Rules for the Wedded

Richard Quinn

ON DEC. 14, MY WIFE and I celebrated 54 years of marriage—not bad for a curmudgeon and the person who’s had to live with him.

Considering that the average marriage in the U.S. lasts seven to eight years and the divorce rate is near 50%, we’ve done pretty well. On top of that, we got married just 10 months after our first date—and I was in the Army for eight of them. I remember receiving a letter from my dad while I was in the Army in which he basically asked, “Do you really know what you’re doing?”

Apparently, I did.

A lot has happened over the decades, mostly good and some very fortunate. My wife survived two car accidents unscathed. The first occurred when she was pregnant and driving on a highway at 50 mph, and a front wheel flew off. In the other, someone ran a red light and her car was totaled.

We have what used to be considered a traditional marriage. My wife stopped working when the first of our four children was born in 1970. Thereafter, we lived on my income, and structured our standard of living and spending accordingly.

There was little hope of keeping up with the Joneses. Still, after 54 years, we now are the Joneses—assuming the Joneses have no debt and money in the bank.

When I returned from the Army, we saved 100% of my wife’s income toward a house down payment. When we bought our first and second homes, we chose houses we could afford on my income alone and that would meet the basic needs of a family of six.

Finances are one of the main causes of divorce. Generally, one partner is a saver and the other a spender. We never had that issue. My wife and I both came from modest backgrounds. Her mother lived in near poverty, and my family was lower middle-class.

If I were to tell you that, in 54 years, we never had a significant argument, would you believe me? I hope not. But when it comes to money, it’s true.

QDROs, short for qualified domestic relations orders, became law while I was managing a pension plan, so I got to read a lot of divorce decrees. I couldn’t believe the fights over money, especially when the spouse—always a man—took the position that the wife had done nothing to earn a portion of his pension.

Some decrees went into great detail. I recall one where the ex-spouses were going to live in the same house and share every expense down to the water bill. They couldn’t use the kitchen at the same time, however, so the husband was assigned times to eat. Could he cook, I wondered?

My wife has little interest in our finances. I doubt she knows our net worth or much cares. She still refers to the first of the month—when my pension arrives—as “payday.” There are no financial secrets between us. She’s attended all the estate planning sessions and the one investment meeting we had.

We have joint ownership of everything except my 401(k). I have explained how everything is structured to ensure our—and her—future financial security. I’ve prepared detailed instructions for her or, more likely, for our children to follow. Why has all this worked reasonably well for 54 years? I’d point to 10 factors:

  • Neither of us is selfish or greedy.
  • We trust each other.
  • We both think long-term and are goal-oriented.
  • We accepted delayed gratification as necessary.
  • We’ve always lived within our means based on one income.
  • We abhor debt. All credit card balances are paid off in full each month.
  • We know how we’ll pay for something before it’s purchased.
  • We have never, in 54 years, paid a penny in credit card interest.
  • There has never been a time when we weren’t saving and reinvesting, though there was less of that when we were paying for the children’s colleges.
  • And then there’s the matter of love.

In the end, we haven’t denied ourselves anything important, as some pundits claim frugal seniors do. Granted, many things were delayed to a point that others might find unacceptable. But as the saying goes, first things first.

Richard Quinn blogs at Before retiring in 2010, Dick was a compensation and benefits executive. Follow him on Twitter @QuinnsComments and check out his earlier articles.

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