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Couple Reach Across Financial Divide

Meet Shannan Schmitt, 40:  She cannot resist $200 Via Spiga pumps, hickory hardwood floors, or the fancy soaps and gourmet goodies at the farmers market where she likes shopping with her toddler son.

Meet her husband, Randy Nauman, 36.  His penny-pinching ways are dictated by the numbers and his bachelor’s degree in finance.  Her Internet shopping drives him to distraction.

“Opposites attract,” said their financial coach, Kelley Long.

Married five years, the Cincinnati couple’s willingness to discuss their finances publicly, for this article, is rare.  But their marital discord over money is not: A recent survey found that the typical American couple argues about money three times a week, and past academic research has found that the more couples argue about money the greater is their risk of divorce.

Nauman said money “is the biggest issue,” and he worries it may be severe enough to jeopardize their marriage.  “It leads into other stressful situations and arguments that don’t need to happen,” he said.

But Long, who owns KCL Financial Coaching in Chicago (formerly Cincinnati), said Schmitt and Nauman are like other couples who marry at a later age.  “It’s harder to combine your finances if you’ve already had a chance to establish your financial habits” before getting married, she said.

The cause of the couple’s money issues does not seem to stem from their upbringings, which were both middle-class and Midwestern.  Schmitt believes that their emotional sore spot is the role reversal they experienced when her husband was laid off in 2008, switching up the financial balance of power typical in most marriages.

Nauman is a stay-at-home dad but came into the relationship earning more than his wife, as a financial analyst at a major accounting firm and then as a medical salesman.  Suddenly, because he was laid off, Schmitt was bringing home the only full-time paycheck, from her long-time job as director of communications for Cincinnati Youth Collaborative, which helps inner-city youth succeed in college.

Since his unemployment coincided with Schmitt’s first pregnancy, he decided to stay home and care for their son, Donovan.  She believes the decision caused “self-guilt.”  She added, “Even though this is something he chose, it was something he felt a little uncomfortable about.”

Nauman partly agrees, but he also puts more emphasis on the financial fallout of living on one paycheck.  “If I had a job full-time, things would be different, but it wouldn’t change the fact her spending is off the chart,” he said.  “But me not working has made it worse.”  He plans to get back into the labor force, using his experience managing their properties as a bridge to a career in renovating or investing in real estate.

In separate interviews, Schmitt and Nauman spoke calmly and openly about their financial divide.  But their personal style differences are obvious.  Nauman discussed their finances with despair but rarely anger.  Schmitt, the more verbal spouse, joked about their money issues, readily admitting her “financial house was very much in disarray.”

The couple are committed to ironing out their problems, even agreeing to be interviewed for this article, Schmitt said, in the hope that it “might even be a step in our journey of trying to figure it out.”

But resolutions can be challenging when both partners view their spouse as having the problem.  Exhibit A is the Nauman-Schmitt household budget: they have none.  They’ve tried working on a budget, she said, but “it’s such a heated subject for him that he gets so upset that we’ve never sat down and done it.”

Her husband’s take on their failed budgeting attempts:  “I enjoy it … but she gets anxious about it and doesn’t like it,” he said, speculating that “she’s scared to see the result.”

Nauman is the kind of person who, as a child, tracked the interest on his earnings from cutting grass.  Today, his stress over their household finances has sometimes run so high that he said he has paid utility bills late, rather than bring up that there isn’t enough money in the checking account.  “It’s horrible. I’ve never been this bad with money in my entire life.”

Schmitt said she is trying to curb her spending – with help from their financial planner – even resisting the magnetic pull of the mall parking lot on her commute home.  While trying to make changes for her toddler’s sake, she expressed frustrated that her husband isn’t as willing to compromise on how much they can spend.

“My idea of spending is just so foreign to him that he doesn’t even want to meet me halfway,” she said.

Before they married, Schmitt was waving red flags all over the place.  Nauman said he might’ve been in “denial” about her spending or thought they would work things out.  When planning the wedding, for example, Schmitt wanted to serve the guests filet mignon, splurging on their inheritance-funded wedding.  “He fought me the whole way on it,” she said.  (The wedding planner finally nixed filet in favor of roast beef.)

There was also the $7,000 Schmitt spent on hickory hardwood and tile flooring for her condominium in downtown Cincinnati, a prelude to the gut renovation of the first floor of the home they purchased.  When buying the house, Nauman said he was thinking, “Let’s fix a couple things, move in, talk about what we want to have and fix more.”  They did it her way, he said, knocking down a wall, relocating the bathroom, buying new kitchen cabinets and stainless steel appliances.

In hindsight, Schmitt said she was right about the hickory hardwood floors, which she believes have paid off.  Her old condominium, which they rent, is “a cash cow – so I win,” she joked.  “Every renter who came into that place remarked on those darn floors.”

So, who’s at fault?

“They both have work to do,” Long said.  “Randy needs to gain empowerment over shared financial decisions, and Shannon needs to place some realistic limits on her discretionary spending.”

She added, “With communication and flexibility, they absolutely can do it.”

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