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.

  1. 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.”

  2. Be open to questions. Encourage them to ask questions, and “don't take it as questioning your knowledge or skills,” says Timmons.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.”

  5. 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.

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LeRainDrop
LeRainDrop
7 years ago

This was a very useful and well-written post, connecting the movie and the advice seamlessly. April, thanks for sharing the tips, and also the post-film update on the Siegels!

TB at BlueCollarWorkman
TB at BlueCollarWorkman
7 years ago

My wife handles most of our money. She tells me each month how much I can spend and I stay under that cap. It’s a great system, but if something happened to her, I’d have a lot of catching up to do! I work full time and she’s a housewife, so it makes sense for her to handle that stuff.

Phoebe@allyouneedisenough
7 years ago

Great article! I agree that it is very important that spouses are both aware of the finances. When I first got married I consfused “handling the money” with “knowing about the money,” and tried to split bill paying duties with my husband 50/50. This created a lot of tension as he put off paying for things until the last minute and I nagged him until the very second that he finally did. We eventually realized that I am far more suited for bill paying and he decided to take on the laundry instead. While I am handling our fincances, all… Read more »

Anne
Anne
7 years ago

Beautifully put.

We set goals together. I handle the vast majority of the details.

Mom of five
Mom of five
7 years ago

I handle all the finances. My husband is certainly capable of it but he detests it. Mostly he washes his hands of it. I don’t know about this advice. He wouldn’t want to spend a half hour every week talking about our finances. Instead I mention things on an ongoing basis. I’m certainly open to questions, but he really only has one – “can we afford to do x?” Then I tell him our current numbers. Sometimes the answer to his question is yes, other times it’s, well, if we give up y and z, there’s room for x. And… Read more »

Mrs PoP @ Planting Our Pennies
Mrs PoP @ Planting Our Pennies
7 years ago
Reply to  Mom of five

Ours is more of an ongoing conversation that’s made infinitely easier by us both having mint on our phones that we check regularly to see where our spending numbers are falling.
We review transactions every week or two and check-in to make sure that they are all accounted for. Once you’ve got a system, it takes about 5 minutes.

Discussions about goals tend to happen when we’re out walking around the neighborhood in the evenings, which makes it seem easier and less formal than sitting down at a table with a computer in front of us.

John S @ Frugal Rules
John S @ Frugal Rules
7 years ago

I’ve read other reviews of this documentary and am always amazed at how they could live like that, though I guess I should not be. Great tips on bringing another spouse up speed. We split up the different responsibilities of our finances regularly so we’re comfortable with dealing with all of it and it also helps bring in another perspective to possibly make something more efficient.

Sam
Sam
7 years ago

I handle 95% of the personal finances in our house, although Mr. Sam has the MBA he hates to pay bills. We have our system down, so we don’t have as many money meetings/money talks as we used to. But twice a month I send him an excel spreadsheet on where we are with our yearly savings goals and if there is an issue with a particular bill he hears about it. All the logins and passwords, account numbers are in a safe spot in case something happened and he needed them. I also started, last year, working on making… Read more »

adult student
adult student
7 years ago

I was surprised by how much I liked the movie, and how likeable Jackie was, even though she was incomprehensible to me in a lot of ways. Even though the movie takes on these big themes of wealth, consumption, and inequality, it really doesn’t come off as didactic, it’s just following her through some very weird times.

Ramblin' Ma'am
Ramblin' Ma'am
7 years ago
Reply to  adult student

I liked Jackie too, even if she did seem like a character in a Christopher Guest movie. She seemed like a smart woman who was out of touch after living so “fabulously” for so long. I loved when she rented a car and asked with a straight face what her driver’s name would be!

April Dykman
April Dykman
7 years ago
Reply to  Ramblin' Ma'am

I, too, was surprised by how much I liked Jackie.

I actually felt sorry for her–her marriage made me sad, even though I know she chose her lifestyle and partner (and still chooses it).

Ms.W @ GrowingHerWorth
Ms.W @ GrowingHerWorth
7 years ago
Reply to  April Dykman

The movie made me very sad for Jackie as well. Watching the film, I felt like I knew more about their financial position AND how her husband felt about her than she did. I can’t imagine having your whole life in the hands of another person like that. She is smart, and can take care of herself. But it would be a very hard crash if her situation were to change, especially with all of this kids!

Waverly
Waverly
7 years ago
Reply to  adult student

I was impressed with how committed she was to David and her family. There was one point where she said, “Well, if we lose it all and have to live in a normal, four-bedroom house, that’s fine. I can make it work. We’ll just get bunk beds.”

I went into the movie thinking that Jackie was just a gold-digger, but really, I think she loves David and all the kids.

Jake
Jake
7 years ago

I haven’t heard of that documentary before, but I’ll have to check it out because it sounds interesting. I’m amazed at how uneven some relationships can be when it comes to finances. I guess I’m pretty lucky because my wife and I like to both manage our money so we each take ownership and go over everything every couple of weeks.

Sara
Sara
7 years ago

What a coincidence — this movie has been in my Netflix instant queue for a long time, and I just decided to watch it last night. At the beginning of the movie, Jackie said they were bursting at the seams in their current house, and that’s why they decided to build the new one. How can a 26,000 square foot house be too small?!

Juli
Juli
7 years ago
Reply to  Sara

Lately I’ve been telling my husband how I think our 1500 sq. ft. house is too big, and having so much room means we have too much stuff and takes too long to clean. Isn’t it funny how different people have such vastly different perspectives on things? Having a giant house just sounds horrible to me!

Waverly
Waverly
7 years ago
Reply to  Sara

They have a boatload of kids. Six or eight, if I recall correctly. And a ton of pets. Not to mention, piles upon piles of STUFF everywhere.

(You’re right, of course. 26,000 square feet is still a huge amount of space, even for 10 people.)

Holly
Holly
7 years ago

An excellent point. I am my family’s money manager because I have always lived in fear of being in a position where I am completely dependent on my partner. But my husband is all too willing to let me handle everything, and as a result he knows very little of our day to day finances.

SavvyFinancialLatina
SavvyFinancialLatina
7 years ago

I handle our finances. My husband has access to all the accounts but prefers me to handle the money. I don’t mind at all. I thin it helps us stay on track. However, if I were to die he would have some major catching up.

superbien
superbien
7 years ago

This caught my attention (oh I wish I were deeper and not pulled in by reality tv drama!!), and I looked into it more. First, unless her maiden name was actually Nicole Padgett, she wasn’t Miss Florida in 1993 the way so many articles say. There is no-one by the name of Jackie or Jacqueline or any reasonable variation from 1985 – 2000, and it’s really hard to say if any of the pictures look like her (she seems to have had a lot of work). Missflorida dot org has a list with pictures. Then again, is it possible that… Read more »

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
7 years ago
Reply to  superbien

Not “Ms.” but “Mrs.”

http://mrsflamerica.com/pastwinners.html

KT
KT
7 years ago
Reply to  superbien

She was MRS Florida, not Ms.

Also, really awful to judge someone as “putting herself in situations” when she was a victim of domestic abuse. I don’t care who she is, what she was before, no one deserves to be hit by their spouse, and it’s disgusting to imply otherwise.

superbien
superbien
7 years ago
Reply to  KT

KT, thanks for making that point. You’re right, I sounded judgmental, and like I was blaming her for being a victim. Domestic abuse is not ok, ever. So again, thanks for the comment. I myself somewhat recently got out of an abusive, controlling marriage. I’ve spent a lot of time (and therapy) trying to figure out how and why, and how not to do it again – and I see in Jackie Siebel a lot of myself, and my triggers and tendencies, and a sobering look at the different ways that can go, neither way healthy. What therapy has taught… Read more »

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
7 years ago
Reply to  superbien

Hey Superbien– well, if you watch the movie, you’ll see the whole family is clearly dysfunctional, but something we learn from therapy (I’ve had plenty, out of necessity) is that dysfunction is larger than the individual– it’s bred societally (poisonous pedagogy, etc.), and it’s transmitted across generations seemingly without end. So, yes, she has problems, but this isn’t necessarily “her fault”. The unconscious is called that way for a reason: it’s unconscious! Anyway, we can x-ray people of course, but a little compassion is central to such procedures (which is how we can examine our own shortcomings as well, and… Read more »

Kyle @ Debt Free Diaries
Kyle @ Debt Free Diaries
7 years ago

Great post, I really want to watch that movie now! When it comes to our finances, I tend to handle most of the budgeting and tracking of our expenses. I’m an excel junkie, and my girlfriend is more visual so I’ve had to find other ways to present information to her. We found a way to make the excel sheet look nice (lots of colors, and a basic overview page) and keep the majority of the number crunching and entries on a separate page. It’s helped a lot with us being on the same page without either of us getting… Read more »

Angela
Angela
7 years ago

My husband is definitely the money guy. It helped me to see our money info all in one place after we signed up for mint.com. We did have to put all of our log ins for other sites there. Which was a bit scary…but it has really helped. I can check in there now and see where things are.

bemoneyaware
bemoneyaware
7 years ago

We don’t talk about financial problems rigthly said.
Communication with your partner is essential. It will help you draw the big picture-total inflow minus outflow-accurately
Couples should set goals and jointly chalk out plans to invest. Discuss finances so that one partner can take charge if the other is unavailable.

Jane Savers @ The Money Puzzle
Jane Savers @ The Money Puzzle
7 years ago

I saw this documentary and I was disgusted by the waste. I shouldn’t judge because if you have money then you should be able to do what you want with it but this was like watching a glutton at an all you can eat buffet.

Kandace
Kandace
7 years ago

That movie was absurd and disturbing and shockingly sad. Highly recommend.

Yuen Tuck Siew
Yuen Tuck Siew
7 years ago

Awesome post, so many lessons to be learned from the lives of others.

I guess there’s a lot to be said for keeping life simple – I mean: who really _needs_ a 30 bedroom house?

will
will
7 years ago

great doc. definitely worth your time.

and at the risk of getting political, the family portrayed in this film are EXACTLY the reason that we should raise (or remove) the Social Security Wage Base. I’m by no means pro-tax (I’m a small business owner), but to give people a pass just because they are currently wealthy seems short-sighted and unduly regressive – particularly when middle class entitlements are a primary driver of our debt.

Mike@WeOnlyDoThisOnce
7 years ago

Openness is without a doubt the main step. Interesting differences certainly arise when dealing with two people who were raised very differently.

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