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Why financial 'fairness' can be a losing game in your marriage

Co-authors of The 80/80 Marriage Solution share a framework for "radical generosity" and why it may be a more effective way for couples to reach a sense of financial equality.

Striving for 50/50 fairness in your marriage -- especially when it comes to money -- may be an ill-fated approach, according to a new book, The 80/80 Marriage: A New Model for Relationships

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Reflecting on moments from their own marriage and scores of interviews with couples across the country, co-authors Nate and Kaley Klemp provide numerous examples of how the pursuit of "equality" across various household domains -- from childrearing to meal planning to money managing -- more often than not leads to score-keeping and disappointment.

As an alternative, the co-authors encourage readers to strive for "radical generosity" and "shared success," where each person goes above and beyond to contribute more than their fair share. 

The Klemps recently stopped by So Money to share insights from their book. Below, they offer specific steps for mastering money matters in your relationship using their new framework. 

Values before roles

Radical generosity suggests that when you give more it will inspire your partner to give more, leading to a mutual habit of overdelivering that will, ideally, become almost infectious. This will lead to feeling "on par" with your partner. But it's important to verify that you're delivering something that is important. 

For example, you might assume it's helpful to dedicate time and effort managing your pooled investments. You spend hours a month reviewing your portfolio. But could outsourcing that task to a robo advisor free up your time to support the household in other areas that both you and partner believe to have higher importance? A passive investment strategy may even be more profitable (according to some studies). 

Before assigning yourself a particular financial role in your relationship, it's worthwhile to have a conversation about shared values, expectations and priorities. 

"It's how you'll know that you're winning together," says Nate.

From there, assigning specific roles to each person -- from budgeting to managing monthly bills -- can help you stay organized and accountable, and ensure that both people feel like they have a voice and are contributing to a shared financial life.

Beware the 'reluctant partner'

Do you like to be in control? Do you sometimes fail to loop your partner in on financial matters? This kind of thing can cause some people to check out and grow reluctant to contribute. "The fundamental problem of modern marriage is that there's often an over-contributor and an under-contributor -- and the under-contributor tends to be this reluctant partner, who's reluctant to contribute or work on the marriage in the same way," says Nate.

And it can lead to resentment, as the Klemps discovered in their own marriage.

"Kaley ran the financial show of our family," Nate continued. "Not only was she the primary breadwinner initially, but she was the one who had insight into all the numbers and all the checkbooks and accounts and things like that. She resented me for not helping out, but there was also this weird dynamic where I didn't really get a chance [to play a role]," he said.

A key to avoiding this is to catch yourself in the act. Schedule monthly check-ins to review your financial goals and be sure that if anyone is "over-contributing" that they ask for help before resentment or tension brews.

Fall back on structure

"One of the key principles we learned is that, when it comes to the power imbalances that arise from money, the key tool that you can use to bring that back into balance is structure," says Nate. 

Structures will vary among relationships -- but could involve working with a financial planner who can facilitate dialogue and keep you both on the same page and moving in unison towards your goals. Delegating responsibilities, holding recurring meetings and automating bills are all healthy ways of incorporating structure into your shared financial system. 

Working together can help, too. "Many couples, for instance, find that creating a budget, where both partners play an equal role in creating its structure, helps neutralize these power dynamics," says Nate.

Open at least one joint account 

Whether or not there's one major breadwinner, one way to work toward a mutual feeling of financial success is to keep a shared savings account (here are a couple we recommend). You could adopt what the Kemps call an "all-in" approach or a more incremental one, where you share some accounts but leave others separate. You could also experiment with a "shared pot" that you both pay into proportionately, assuming yours is a dual-income household. 

Paychecks should not dictate power

We tend to equate money with power in the business world. But in a personal relationship, that kind of thinking can be counterproductive and unhealthy. As the breadwinner in my own marriage, I've fallen prey to some of my own unconscious biases about what money means. I used to assume that making more meant having the final say on big financial decisions. That's how my dad, who was the main earner in my family, operated, after all. But that mentality was based on antiquated gender norms -- and I've had to quite literally snap myself out of it. All this is to say, the sooner you let go of assumptions about what money "means" in terms of your power, status or control over your relationship, the faster you can work toward a playing field that feels fair.