For Love & Money is our weekly series exploring how we navigate one of the most intimate and rarely talked about aspects of our relationships: our finances.
After Laura and her husband had their first child, her parents gave them a generous gift of $100,000. The money was meant to serve as the basis of a college fund for the baby, but the couple was struggling financially and began dipping into the cash for bills, which they intended to pay back once Laura returned to work.
But when the baby was two months old, Laura’s husband came home with a vintage motorcycle that reminded him of the one he had as a teenager. Laura was furious. “He took more than half the fund’s money for that purchase. I was livid. I couldn’t believe how irresponsible he was,” she tells me.
A massive argument ensued, and at one point, she even considered divorce, until her husband agreed to sell the motorcycle and attend couples therapy. “The baby’s arrival was affecting our relationship in more ways than we recognized,” she says. “The motorcycle purchase was just the straw that almost broke the camel’s back.”
Financial coach and educator Martha Lawton has seen couples argue about all kinds of outlandish purchases, including “a piece of vintage gym equipment that the person who bought it intended to use for non-fitness-related adult recreational purposes” (read: sex stuff). But the most common big purchases Lawton has witnessed couples fight over is housing. “It also comes with assumptions about how the home will be maintained and who will be responsible for that, which can bring to the surface issues that are already simmering,” Lawton explains.
In his 15-plus years of experience, registered investment advisor Andy LaPointe has similarly seen his fair share of couples quarreling over costly investments. One time, a client’s wife wanted to purchase the assets of a bankrupt circus, including a big top tent, animal cages and high-wire equipment. “She wanted to build a ‘neighborhood circus’ tent for the neighborhood they lived in,” LaPointe recalls. “After several weeks of discussion on liability, usability and cash outlay, they decided it was best to simply purchase seating and use it for weekend parties.”
In order to avoid relationship-ending conflicts around such substantial purchases, Lawton and LaPointe agree that it’s absolutely critical to talk about these big-ticket items as a couple beforehand. Otherwise, “one person usually feels they’re being pressured to make a decision, which isn’t the best thing for a relationship,” LaPointe says. Other considerations to keep in mind during these discussions include: How will you use these items? How does your current financial situation compare to the overall cost? And like with the aforementioned circus, does the purchase come with any risk of injury or other liabilities?
It’s also important to consider what Lawton refers to as “opportunity costs.” “Every purchase means you’re not using that money for something else,” she explains. So if your partner had mentally earmarked that money for a different purchase, they’re likely going to be upset. And regardless if you have separate banking accounts or not, “if a big, weird purchase comes out the blue, it can take a partner aback,” Lawton adds. “Often the feeling of not being consulted is as big of a deal as the spending itself.”
That said, it is possible to thread this rather expensive needle. Case in point: Tom, a self-described nerd, wanted to buy tickets to see Mystery Science Theater 3000, which came out to $10,000 for both him and wife as a part of a special package on Kickstarter. This didn’t include airfare and lodging, but came with autographed posters, T-shirts and backstage access to the filming of new episodes.
When Tom brought it up to his wife, he started with the fact that it wasn’t going to be cheap. “She was instantly like, ‘Do it!’” He was almost surprised by how well it went, but he suspects that if he had bought the tickets first she wouldn’t have been as supportive. “My guess is that she would have come around, but it would have tainted the whole trip,” he tells me. “And rightly so, that would have been a dick move.”
In the end, they had a really fun vacation together. And so, sometimes it’s totally fine to make a big purchase. Your partner may not be willing to start a circus with you, but if they’re at least willing to talk about it, that’s worth something.