Communication, Relationships and Money

by David D. Holland


Communication is essential to marriage and family relationships. It is just as important to healthy finances. 


Marital Communication: Abigail just shrugged at my questions. Her husband had died. She didn’t know where the money had gone. Abigail hadn’t been concerned with their finances because Albert “always took care of everything.” As we reviewed what was left of their investments, she wondered about Albert’s dealings with the “financial advisers” who had frequently called their home. In her mind, she also questioned whether Albert’s confusion and slipping memory had something to do with the loss of their sizable portfolio. Most importantly, Abigail wondered how she would pay the bills.

Unlike Abigail, Ruth asked questions before she and her husband, Bill, hired me. When she didn’t understand something, she spoke up. During our routine meetings, Bill would often remind me that his primary concern was Ruth’s well-being should he die first. To test Ruth’s preparedness, I surprised them one day by pushing Bill’s chair back from the table. I then showed Ruth how her finances would work if she were alone. Bill did die first. However, because of Ruth’s active participation, she knew what to do, who to see, and where the money was invested.

Communication is the key difference between Abigail and Ruth. Tell your spouse you want to be involved in the finances. Getting involved doesn’t mean you don’t trust him or her, it just means that you want to protect yourself if they’re not here. Get to know your adviser and your investments. If you are uncomfortable with either one of them, say so!

Planning for the Survivor is especially important for women since the average wife lives four years longer than her husband. There is a good chance that many women will be handling their own finances at some point (I meet with them often). Of course, there are plenty of times when the situation is reversed, and the man finds himself on his own. When either spouse dies, retirement income is often reduced. The survivor must make do on one social security check, and perhaps, less pension income. The financial threat is that the survivor’s sole income will be reduced to the point that her (or his) retirement assets must be drawn upon at an unsustainable rate. The survivor could run out of money. 

I am pleased to report that many couples do recognize their finances will change when one of them dies. Often this leads to the wise decision to develop a plan and to understand exactly what could happen and how to deal with it. I highly recommend that a couple build their financial plan (together) so it will work while they are both alive, as well as in a survivorship scenario. While assisting retirees with their financial plans, I usually focus on making sure that enough reliable income will be provided to the spouse who would be more adversely affected by the death of her/his partner. In practical terms, this usually means that some financial changes may need to be made like purchasing more life insurance, planning for long-term care costs, “earmarking” certain accounts for the survivor’s needs, investing more or less aggressively, reducing withdrawals for joint income, and planning for more fixed income. The best time to do survivorship income planning, of course, is while both spouses are alive. Both spouses can feel confidence in the wisdom of an advanced plan for the survivor. This proactive approach also avoids the obvious difficulty of having to make financial decisions during a period of grief.

As if to make my point for me, a husband and wife just came in to interview me. While the husband has done an excellent job of managing their investments on his own, he realized his memory wasn’t what it used to be . . . he knew he would eventually need to turn things over to a professional. The husband didn’t just want to know if I could do a good job of managing their money, but, more importantly, he wanted assurance I would be the “right” adviser to help his wife when he was gone. By setting aside his own ego, he gave himself, and his wife, the peace of mind that things would be okay should something happen to him.


Another essential communication about relationships and money is how to respond to financial support requests from family members.


Family Financial Support: I know this is a subject that will hit too close to home for many. I’m not going to tell you to disown your family or that you shouldn’t spoil the grandkids whenever you get the chance. I am concerned, however, that you could jeopardize your own financial health while trying to help a family member with severe financial problems.

They say a drowning person is dangerous and that you shouldn’t put yourself at risk when offering aid. This is so true, both in and out of the water. The threat to your finances is, ironically, that your love for the person may cause you to make emotionally-driven choices. Those choices could then hurt your own financial well-being and may even cause you to suffer the same financial drowning yourself. 

Example #1: I’ve watched a retired couple deplete their own finances by supporting a son who has an addiction problem. After years of second chances and promises of “I’ll never do it again,” the parents’ good intentions have left them with scant resources. Their once healthy retirement savings have been replaced with second mortgages and skeletal investment accounts. Instead of letting their son hit bottom, go bankrupt and maybe change his ways, the parents now face financial doom themselves. A forty-year-old son can rebuild his finances, but a seventy-year-old father has few options to replenish his retirement.

Example #2: The threat of family financial support isn’t just about parents supporting their kids. I once saw a daughter expend a huge portion of her and her husband’s finances to provide long-term care for her parents. Most of us would consider this an honorable act, but the generosity forced the husband to work ten years longer than he planned.

Is there a practical solution for helping family? Yes, offer them your emotional support and assist them with the basics: food, clothing and shelter. Help them apply for governmental programs. Explore bankruptcy if necessary. However, do not give them more than 5% of your savings. If it takes more than that amount to fix their problems, you probably don’t have enough resources to help without putting yourself at risk. How can you keep them afloat if you are caught in the rip current yourself? Set the 5% financial gift limit and don’t budge an inch.


Talk about money in your marital and family relationships. The time you invest could save you, or your loved ones, from undue stress and grief . . . and dividends like those can be truly rewarding.



David D. Holland, a CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ practitioner, hosts a weekday radio show at 9AM on AM1380 Ormond Beach, AM1230 New Smyrna Beach and AM1490 Deland. He has also authored two books in his Confessions of a Financial Planner series. Holland offers investment advice through Holland Advisory Services, Inc., a registered investment adviser in Ormond Beach. He can be contacted at (386) 671-7526. Email your financial questions to