Money is a complicated aspect of most relationships, and is one of the most commonly cited reasons behind couples divorcing. Typically this is not down to a lack of finances, but to a lack of compatibility in financial goals and management (Payne, Olver & Roth, 2015). For stepcouples, the strain of financial obligations is even more complex and layered. Child support, alimony, Section 7 expenses, legal fees, discrepancies in income between both houses… all of these challenges are in addition to stepfamily stressors such as custody issues, conflict with ex-spouses, different parenting styles, insider/outsider feelings, loyalty binds, and more.
It is so important, for anyone in a relationship, but particularly for those living in stepfamilies, to be open and honest about money matters, and to keep open lines of communication around finances throughout the relationship. In terms of actual money management, it may be best for remarried couples to keep “three pots – yours, mine, ours” (Engel, 1999), where the couple determines how much money is needed to cover monthly expenses, but retains control over some of their own income. However, in the end, the best option is that which works for both members of the stepcouple.
It is crucial for stepmoms to develop financial boundaries, so that she contributes to her stepfamily in ways that are comfortable for her, without becoming resentful over a lack of control over her own money. These boundaries should be clearly discussed with her partner, and revisited and revised when necessary. Personally speaking, I have always invested in my stepchildren’s Christmas and birthday gifts, because I enjoy picking out things I know they will love. But I would never feel comfortable directly contributing to monthly child support payments. To me, that is my husband’s responsibility, and not what I agreed to when I married him. The first year or two in my new stepfamily, I can definitely say I went overboard with those Christmas and birthday gifts! I was making more money at the time, and I had so much fun shopping for them. Over time, I have had to limit my shopping a bit, but I still enjoying contributing in this way. By establishing these boundaries from the beginning, I haven’t felt as much resentment over our financial situation, and my husband and I have frequent conversations about money. However, this has not been without its challenges.
When I was 40 weeks + 6 days pregnant (I went into labour the next day), my husband received a letter from MEP stating he owed thousands in child support. I won’t bore you with the details, but he had his ex had come to an agreement whereby he didn’t need to pay child support during the summer months for that year as we had the kids with us 24/7 for over two months. She reneged on that deal, and went behind his back to get the money through MEP. We were devastated. Collecting this money from us would have meant we were unable to make our rent, would have lost our apartment, and at the time were living in a province where we knew no one and so had no other options of places to live. Not to mention the impending labour! In the end, she cancelled her claim, thank goodness, but it was a major shock and caused a lot of tension between my husband and I, right before the birth of our baby girl.
There are many, many stepfamily stories out there much worse than ours. I recognize that in general we have a very calm, manageable situation. Even in the worst, most contentious dynamics, you can take control of your own money and limit the impact of these stressful dynamics on your daily life. The first step to this is educating yourself on money matters. If you would like to learn more about this from a financial expert, check out the course designed just for Social Stepmom by The Sassy Investor, Michelle Hung. Her information is valuable and accessible, and Michelle is personable and supportive in her delivery. Check out the course available this month through Social Stepmom, and start taking charge of your money!