First we’re told that the best things in life are free. Then we’re told that you get what you pay for.
First we’re told that money talks and makes the world go ’round. Then we’re told that money isn’t everything and can’t buy happiness.
Should we conserve money, because a fool and his money are soon parted? Or should we spend it, because you can’t take it with you?
But some people have managed to keep their families from falling apart over finances. In classic “Crowdwise” style, I invited readers to send me their wisest words about preventing money management from fracturing families.
The resulting gold mine of guidance came in two categories: advice for couples, and advice for kids.
Before the wedding
According to Susan Winslow, broad differences in a couple’s financial sensibilities are so ominous that the knot may not even be worth tying.
“It’s simply better not to marry someone who has money problems, or financial habits, ideas, and values that are very different from your own,” she wrote. “And be especially careful about marrying someone who is going to give you an allowance. That’s a red flag on the domestic-violence checklist.”
Tax and financial adviser Walter Primoff agreed. “A spendthrift spouse married to a saver typically creates relationship-destroying issues,” he wrote. Ideally, then, “couples should fully discuss the money issue before marriage. They can ask parents’ CPAs and financial advisers for guidance.”
Or just take @RockySullivan’s advice: “Fall in love with a CPA.”
Money and marriage
All right, but what if you were foolish enough to marry someone who’s not an accountant?
“My wife and I both work, and we keep our money separate,” wrote Jim Begley. There’s a joint account for essentials like groceries, mortgage or rent, utilities, kid expenses, and so on — but the spouses have separate accounts for electives, which the owner is welcome to spend without criticism or judgment.
“For big purchases, we either agree beforehand and split the costs, or disagree and don’t split it. Either of us can still make that purchase (or any purchase) and absorb the full cost,” wrote Mr. Begley. “We’ve been doing this since 1985, and we’ve never had a fight about money.”
Anita Baron adopted the same system after a “breathtakingly expensive marriage gone bad.” She wrote: “Even 18 years into marriage No. 2, I still won’t mingle my money with his. There is peace in the land! Fifty-fifty, no arguments.”
And how is that joint account funded? One suggestion, from @RoseannMilano: Proportional to each spouse’s income. “Each puts a percentage of their income into a Household account. Each will feel the pinch equally.”
Many readers wrote to express their enthusiasm for Mint, a website and an app (both free) that consolidates all of your bank accounts, investments and debts into a single, attractively designed dashboard.
“I check that almost daily,” wrote Margaret Fox. “We set a budget and make some attempt at keeping to it. The best part for me in the Mint app is keeping track of our bills. Knowing when they’re coming and how much we owe is sooo helpful.”
On Twitter, @enriquediaz seconds the notion. “Install Mint on each other’s smartphones and observe the graphs/amounts/trends.” And @gannonjp sums it up: “Mint is huge — don’t know where I would be without it.”
Overall, the dominant idea behind readers’ success stories is communication. As David Anasco puts it: “We keep no secrets from each other (except for surprise gifts, vacations, etc.) Communication and openness benefits all areas of any relationship, not just family finances.”
“We each know about all spending,” said Jim Wooll. He and his wife keep track of the joint finances in Quicken. “Married 50 years in September.”
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Notes on giving
Two readers observed another angle on keeping sane in the face of money management: Knowing how to give it away.
“When you think about giving anyone money — whether a family member, a person experiencing homelessness, or an institution — first decide if you have the money to give. If you don’t, you don’t need to feel bad,” wrote Sharon Cumberland. “But if you do give money to someone, you have no right to dictate what they do with it. The poor have the same right to decide what to do with their money as you and everyone else.
“This principle works for all kinds of donations. If I decide to give money to a family member, a person experiencing homelessness, or an institution, I have decided to trust their judgment, and I never think about it again.”
When she was 10 years old, Libby Libner lent a nickel to a classmate in Sunday school, and never got it back. “I decided that I would never loan money to anyone again,” she wrote. “I’m nearly 65 and I’ve kept my vow. I only give money away. I let people know it’s a gift and nothing is owed, in any manner. And I do it with a smile and graciously.”
Money and kids
All right, you’ve managed to keep the marriage intact. Next challenge: Children.
Do you give them an allowance, in hopes that they’ll learn about investing, saving and wise spending? Or does that just make you look like a walking piggy bank?
Sophie Kent and Lauri Wright each gave their children an allowance pegged to their age or grade — for example, $ 5 a week at five years old, $ 6 at six, and so on.
David Anasco also provided an allowance to his four children in exchange for weekly and daily chores. “We communicated with them up front that the allowance was more for teaching about finances and saving rather than getting paid for helping around the house,” he wrote.
“I can’t remember what it’s called,” wrote Margaret Fox, whose son is nine, “but we read a book that gave us a great idea about teaching the value of money. He has three jars: spending, saving, and donating to a cause of his choosing.”
The book she’s referring to is “The Opposite of Spoiled,” by Times “Your Money” columnist Ron Lieber. It encourages children to divide their income equally among the three jars.
“Our goal is to help him understand that it’s O.K. to spend some of your money as soon as you get it, but that it’s important to set some of it aside, too,” Ms. Fox concluded.
Many readers wrote that they split the difference: They provide the basics for their kids, but no more.
For example, Francine Smilen recalled having “a tug of war with a pair of $ 80 jeans” with her teenage daughter in a Macy’s dressing room:
Francine: “I am not buying you these jeans for 80 bucks.”
Daughter: “Yes, you are.”
Francine: “No, I am not.”
In the end, after many similar discussions, “we paid for shoes, underwear, coats and other essentials, and gave her a quarterly clothing allowance for anything else,” Ms. Smilen reported. “This obviated any arguments over $ 80 jeans or (stupid) branded clothing.”
And the result? “It was interesting how she began to go to thrift shops. And, now, at age 30, she is the best bargain hunter I know.”
The same principle — “We’ll cover the basics; everything else is up to you” — kept coming up in my “Crowdwise” correspondence:
Nancy Halbin Betker covered her daughter’s college tuition, supplies, and room and board — but not entertainment or social activities. ”That meant in high school, she got a job to save for college. And when that money ran out, she got a job during college.”
When they were in high school, Lauri Wright gave her sons enough money to cover the cost of the cafeteria lunch. “If they wanted to eat off campus, they had to budget to afford it,” she wrote. Similarly, “during high school, we paid for a used, safe car that was in our name. We paid the insurance. The driver had to buy gasoline.” (The car did not go to college with the son. “Each son bought his own car during his sophomore or junior year in college with money he had saved.”
Today, she said, “Each one of them has commented on how grateful they are that they learned how to manage money at an early age.”
Once Sophie Kent’s children had their first jobs (summer jobs, after-school jobs), she helped them apply for a credit card, linked to her own account. “Have the bank set a limit of number of dollars/month (we did $ 500),” she wrote. “We reimbursed only for school supplies and purchases at the pharmacy.”
Thank you for your wisdom, readers, and for sending it without expectation of remuneration. I considered offering you a penny for your thoughts, but I decided against it. You know — a penny saved is a penny earned.
In the next Crowdwise: Suppose you’re very large or small, especially tall or short, equipped with unusual facial features, built with a different number of limbs, or otherwise remarkable-looking. You may have learned that people sometimes don’t know how to react. Maybe they stare, look abruptly away, or shush their children. Maybe they ask questions — or studiously don’t.
Now suppose you had an opportunity to let the public about how you’d like to be treated, greeted, and regarded. What would you say is offensive, understandable, or welcome? Let us know (anonymously, if you like) at firstname.lastname@example.org.