With love in the air, I want to talk about the intersection of marital bliss and public enemy No. 1 to a happy marriage — money. I recently dug deep to chart where the peaks and valleys occurred in the correlation between a happy union and financial stability.
It turns out, there are some keystones along life’s path that play a defining role in the relationship of love and finances.
I conducted a nationwide study to tease out this information. I looked to retirees to clue me in on how their marriages had evolved — during good times and challenging times. I surveyed over 1,700 folks with a mean age of 61.
From the data, I was able to map happiness trends and major financial phases. I call it the “Happiness on the Journey Through Marriage” chart.
With a baseline of 1.0x on my graphic of happiness, a low point of 0.0x, and a high of 3.0x, my chart demonstrated key milestones I want to share with you.
Take a look at the six phases and see where you are, where you’re going, and where you’ve been.
Stage One: The ‘Honeymoon’ Phase — 0 to 6 Years
Cheers to post-wedding bliss! According to my survey participants, this period showed happiness levels rising each year, tipping right at the 3.0x range. Responses indicated fun and freedom in these early years. Plus, newlyweds had a stable cash flow for the first time in their lives due to budding careers. Flexible finances heightened their experiences to fund enjoyable activities and vacations.
During this phase, the couple’s spending needs are reasonable. Budgeting is straightforward, student loan debt is flexible (as it can adjust with income levels), and a mortgage isn’t in the picture yet. Plus, the lion’s share of this group had no children at this point, which also kept spending in check.
Stage Two: The ‘Sticker Shock’ Phase — 7 to 9 Years
Oh, baby. With kids entering the picture, cash once spent on new adventures is now allocated to parenthood’s no-fun necessities. In this stage, kid-related money surprises are frequent, and happiness falls to less than 0.5x.
But this dip in happiness isn’t all because you decide to start a new family. After all, kids aren’t to blame! It’s the attendant (and often sizable) expenses that seem to come at every twist and turn (school, day care, sports camps, anyone?). There’s also the fact that young couples aren’t yet flush with savings.
And then, “Honey, we need a bigger house.” With that new home comes a new mortgage, likely higher than your rent payments.
Add in the reality that income begins to increase as people make professional progress, which is fantastic progress, but with the unwanted side effect of increased student loan payments. So, tapping your budget to the brink each month is an easy way to create relationship stress, especially when the lion’s share is going to the bare necessities.
Stage Three: The ‘From Me to Them to Us’ Phase — 10 to 23 Years
Many of the surveyed retirees recalled a significant emotional piece to this phase. During these years of marriage, couples reported that both money and time spent transitioned from “them to us.”
Here we get a rebound of happiness levels to around 1.2x. Couples hit their financial stride, and the sticker shock of raising a family diminishes.
Their income levels were finally able to support vacations and new family experiences that would bring them joy in the moment and for years afterward. And as their kids’ independence and self-sufficiency grew, the couples got some financial (and personal) breathing room.
Stage Four: The Return of the ‘Sticker Shock’ Phase — 23 to 25 Years
For many, these years are marked by another decline in happiness — down to about 0.5x. Staring you down is walking your teenage kids through the unknowns of college prep and applications. Then, there’s also empty-nesting and tuition bills (in addition to that “bigger house” mortgage).
Enter, too, the realities of retirement planning, cash flow, and budgeting, and even the most solid couples can feel emotionally taxed. This phase is also marked by career promotions and other obligations that can pull spouses in different directions.
The other side of the coin is relief from the angst-ridden teenage years and nearly-every-weekend extracurriculars, giving spouses more free time for themselves.
Stage Five: The Budgetary Relief Phase — 25 to 39 Years
Joy, it’s good to see you again. During this phase, happiness levels increase again, shooting up to about 1.5x. There is light at the end of the tunnel — financially, career-wise and otherwise — and couples can see it. Partners return to the “Me and Us” phase of early marriage.
Spouses report having had a general sense of relief and well-being. Their adult kids have become self-sufficient. Gone are those hefty college tuition bills, and disposable income has reappeared!
During this time, “reclaimed” money is enjoyed, personal hobbies return, and individual or shared passions have room to prosper. Couples may also enter the “Retirement Gray Zone,” that stage of life where you gently glide into full retirement with a lessened work schedule and reduced corporate pressure. The idea that “the best is yet to come” keeps couples upbeat, connected and bonded.
Stage Six: The ‘We Did It!’ Phase — 40-Plus Years
Here’s where happiness takes off, exceeding levels of any other phase and rocketing past my 3.0x mark. Once couples reach 40-plus years of marriage, their years are full of gratitude, excitement and joy. Now retired, these folks are typically in their 60s and 70s. They spend their time enjoying their grandkids and making adventure a core pursuit again.
These couples finally have a true feeling of control over their money. As budgets relax and mortgages are paid off (and perhaps downsizing happens), freedom and autonomy return. Marital bliss is abundant; they have the time and financial stability to invest in beloved people and projects. These investments create a sense of wholeness, purpose and true joy — for years to come.
My study indicates that joy potential in the significant marriage phases has money implications. And while money itself won’t deliver happiness (you need connection, compatibility and commitment as the primary ingredients), it positively impacts it. By recognizing what’s ahead, anticipating cash responsibilities, and making plans, couples can create a lifetime of, well, happiness.
Wes Moss has been the host of “Money Matters” on News 95.5 and AM 750 WSB in Atlanta for more than 10 years now, and he does a live show from 9-11 a.m. Sundays. For more information, go to wesmoss.com.
Read the AJC article here.
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