my marriage and our 1,500-square-foot home.
About the interviewee: Jacquette Timmons is the founder of Sterling Investment Management, Inc., a financial coaching firm. You can follow her on Twitter at @jacqmtimmons.