Sunday, January 20, 2008

"Running away money" - when couples marry should their money stay apart?

Photo by emdot (Flickr)

Women in certain parts of Dublin used to have - and maybe still have - what was known as "running away money." This was a little stash of cash that the husband knew nothing about. It was meant to fund the wife's escape if life with himself should become intolerable.

In practice, I suppose, it got dipped into for various expenses and treats. If "running away money" exists today it probably vanishes on shopping trips to New York.

I thought about "running away money" when I read that couples in the UK have become a more secretive with each other about how much money they really have. One symptom of this is that fewer couples have joint bank accounts.

In the first flush of romance, the joint bank account may be seen as an expression of undying love. But in the divorce era, when love is far from undying, it appears that couples getting married now doubt if it is wise for their bank accounts to marry as well.

The issue of joint control over money also raised its head last week when the Liveline on RTE Radio 1 addressed the question of child benefit or the children’s allowance as it used to be called. Listeners heard stories of bad behaviour by both genders. On one side, there was the man who kept his wife and children on a subsistence allowance because money had to be prioritised for his drinking. On the other, there was the woman who left her husband and children and went to live in England a couple of decades ago. The husband was told he could not get the children's allowance; so whenever the wife came home to Ireland from England she popped into the post office, collected her children's allowance and used the money to help to fund her new lifestyle.

Even in the absence of such extremes, it is not all that unusual for each partner in a long-term relationship to have a different attitude to money. Perhaps one is cautious and the other is of the Spend! Spend! Spend! mentality, for instance. If they could talk about money matters in a rational way, they could avoid a great many problems. But how many of us are capable of talking to our partner in a rational way about money? Suppose you divide a page into two columns and note on one side the times you have had a rational, logical conversation about money with your nearest and dearest and on the other side the times you fought over money. Which column would be the longest? Unless you’re living with Eddie Hobbs, I suspect it would be the second one.

The emotions and, sometimes, bad behaviour that accompany money are, needless to say, carried into relationship breakdown. Separating partners have an interest in hiding from each other their true financial status. Money may be removed from bank accounts, for instance. If one partner gets a pay rise it may be kept very quiet. In mediation between separating couples, the point at which the mediator puts up on a flipchart the expense of running two households can be an early breaking point.

In a discussion on the topic on BBC Radio 4’s Woman's Hour last week, Jonathan Self (author of The Teenager's Guide to Money) suggested that attitudes to money should be discussed with anybody you are thinking of having a relationship with. He even suggested that the topic is sufficiently important for a first date.

That’s fine if your first date happens to be an accountant, a revenue official or a banker. For the rest of us, though, it strikes me as a bridge too far, too soon – the sound of first dates running very fast in the opposite direction could become a familiar one. Best confine yourself to trying for a kiss and park the money issue until the next time.

And if the relationship flourishes and you end up together until death or irreconcilable differences do you part, I hope each of you will be wise enough to have your own little stash of "running away money" hidden in the post office.

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