Navigating Money and Marriage: Avoiding the Pitfalls

The South African landscape is a colourful melting pot of cultures, with a diversity of societal norms around marriage and cohabitation. Each choice presents its unique challenges and rewards, especially when it comes to finances. Let’s explore the implications that couples navigate around the sometimes tumultuous terrain of “money and marriage” – which includes combining finances after marriage; money issues in marriage; and financial planning for married couples.

Committed relationships in South Africa presents two broad categories: Civil/Customary marriages, legally recognized, and cohabitation or living together, which some think of as ‘common law marriage’. However, common law marriage isn’t recognized in South African law. This misunderstanding can lead to tricky “money issues in marriage” for cohabiting couples, especially concerning property acquisition, retirement planning, and financial emergencies.

money and marriage; marriage and financial planning tips

Combining Finances After Marriage: Understanding South African Marital Regimes

Legally, marriage involves combining finances after marriage, and couples should be aware of the various marital regimes. The in-community-of-property regime, the default marital regime in South Africa, implies that spouses share the assets and debts equally acquired before and during the marriage. Conversely, the out-of-community-of-property regime, either with or without accrual, allows spouses to maintain separate estates. This difference significantly impacts asset and debt distribution on divorce or death of a spouse.

In contrast, cohabitating partners maintain separate estates, leaving room for potential disputes when purchasing property or dealing with financial crises. A cohabitation agreement, detailing how finances and assets are split, is a wise preventative measure.

Money Issues in Marriage: Understanding Your Partner's Money Story

One pivotal aspect couples often neglect when navigating their shared financial journey is understanding each other’s “money story”. This refers to how a person’s past experiences, upbringing, and beliefs shape their attitude towards money. A person’s money story can heavily influence whether they’re a spender or a saver, which can lead to financial problems in marriage if not addressed properly.

For instance, if one partner grew up in a household where money was scarce, they might be a fervent saver, always cautious about spending and perpetually focused on building a nest egg. Conversely, someone who experienced a more carefree attitude towards money might grow into a spender, enjoying the freedom and experiences their finances can provide them.

Saver of Spender?

When a saver and a spender unite in marriage, it can cause tension. The saver might feel anxiety over the spender’s purchases, while the spender might feel restricted by the saver’s financial caution. This situation can lead to hidden expenses, disagreements over financial priorities, and general marital discord.

However, understanding each other’s money story can help mitigate these issues. By discussing your past experiences with money, you can gain a deeper understanding of your partner’s financial habits and attitudes. This understanding can foster empathy, better communication, and a more aligned approach to your shared financial goals.

It’s also vital to have clear, agreed-upon budgets and savings plans. These can help balance the needs of the spender and the saver, ensuring both feel their attitudes towards money are respected. Remember, a strong financial future isn’t just about how much you save or spend—it’s about creating a shared vision that acknowledges both partners’ money stories and financial comfort levels.

Other Causes of Financial Problems in Marriage: The Elephant in the Room

Often, couples overlook the financial aspect in the romance and commitment of marriage. However, money issues in marriage can create significant discord, sometimes even leading to dissolution. Here are some typical financial problems in marriage:

1. Hidden Expenses: Hidden purchases or debts can damage trust and lead to financial instability. Honesty and transparency about spending are key to avoiding such issues.

2. Differing Financial Priorities: When partners have different spending habits or financial goals, it can lead to tension. Balancing personal wants with shared goals requires effective communication and compromise.

3. Lack of Budgeting: The absence of a clear, agreed-upon budget can lead to overspending and financial strain. Setting a budget and sticking to it ensures both partners are on the same page.

4. Inadequate Savings: Lack of savings can amplify a financial emergency into a significant crisis. Regular contributions to an emergency fund are crucial for financial security.

5. No Retirement Plan: Not planning for retirement can lead to financial stress in the future. Early and consistent investments in retirement plans can help avoid this issue.

Understanding and addressing these financial problems in marriage is the first step to building a stable financial foundation. By fostering open discussions about money, setting shared financial goals, and regularly reviewing these goals, couples can mitigate potential issues and pave the way for a healthy financial relationship.

Financial Planning for Married Couples: Building Towards a Shared Future

Whether in marriage or cohabitation, strategic financial planning for married couples is crucial. Here are refined strategies to navigate this journey:

1. Contribute to a Joint Account: One way to address household expenses and costs related to raising children is to create a joint account. Both partners should contribute proportionally according to their income. This means if one partner earns more, they should contribute more. This strategy ensures fairness and eases potential tensions about “who pays for what,” allowing both partners to contribute to their shared lives equitably.

2. Maintain Individual Financial Freedom: While it’s essential to have a joint account for shared expenses, it’s equally crucial for each partner to have money for themselves. Individual financial freedom allows each person to indulge in personal hobbies, self-care, and other pursuits without feeling guilty or needing to justify these expenses. This freedom helps maintain a healthy sense of individuality within the relationship, preventing resentment from building over feeling financially “controlled” or restricted.

3. Strive for Financial Independence: Instead of simply focusing on retirement, aim for financial independence. This term implies the ability to cover living expenses without relying on employment income, giving you the freedom to pursue what you’re passionate about without worrying about money. Achieving financial independence requires disciplined saving, smart investing, and clear, realistic financial goals.

4. Invest in Estate Planning: While traditionally you might think about getting insurance for financial security, it’s important to go one step further with estate planning. Estate planning is the process of arranging the management and disposal of your estate in the event of your death or incapacitation. It involves drafting a will, setting up trusts, establishing a power of attorney, and more. Proper estate planning ensures your assets are distributed according to your wishes and offers financial protection for your loved ones.

Consulting a professional to help with your financial planning for married couples can be instrumental in aligning these strategies with the legal implications of your relationship. They’re impartial and can offer an unbiased view to help you plan and navigate the future. Remember, it’s not just about managing money; it’s about building a shared vision for your financial future while respecting each partner’s individual needs and financial stories.

The Final Word: The Interplay of Marriage, Cohabitation, and Finances

The interplay of marriage, cohabitation, and finances in South Africa is a complex dance, influenced by legal, societal, and personal factors. Understanding these complexities can help couples make informed decisions, communicate better about money, and ultimately build a strong, stable financial future. Be sure to also read our tips for financial advice for newlyweds

Carl-Peter Lehmann

Carl-Peter Lehmann

Carl-Peter is a Director and Partner at Henceforward. He has over 20 years experience, is a CFP, and enjoys working with couples to help them navigate their financial lives.

Share via your favourite social media platform


As an executive, you're well aware that your financial landscape is unique and complex. Your wealth is typically tied to the success (or otherwise) of the company you work for - primarily via its share price - and the share options that form a large component of your remuneration package.

The role of a Private Wealth Manager goes beyond investing and portfolio management. It's about building relationships based on trust and responding to the emotional needs of clients, supporting them to achieve what matters in their lives. Here we explore what that entails.

In the journey of investing, the path to financial success is often paved with informed decisions and strategic planning. This piece delves into essential investment advice, offering insights not just on avoiding pitfalls but on embracing practices that lead to long-term success.

Sign up to our newsletter to stay informed on our latest news, views and insights on financial planning and investing

* indicates required

Download Your Free Copy of the 8 Deadly Investment Sins and Transform Your Investment Results!