Marriage, money and happiness: A timeline

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Happy married couple
Image Credit: Dreamstime
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Ah, love and marriage.

When you say “I do” to your special someone, you’re embarking on a brand-new life together — one where you’ll be partners for years to come.

While we all want to “live happily ever after,” it takes work to achieve marital harmony. After all, there are life stressors, like careers, kids, and, of course, money.

Money may well be the number one offender when it comes to disrupting marital bliss. That’s why I embarked on a nationwide study to determine how happiness in marriage evolves. From honeymoon to multi-decade anniversaries, I investigated just how happy couples were during the various phases of marriage.

I surveyed nearly 1,700 retirees, with a mean age of 61-years-old, to get a temperature check on their happiness. The goal was to parse out the relationship between happiness and the financial realities that come during the major stages of married life. I also wanted to map happiness trends to help prepare couples for the ebbs and flows along their financial journey.

Happiness on the journey through marriage – and how money affects it

With those survey results, I was able to put together what I call the Marriage and Happiness Timeline, which looks like this:

Happiness, money and marriage

The ‘Honeymoon’ Phase – 0 to 6 Years

During this period happiness levels were on the rise, according to my survey participants. Their responses indicated a sense of novelty, fun and freedom. Many of these newlyweds had a real, stable income for the first time in their lives. So, their experiences were heightened by flexible cash flow to fund interesting activities and vacations.

In this phase, the couple’s cash outlay is reasonable; student loan payments (which can vary with income levels) remain low, budgeting is pretty straightforward and, in many cases, a mortgage isn’t yet on the horizon. Plus, the bulk of this group had no kids at this point, which also kept their spending modest.

Reeling From ‘Initial Budget Shock’ Phase – 7 to 9 Years

In this stage, money surprises lurk around every corner and happiness is in a free-fall. With kids entering the picture, cash once spent on weekend getaways and adventures is now allocated to no-fun necessities.

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Coupled with the stress of new expenses is the reality that most marriages aren’t flush with savings yet. So, tapping your budget to the brink each month is an easy way to create relationship stress, especially when the lion’s share is going to necessities. New expenses show up daily (school, daycare, soccer camp, oh my!), and are always larger than expected.

During this time, income begins to increase as people make professional progress, which has the side-effect of making student loan payments increase, too. And, a larger family means a larger house, so here comes that mortgage.

It seems that every little thing costs more these days:

“We spent how much on groceries?”
“Our power bill is through the roof!”
“No, the baby doesn’t need organic baby food.”

All ripe ground for financial squabbling.

The ‘From Me to Them to Us’ Phase – 10 to 23 Years

Here, happiness levels rebound — couples have hit their budgetary stride. Generally, the sticker shock of raising a family fades. During these years, couples transitioned their spending and time from “them to us,” albeit with some growing pains. But finally, as kid’s independence and self-sufficiency grows, couples get financial breathing room.

As the surveyed retirees reflected on this time, many of them recalled a significant emotional component to this phase. Their income levels were finally able to support vacations and new family experiences that would bring them joy in the moment and for years afterward.

The Perpetual State of ‘Sticker Shock’ Phase – 23 to 25 Years

For many, these years are marked by another decline in happiness. Sure, there’s relief from the angst-ridden teenage years and weekends dominated by baseball or ballet. But there’s also empty-nesting and college tuition bills staring you down (in addition to that persistent, pesky mortgage).

The stress of walking adolescents through all the unknowns can be emotionally taxing, and the realities of retirement planning, cash-flow and budgeting strain even the most resilient partners. Also during this phase, careers and other obligations often pull spouses in different directions. These factors all contribute to decreased feelings of happiness.

The ‘Finally, Some Budget Relief!’ Phase – 25 to 39 Years

Here again, we see happiness is on the rise.

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At this stage, couples see the light at the end of the tunnel — financially and otherwise — and have a general sense of relief and well-being. Children have become self-sufficient and are off the parental payroll. Those hefty college tuition payments stop, and in their place, disposable income reappears. Overall, budgets finally rewind to “me and us.”

This sense continues as careers wind down, with true freedom and autonomy just in sight. This is a time where money is enjoyed, hobbies are resurrected, and passions and/or side-jobs have room to prosper. Couples may also enter the “Retirement Grey Zone” here, that period when you ease into full retirement with a relaxed work schedule and less corporate pressure. And, perhaps most importantly, the day-to-day financial pressures are taken in stride. The outlook that the “best is yet to come” keeps couples connected, upbeat and happy.

The ‘We Made It!’ Phase – 40+

Once couples reach 40+ years of marriage, happiness skyrockets to levels previously unseen throughout their lives. These precious years are full of gratitude, anticipation and joy. These retirees are in their 60s and 70s, enjoying grandchildren and making experiences and adventures a core pursuit again.

Many finally feel a sense of control over their money — not the other way around. Budgets relax, mortgages are paid off and downsizing happens, and the progressively fewer financial constraints create a cycle of freedom and autonomy. These couples have the time and financial flexibility to invest in the people and projects they truly love. And, these investments return a sense of purpose and wholeness, creating real joy and happiness for years to come.

Final thought

Of course, no one single formula for a happy marriage exists. Communication, compatibility and other factors all contribute to a couple’s success. But a relationship’s vibrancy is also related to — or at least impacted — by, you guessed it, money. After all, so much of our days are spent in pursuit of it. And a couple’s alignment on money’s purpose in their lives can shape a lifetime worth of goals and pursuits.

The reality is that much of the fullness and joy potential in the major marriage phases have money implications. And  while money itself won’t deliver happiness, it positively impacts it. So recognizing what’s ahead, anticipating cash responsibilities and making plans accordingly goes a long way toward creating that lifetime of what we all want — happiness.

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