In the 19th century, when the novel Little Women was written, it was understood: Before you married my daughter, you had a house. When John Brooke wished to court the eldest daughter in the novel, Meg, her mother voiced concern, “Do you love him enough to wait till he can make a home for you?”
Meg decided to wait. John built a home. They got married. All was well.
But what should the standards be today? Few of us would demand home ownership before marriage. Yet there’s still an understanding, it seems, that marriage requires something financially. Often, those wishing to head to the altar will get the well-meant, but ultra-vague, advice that they wait until they are “financially ready.”
But what does “financially ready” mean? Is there a magic salary, debt amount or net worth number to reach?
It’s a difficult question. I’ve observed couples for years. Some started out dirt poor and had beautiful marriages. Some started with six-figure incomes and couldn’t make it. So what made the difference? From my observation and experience, it was one thing: maturity.
It wasn’t that the couples were financially ready. In truth, I don’t think that I was financially ready either when I got married or when I had my first child. Why not? I still had debt. I didn’t have much savings. I was young and hadn’t gotten my financial house in order. But what my husband and I did have was a certain amount of God-given financial maturity. We were able to be responsible with our money — no matter how much we had.
So, what are signs of financial maturity? Here are a few that have marked our path.
Question #1: Do you tithe?
I know … ouch. According to the studies, most of you reading this don’t tithe. Some of you may take issue with the mere idea of a “10 percent” requirement. I used to.
So, let me put it this way: Do you give to support God’s kingdom? For me, this was the most important step toward financial maturity. Honestly, the rest of my financial life (and spiritual life, really) did not come into line until I got this one thing: God first, not Heather first.
It’s not that God needs my money. But God knows that giving keeps my priorities straight. “[Tithing] is to teach us how to keep God first in our lives and how to be unselfish people,” Dave Ramsey writes in The Money Answer Book. “Unselfish people make better husbands [and] wives…. God is trying to teach us how to prosper over time.”
The bottom line is that giving to God first, before meeting my needs and wants, teaches me that it’s not about me and that it’s God, not me, who takes care of my needs. That’s a great place to start a marriage.
Question #2: Do you spend more than you make?
A recent study showed that debt brought into marriage was the No. 1 problem area for newlyweds. Will it be yours?
Do you have a running balance on your credit cards? If the answer is “Yes,” let’s be honest: That’s a sign of financial immaturity. You have not shown the discipline to say, “I can’t afford this. I’ll do without it.”
Even the “but I’m in college” excuse is no justification. Remember that you have choices. You can go to a less expensive school or take a break for a semester to work. You can do lots of things before resorting to credit cards.
Does that mean you shouldn’t marry until you’re out of credit card debt? Not necessarily. Maybe you went a little “swipe crazy” your freshman year in college. You fell for that “free pizza” credit card offer and kept the VISA pizzas coming. But you’re now delivering pizzas to conquer your debt. Excellent!
But I do think that you shouldn’t marry until you stop getting into more credit card debt (this includes the temptation to finance your wedding with it). Are you still piling up the debt? Then, stop, get a good Christian resource and get a hold on the problem.
You also need to take an unbiased look at your “intended” and his or her spending habits. As Michelle Singletary writes in her book Your Money and Your Man, “I didn’t grade the men I dated based on their looks. Income wasn’t high on my list, either. Instead I watched how they dealt with all things financial. How my future spouse handled his money was too important to ignore.”
As Christians, of course, we have other criteria to use for a potential mate besides just how he or she handles money. But, Singletary’s right. How he or she spends is too important to ignore.
Question #3: Do you have a plan?
Wherever you are financially, I think it’s important to have a plan. Not a budget, a plan.
Let me preface by saying that God is in control. I have had several financial (and other) plans in my life where God intervened and said, “Yeah, nice planning, but … no.” And hallelujah that He did! But I do think that God honors our attempts to get our financial lives straight.
So, take a piece of paper. Left side: Assets (anything you own). Right side: Debts (anything you owe). Now take a long, hard look. Many of us, at this stage in our lives, are right-side heavy.
Here’s the question: What are you going to do about it? Think about your life in stages. One year from now, how do you want that list to look? What debts do you want to have paid off? What are you doing to make that happen? Now, five years out. Now, 10.
What about your ability to earn income? Do you have a job? If not, that doesn’t disqualify you from marriage. Neither my husband nor I had a job when we got engaged. But, we were pursuing employment and had an idea of the fields we wanted to enter.
Still in school but want to marry? Many before you have done it. What will you do to make it happen?
“If you aim at nothing,” Zig Ziglar said, “you will hit it every time.” So make a plan. Then, as you consider marriage, share your plans with each other.
Question #4: Do you have realistic expectations?
What are your expectations for your financial future? Do you count down the days until you fill your dream home with dream furniture? Can’t wait for your boat, motorcycle and sound system? I, too, fell into the temptation to live now like my parents did after decades of marriage. It helped to get perspective.
Do yourself a favor. Take the field trip recommended by Randy Alcorn, author of The Law of Rewards:
Gather your family and go visit a junkyard or a dump. Look at all the piles of ‘treasures’ that were formerly Christmas and birthday presents. Point out things that people worked long hours to buy and paid hundreds of dollars for, that … marriages broke up over. Look at the remnants of gadgets and furnishings that now lie useless after their brief life span. Remind yourself that most of what you own will one day end up in a junkyard like this. And even if it survives on earth for a while, you won’t. When you examine the junkyard, ask yourself this question, ‘When all that I ever owned lies abandoned, broken, useless and forgotten, what will I have done with my life that will last for eternity?”
Question #5: Have you talked?
Then there’s communication. If you have an intended, have you talked? I mean really talked, about how you will use money in your lives? Kevin and I had (and have) the best financial talks when we took walks together. Something about moving in the same direction made it easier to talk about moving our financial lives in the same direction.
Need some ideas on what to talk about? Take a look at “For Richer, For Poorer,” then. I especially like the idea of printing off your credit reports and exchanging them. Not to criticize, but to open the discussion: What am I proud of? What do I feel needs fixing? Where would I like to see “our” credit report in one, five or 10 years?
Financial author Mary Hunt puts it very well: “When you were single, you dealt with one set of values, beliefs, and life views: yours…. You did what you wanted, the way you wanted and when you wanted. Your money situation, whether pathetic or prosperous, was your secret. But now you’re part of a team…. Everything — the assets and liabilities, the good and the bad — it’s all ‘ours’ now.”
Stepping toward marriage is not about obtaining a certain number or checking off some financial list. But it is about maturing. If you lack it, ask God.
All of “yours” is going to become “ours.” What kind of “yours” do you have to give?
Copyright 2007 Heather D. Koerner. All rights reserved.