x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

The financial challenges of married life

How married couples deal with handling their finances.

Luke and Sarah James with their seven-month-old daughter Scarlett in their Jumeirah Lake Towers home in Dubai. Christopher Pike / The National
Luke and Sarah James with their seven-month-old daughter Scarlett in their Jumeirah Lake Towers home in Dubai. Christopher Pike / The National

Many happily married couples love to tell a "remember-when" first-date disaster story. Maybe he was mortified when his credit card was rejected in an expensive restaurant, or she insisted on splitting the bill, but had forgotten her purse. Perhaps he picked the second-cheapest meal on the menu and she told her friends he was stingy. What's the one, very telling, feature these kinds of anecdotes almost always have in common? They revolve around money.

The complex web of financial pressures, expectations and inevitable friction starts from the earliest days of a partnership and, for most couples, continues throughout their whole lives together. From the first major hurdle of paying for a wedding, to buying a house, managing the cost of having kids and cashing in pension funds, there are a million and one joint decisions to be made over the course of a relationship. And how successfully the burden is shared can be one of the biggest tests for any couple.

In Sarah and Luke James's household, the biggest extravagances are magazines and chocolates, says Mrs James, an Australian stay-at-home mum who moved to Dubai with her husband three-and-a-half years ago, shortly after they were married.

"Lucky for my husband, Luke, neither of these is exceptionally expensive - although the quantities in which I purchase both could be questioned," she says.

Mrs James looks after their eight-month-old daughter, Scarlett, full-time, while Luke, 32, the director of operations at Media One Hotel in Dubai, is the family's breadwinner. They say the arrangement works well for them because - Sarah's chocolate vice aside - they have such similar spending habits.

"Each month, we set aside our 'spending money' for the month and try to stick within that amount," Mrs James says. "Some weeks, we treat ourselves to a nice dinner or holiday, for example, while other weeks we eat baked beans on toast.

"Both of us share a weakness for impulse spending, though. And when Luke goes through a golfing phase, that can get quite expensive, but luckily for our bank account he doesn't have much time to play."

They take advice from a financial adviser, who helps them to manage their money. They have pooled all their resources since they got engaged six years ago to help pay for a property in Australia. "We have always had joint accounts and shared all financial responsibility, so that negates any 'who pays' questions," says Mrs James.

"We are both happy with our current arrangement and can't see it changing in the future, especially now we have a baby, as we are both working towards our future as a family."

For Laura Mooney, 31, a legal support supervisor from Australia, and her British husband, Julius, 26, a sales manager, the best solution is to keep their finances completely independent of one another. Married for a year, they keep separate bank accounts and take a strict 50-50 policy on all their shared expenses, from small costs like taking it in turns to buy takeaway meals, to larger outgoings, such as halving the rent and bills.

They took the same approach to their biggest shared expenditure so far - their wedding ceremony. "We worked out what we needed and I did all the organising, in consultation with Julius, on prices and quantities to make sure he knew what it would cost each of us," says Mrs Mooney, who has lived in Dubai for four-and-a-half years.

As for their disposable incomes, the couple choose to spend in very different ways, although know each other's spending habits inside out. "I very rarely buy anything for myself - my money typically will go on a good night out, whereas Laura's will go on a dress, so it works out pretty evenly," says Mr Mooney, who arrived in the UAE four years ago. "From a bloke's point of view, it's very difficult to understand how money flies out for things like pedicures and manicures, but I have to get on with it."

Mrs Mooney's careful approach to sharing stems in part from bad experiences with ex-boyfriends, two of whom were struggling musicians who leant on her for money. "Never date an entertainer unless they're famous and earn a lot," she says, adding that these mistakes made her realise that for a partnership to work long term, you have to think practically.

"I was determined my next relationship was going to be with someone from a good family, with an education, steady job, stuff like that. I wanted to be less wrapped up in the idea of being romantic and more focused on reality. Luckily, this man's a charm.

"Our approach will have to change when we have kids. Depending on how much time I take off, Julius will have to support me, either a little or a lot. But there is a certain level of independence that I wouldn't feel if I had someone paying for me all the time, so to earn something is really important to me, even if it was only working one or two days a week.

"I wouldn't want Julius to resent me for having to pay for everything. Sure, the changeover could cause some friction - just men are from Mars, women are from Venus type things. But at the end of the day, we're married and we're a team, so we'll talk about it and we'll get through it."

Britons Sara and Anil, who asked that their surnames not be used, have been married for five years and say a more traditional approach to their finances has always worked for them. "When we first got married, we were both working, but Anil, always the gentleman, picked up the bill every time," says Sara, who moved to Abu Dhabi with her husband in 2010. "He still does this. I can't complain."

Nowadays, Sara stays at home to look after their son, who is almost two, while Anil, who works as a financial adviser, is the sole breadwinner.

Despite Sara not contributing financially, they both take responsibility for budgeting and spending, although she admits she hasn't found this easy.

"To begin with, while Anil felt a very strong sense of responsibility to save for the future, I was far more frivolous," she says. "More recently, this has settled into a happy medium. Anil is better at saving - he is an accountant, after all. But I'm definitely better at spending.

"However, as the person who does all the household spending, it's become more important for me to budget our weekly spending with the money Anil gives me - it's very easy when you have a joint account to just buy and buy. We have recently agreed that we would consult each other for big house-related purchases, if only to allow us to be aware of what all our outgoings are.

"We're pretty much on the same page now. We still have great family days out, we still shop at all the malls and we still have lovely dinners... we just don't do it all every day."


RS Prasad of Nexus Insurance Brokers offers 10 tips to help couples manage their money.


1 Prioritise: do you really need that flashy new car? It is more important to have a healthy stockpile of cash to fund your children's education and a clear route to a financially secure retirement

2 Communicate: where previously you may have remained relatively financially autonomous, now is the time to change tack and realise you are a unit. This requires trust, transparency and a lot of empathetic communication. Disclose all liabilities from the get-go and don't keep money issues a secret. Calculate the money both of you bring into the household every month and ascertain monthly commitments

3 Establish a system that works for you: how are you going to manage your finances? It varies from couple to couple - some want personal accounts to retain individuality, some opt for a joint account, others go for both. Determine up front what works for you

4  Plan for the future: to ensure you have a solid amount of savings to draw from, aim to put aside 15 per cent to 20 per cent of monthly income. This could be placed in a medium- to long-term SIP (systematic investment plan) so it isn't drained on a regular basis

5 Be disciplined - but not overly so: saving is important but so too is enjoyment. Set short-term saving goals for activities like holidays as well as the odd treat or indulgence

6 Get insured: it may seem sad to think about potentially debilitating illnesses or death, but you need to make sure neither of you suffer financial hardship should the worst come to the worst. Broadly speaking, there are two types of life insurance. Term insurance, which refers to a selected period of insurance, and whole life or whole of life insurance, which covers up to age 95

7 Don't be afraid to ask questions: juggling finances and life events can be exhausting and bewildering at the best of times. If you get stuck or need some guidance, it is a good idea to chat to an independent financial adviser

8 Be flexible: life is unpredictable. Be ready and willing to continually assess and adapt your financial plans. Your financial plans should be able to change with your changing circumstances in life

9 Monthly cash flow: calculate the money both of you bring into the household every month. What are the monthly commitments? Knowing this will help you budget as a couple and plan your financial future together

10 Smile: you have found true love. Stay focused with your finances and the rest will take care of itself.