Creating a Financial Vision for Your Stepfamily During COVID-19

Having open, honest conversations about finances will keep families grounded in the trust that grows out of a shared understanding.

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As the world grapples with the Coronavirus pandemic, families have been challenged with unprecedented and unimaginable changes and unforeseen stressors, from the obvious health concerns to financial uncertainty. 

Spending more time at home with your partner may shed light on how sharing space can increase conflict and lead to breakdowns in communication. The realities of working from home such as stress from parenting, home-schooling, and inadequate space, are unchartered territory for so many. 

As a marriage and family therapist, I’ve witnessed firsthand the strain that COVID-19 has put on marriages due to the countless triggers that have emerged. Increased financial pressure from the pandemic can strain a marriage to the breaking point.

While dealing with financial decisions can be fraught with psychological and logistical challenges for all couples, it’s even more of a struggle for remarried couples who are blending two families, may have differences in parenting styles, financial baggage, and are scrambling for time for romance, let alone sex.

During a recent couples counseling session, Christine, 45, and Brad, 48, who remarried three years ago, discuss the conflicts they’re experiencing regarding dealing with finances in their newly blended family during the pandemic.

Christine puts it like this, “I was used to having my own money and not sharing details with anyone since my divorce. Brad wants us to share everything now that we’re married and is offended by my need to have my own checking account.”

Brad responds, “I get that Christine wants her independence but I think marriage should be about pooling resources. My first wife kept secrets about her debt, so I worry that if we don’t keep our money together, it will happen again. Since I was laid off from my job, we argue a lot about money.”

Money is a touchy subject for all couples, but the financial considerations of a second marriage are more complicated than a first marriage, often involving child support payments, alimony, and the expenses of blended families (who pays the expenses for children—yours, mine, and ours?). 

When remarried couples have a shared vision about finances, the inevitable ups and downs of marriage are less bothersome. Creating a larger context of meaning in life can help you to avoid focusing only on the little stuff that happens and to keep your eyes on the big picture. Discussing your financial goals, and writing them down, will elicit a feeling of trust between you and your partner if done thoughtfully and respectfully. Taking time to process your dreams can bring you closer.

According to Dr. John Gottman, couples who talk about their hopes and dreams with one another openly are more likely to prioritize time and resources, including finances, and are more likely to create a sense of purpose as a couple and find happiness. 

Develop a money management system

The first step in understanding and communicating your different perspectives about money as a remarried couple is deciding upon a money management system. Coming up with a system of managing your money that you both agree with can be a challenge. This may bring up the issues of unequal assets, debts, and differences in your philosophies about spending, saving, and so on. 

Stepfamily researcher Barbara Fishman found that most couples in her study adopted a “one pot” (or “common pot”) or a “two pot” economic system. In the “common pot” system, economic resources are pooled and distributed according to need regardless of biological relatedness. Whereas, in the “two pot” system, economic resources are divided and distributed mostly according to biological lines. Her findings suggest that a “common pot” system unifies the stepfamily, whereas the “two pot” system encourages biological loyalties and personal autonomy. A decade later, researcher Kay Pasley refined Fishman’s study, and added the “three pot,” system, a combination of joint and separate accounts. Overall, no differences were found between the satisfaction and happiness of these stepfamilies.

A study by Chelsea L. Garneau showed that happier stepfamilies pool finances and have higher levels of commitment, trust, and family cohesion using the “one pot” system compared to families who keep their money separate. Further, couples who simply endorse the belief system that their money should be pooled have more positive interactions and higher marital quality than those who don’t. In other words, remarried couples who discuss beliefs about finances, come to an agreement, and share resources, enjoy higher levels of marital well-being when compared with those who avoid dealing with these issues.

The three economic systems for stepfamilies

Common pot: All of a couple’s money is combined into one checking and savings account. This includes debts, child support payments, and both partner’s incomes. Couples literally pool their financial resources together. 

Two pot: Couples keep their incomes, payments, bills, and debts in two separate savings accounts and handle all child-rearing and household expense on a fifty-fifty basis.

Three pot: Each partner handles personal expenses of themselves and the children they brought to the marriage, while both contribute to a third account that’s used for the upkeep of the entire family (mortgage or rent, food, household repairs, insurance, vacations, etc.).

Truth be told, one money management strategy is not necessarily better than the other; it is really a matter of what couples are comfortable with. Financial expert, Kailey Hagen advises couples to choose a money management system that works for them. Whether couples decide to co-mingle their finances, maintain a joint account for household expenses while keeping separate accounts for personal expenses, or operate independently with totally separate finances, it is important to approach finances with a solid plan. Having an open, honest conversation about financial goals as well as their fears about fiscal responsibility, will keep couples grounded in the trust that grows out of a shared understanding.

Money and remarriage don’t always mix

Further, recently remarried couples should be upfront about their debt, assets, feelings about money, and fully disclose their financial history. When entering a second marriage, spouses often bring financial baggage that can be embarrassing and difficult to discuss. But part of supporting each other for the long-haul means being transparent about pre-existing financial difficulties. In short, laying all your cards on the table and approaching any stresses as a team, will spell success.

You might have a different list of financial priorities than your spouse and this can increase conflict. Hagen advises couples to prioritize saving goals together. Developing these shared goals and building a sense of trust around saving for the future, will spare many couples from the strain that comes from managing money in a marriage. Whether a couple is struggling to get out of debt, saving for something like a house or a child’s education, or socking away some money for a rainy-day fund, approaching their saving goals as a unit is central to cultivating and sustaining a happy home.

Mixing money and remarriage successfully doesn’t start and end with a single conversation. Developing a viable management system, divulging any outstanding debts and financial obligations, and arriving at shared savings goals is all good and well. But the proof (and perhaps the profit) is in the pudding when couples regularly check in with each other about their finances. An open, ongoing dialogue will foster long term happiness and help couples overcome the bumps in the road — and big bills — along the way.

The key to success when it comes to money management in stepfamilies is being able to discuss your options openly and to come to an agreement or compromise that suits your personal and family objectives. Remember conversations about money are sensitive discussions that can trigger intense feelings and fears. Use active listening skills and try to understand your partner’s feelings behind his or her words. Be sure to tune into their dreams and fears and seek ways to manage differences and challenges, rather than debating who is right. It’s quite a hurdle to jump over and it’s a sign of success to have low conflict discussions about money. 

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Terry Gaspard MSW, LICSW is a licensed therapist and author. She is a contributor to Huffington Post, TheGoodMenProject, The Gottman Institute Blog, and Marriage.com. Her new book, out now, is THE REMARRIAGE MANUAL: How to Make Everything Work Better the Second Time Around. Follow Terry on Twitter, Facebook, and movingpastdivorce.com.

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