Book Review: How to Debt-Proof Your Marriage
Since my twin victories of paying off our last credit card and funding a summer of travel, my husband has begun to show interest in personal finance.
It's not that he wasn't supportive of my efforts before — he just preferred to support them from a safe, ignorant distance. A distance from which I handed him an envelope of cash each week to do the grocery shopping, he didn't ask too many questions, and somehow we were climbing out of debt. He was more than happy to adopt any frugal-living strategy I suggested, as long as he didn't have to think about the Big Picture.
That system worked, but I longed for more active participation from him. Not only because I wanted us to share equally in the journey toward financial freedom — I do want that — but also for a selfish reason. I wanted him to participate because he's better at this stuff than I am. He's a whiz at spreadsheets. The man has a Ph.d in Physical Chemistry. You don't get one of those without doing a few math problems.
Lately, I've been getting my wish. My husband has been talking with a financial advisor at the university he works for, and having clear, honest conversations with me about our money.
This seemed like the perfect time for me to read Mary Hunt's How to Debt-Proof Your Marriage.
Hunt's book covers the basics of personal finance and debt destruction, with a special focus on doing it as a couple. Before she even begins talking about financial management, Hunt talks about strengthening the foundations of your marriage. You can't have financial harmony without emotional intimacy, she says.
I couldn't agree more. It's clear in my own marriage that spending time relaxing together on vacation helped my husband and me both chill out and have better conversations during our family finance meetings too.
Hunt and I part ways in the chapters about how to achieve that emotional intimacy, though. She bases her prescription for marital bliss on traditional gender roles. She includes chapters for each sex on how to make deposits in the other's Love Bank — a metaphorical bank of goodwill made of small, loving gestures.
The Love Bank is an adorable idea, one I'm tempted to put into practice here in my own home. I'm pretty sure I won't be making my deposits to my husband's Love Bank by biting my tongue when I disagree with him, though. Likewise, I don't expect him to express his love for me by bringing me flowers and handling all the tough decisions for me like the natural leader of our family should.
Hunt is a generation (or two) older than I am, and what works for her marriage is so foreign to my young, feminist mind that it was actually a little hard to read. But leaving aside the details of how you get to an intimate marriage, though, she and I agree wholeheartedly that it's important to get your emotional needs met before you can effectively work together with your spouse to manage your finances.
The personal-finance half of the book will be familiar to most GRS readers. Hunt advocates an approach similar to Your Money or Your Life and Dave Ramsey's Total Money Makeover, one that begins with calculating your net worth and tracking your expenses. From there, she covers the basics of setting up an emergency fund, creating a spending plan, and starting a debt snowball (though she uses different terms for these steps).
Like her ideal of a healthy relationship, Hunt's financial advice seems a little dated in places. A lot of it has to do with how to organize your three-ring binders, or how to painstakingly accomplish by-hand calculations that Mint can do for you in a few minutes. If you're a devotee of the pen-and-paper approach, though, her chapters on how to track and plan your spending are rock solid and detailed enough to easily follow.
The one thing in this book that made me want to put it down, run to my office, and implement it on the spot was, in fact, her filing system. Hunt takes a few pages to go over exactly what personal records you should be keeping, and outlines an elegant effective way to organize them. I spent an hour tearing apart my filing cabinet yesterday as soon as I read those pages. I may not want my marriage to look much like hers, but I'm delighted to have made over my filing cabinet in Mary Hunt's image.
There are a few areas where Mary's financial advice deviates from the usual Get Rich Slowly formula. One is the matter of the debt snowball. She encourages readers to start saving 10% of their income towards an emergency fund immediately, while still paying the minimums on their credit cards. Only after saving up a fully funded six-month emergency fund would Hunt advise you to roll those savings into your credit card payments.
Given the relative interest rates on credit cards and savings accounts, this approach will almost certainly cost you money. If it works for you psychologically, though, by all means pursue it. No matter what order you do them in, the key steps of tracking your spending, creating an emergency fund, and snowballing your debt payments will lead you to financial security.
Another place where she breaks with conventional wisdom is in her savings and spending ratios. GRS readers are familiar with the Balanced Money Formula that encourages us to use 50% of our money for living expenses, 30% for fun and 20% for savings. Hunt advises 10% for giving, 10% for saving and 80% for spending.
The order of those percentages is vital to her. A devout Christian, Hunt feels that all the money that comes into your life is a blessing from God, and promptly giving 10% of it back to God shows you can be trusted with this blessing, and more of it will come your way.
I'm not a Christian, but I admire Mary's faith and devotion to charitable giving. It's a goal of mine to give 10% of my income. I've written about that here before, and readers made a persuasive case for waiting until my debts were paid before giving so much away. For now, I give a modest amount and look forward to giving more in the future.
I think that for Hunt, the psychological benefits of giving 10% and saving 10% before you make any spending decisions at all outweigh the financial benefits of paying off your debts as fast as possible and then beginning to accumulate and donate wealth.
It's an interesting approach, and one that might work for a lot of people. Particularly if you're a devoted Christian and looking for a personal-finance book that reflects your values, you'll find a lot of good in How to Debt-Proof Your Marriage. If you're looking for a book that's totally focused on financial savvy and relationship skills, though, this might not be your best bet.