According to a growing body of academic research, my husband and I have really got it made. Several studies have certified what common sense already concludes: that disagreeing over finances and fighting over money spells doom for many marriages. One study found that couples who argued about finances several times a week were about 40% more likely to divorce than couples who bickered over money less than once a month.
Guess you're stuck with me and my toast-burning, bathroom-hogging, chick-flick-watching ways forever, Honey.
That's because Alejandro and I never argue over money. When it comes to finances, we truly think alike. We are both inveterate savers, horrified by the concept of debt. Neither of us likes shopping. Both of us are classic money worriers.
I have always seen our financial compatibility as a major strength in our marriage and a stroke of luck. But lately, as I've been writing this column, I've been talking to many couples—and hearing stories from readers who write to me—about how they have arrived, often through conflict with each other, at their financial choices. And I've come to realize that total agreement actually has some serious disadvantages—and has, on occasion, cost us dearly.
If you're in a marriage where you don't have the supposedly heaven-sent financial harmony that Alejandro and I enjoy, this column is a homage to you. Because believe it or not, one of my new goals is to learn from couples who don't agree all the time, and integrate some of their thinking and strategies into my own marriage.
The year was 2004, and the housing market in Uruguay, Alejandro's native country, was on the floor.
All our friends and family were encouraging us to buy real estate there. We didn't have much cash, but we owned our Brooklyn apartment outright—and, if you'll remember, this was the era of generous home-equity loans. So we decided to shop around. I'll never forget the properties we saw on one trip to Uruguay: the five-bedroom, Spanish-tiled apartment in a good Montevideo neighborhood for $83,000; the lovely two-story home with gardens by the beach for $75,000; the little house steps from the Atlantic Ocean for $40,000.
"These are beachfront homes for luxury-car prices," I remarked to Alejandro.
"Now is the time to buy," he answered.
Here's what we bought: nothing. And here's what those properties we passed up would be worth now: probably three to four times as much. Today when we visit Uruguay, we sleep on a friend's floor or pay through the nose for rentals or hotels.
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How could we have passed up what was obviously—even at the time—a golden opportunity? It's because we easily scared each other out of taking on risk and debt. If just one of us had ever said, "Let's just do it," we may have had some tension, conflict—maybe even a knockdown fight. But we could be laughing about it all today from the comfort of our beachfront vacation home.
Our lives are full of such tales of missed opportunities. We didn't travel before we had kids (too expensive); Alejandro didn't start his own company a decade ago (too risky); we didn't hang on to stocks that later peaked (too exposed). We agreed on all of this at the time. Now we agree that we were often wrong.
Since I started writing this column, many couples have shared with me their stories of figuring out the right financial path. Several times, I've heard the tale of a risk-averse spouse being convinced by a more risk-tolerant spouse to take a leap—and later being grateful they were forced out of their comfort zone. Alejandro and I talked about how we need to be more questioning of each other and our innate risk-aversion.
We also need outside voices to prod and question us. We got a financial adviser who argues against our instincts to sell investments whenever we see a mild rise in their value, and Alejandro got an accountant who encourages him to view debt, when appropriate, as a business tool. We also keep in touch with a variety of real-estate agents and mortgage brokers and investigate opportunities they pitch us.
The other day, when the market swooned right after the election, I scooped up some shares of mutual funds that I planned to sell at the first bounce. When the bounce came, I was surprised when Alejandro disagreed with my plan to cash out.
"Let's hang on. We don't need the money right now, and there could be more to gain by waiting," he said.
I sat for a moment, flummoxed by his uncharacteristic nonchalance and the unpleasant feeling of not agreeing, per norm, to play it safe. I was in fact so bothered by this unexpected conflict that we discussed it at length, a bit testily, until I ultimately saw that Alejandro had a good point and we should hold on to the shares. So far, it has been a profitable approach.
It took a few beats to realize we had just had our first argument over money, and that I hadn't exactly enjoyed it. But it wasn't all bad either, no matter what the academic studies say.—Katy McLaughlin is a special writer for The Wall Street Journal. Write to her at SundayJuggle@wsj.com. You can also join the conversation at WSJ.com/Juggle.
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