I grew up with an almost painful awareness of money ― how little my family had, how hard it was to come by, and how much having it mattered. The lack of money defined my entire childhood and “want” was counterbalanced with “can’t” so often I stopped wanting altogether.
I learned to stretch one lunch meal into two ― eating just enough to quell hunger, but never enough to be satiated. I learned to not reach for the toys and clothes other kids brought and wore to school, if just to avoid the disappointment in my parents’ eyes when they told me no. I learned that even if I couldn’t legally work until 14, a local business would let me anyway if it meant paying me half the minimum wage. Most importantly, I learned to prioritise and save what little earnings I had and make it last a year by making a beeline to the clearance rack in a department store, ordering the cheapest appetiser on the menu when out with friends, and pretending to be younger than I was to pay cheaper fares at the movies.
The little money my family had covered the bare necessities ― the roof over our heads, the ingredients for our batch-made meals, the prep courses for specialsed public school programs that would hopefully one day provide us with access to a stronger financial future.
My parents were Soviet emigres who both worked full time and ran side hustles in their limited free time to afford even our substandard quality of life. They never thought of their incomes as their own ― everything they made was pooled together for the good of the family, which meant personal purchases were considered indulgences and usually clouded with guilt on the rare occasions they were made. There is a limited notion of the “self” when your family is barely scraping by ― self-care, self-protection, and personal interest take a back seat to the group’s survival. Spending any money on yourself can feel like betraying the family.
To this day, my parents still won’t splurge on vacations. They eat generic corn flakes, use coupons for McDonald’s, and collect sugar packets and napkins from coffee shops and restaurants. They may no longer be living below the poverty line, but I know they will always think of themselves as poor ― it’s like a weight they put down long ago but that continues to drag them down.
As I grew up ― watching their account balance increase while they struggled to outgrow the impoverished mindset they held for decades ― I knew it was my obligation, as their first-generation daughter, to protect my financial interests while having a healthier and more honest relationship with money than the one I grew up with.
Years later, in the thick of my engagement, as my fiancé and I discussed our honeymoon details and our plans for the faraway future, he nudged me gently toward a more timely objective.
“So, did your lawyer give you the green light on the prenup yet?” he asked.
She had, after spending no more than an hour reviewing the paperwork and finding it to be completely fair and in accordance with all the terms we’d discussed as we drafted it together. I left her office feeling good about crossing another item off our wedding to-do list. We had agreed that if we divorced, we would evenly split everything we made in the marriage. Everything we entered into the marriage with (both assets and liabilities) or stood to inherit would remain solely our own.
My partner and I are both thoughtful and careful with our money. We work hard and share the similar financial values of people who have known difficulty and have lacked the security of a safety net to fall back on. In fact, we know we might be put in a position to act as a safety net for our own families in the future.
After growing up poor, I steadily overcame my financial insecurities and began to allow myself more indulgences with every promotion that came my way. My fiancé grew up in a family that had money, but that wealth dwindled to nearly nothing by the time we met in university. We both had on-campus jobs and were forced to pinch pennies more than our friends were. As we fell in love, we recognised in each other the ambition and hunger of people whose relationship with money was scarred and rooted in the fear of not having it.
Somewhere along the path of healing those wounds, we had both independently come to the conclusion that we were interested in a prenup for our marriage, so we never felt the need to have a formal discussion about it. But when it came time to sign the paperwork, I realised I felt weird about it and I wasn’t sure why.
As I reflected on the situation, I realised my anxiety stemmed from some of the closest people in my life reacting less than enthusiastically to our plan. Friends who had known us love each other deeply for almost a decade expressed their concern about what they saw as our lack of faith in our future together. “Are you sure you want to enter a marriage discussing the possibility of a divorce?” someone asked. “Whose idea was it to do this?” another gently prodded.
The truth is that nobody who enters a marriage more in love than ever and freshly committed to eternity is thinking about divorce. My fiancé and I pride ourselves in our ability to have difficult conversations and forge an authentic life together, cognisant of not repeating some of our parents’ mistakes ― of which they had made plenty.
“We saw our upcoming wedding as an opportunity to celebrate with the people we loved but we knew the marriage itself was a legal and social contract.”
He had witnessed a prolonged divorce between his parents, where having only one parent who was employed led to a power imbalance. My parents were still married, but their financial interdependence was a big part of why they remained bound to each other. In both situations, their economic issues had momentous impacts on their children. As we prepared to marry, we obviously wanted our new family to stay together, but that started with honesty about our expectations, our priorities, and, yes, our preferred financial terms and conditions.
We’d long known we were each other’s “forever” person. We saw our upcoming wedding as an opportunity to celebrate with the people we loved but we knew the marriage itself was a legal and social contract. When a couple chooses to not draw up a prenup, there are still laws and terms in place that determine what happens to their assets, income and debt in the event of a divorce. If you don’t come up with an agreement that covers all of that, those rules are determined and enforced by the state. The government will decide things like who pays for alimony, how much they pay (and for how long), who gets the family home or the stocks that haven’t yet vested, who needs to pay for the student debt, and every other single detail regarding shared financial assets and liabilities.
We thought of our prenup as an insurance policy. When you get a pet, propose with an engagement ring, or buy a house ― you don’t expect your dog to get sick, the ring to get lost, or the house to catch fire. We don’t anticipate or want to encounter the worst possible outcome for the things that we care most about. But with almost 50% of all marriages in the U.S. ending in divorce, we didn’t want to enter our marriage with our eyes wide shut. It gave us peace of mind to draft up the fairest terms possible ― just in case ― and to have challenging but important conversations about things like future children, end-of-life care for parents, our financial priorities, and contingency plans for our future wealth. I left those conversations feeling more on the same page as a couple than ever ― and I left them feeling lighter. As we addressed and discussed the financial imbalances and hardships in the marriages we grew up witnessing, it felt healing and refreshing to enter our marriage with honesty and clarity.
Historically, prenups have had the negative reputation of maintaining a power imbalance. We’ve all watched a movie or a show where the agreement is mentioned as part of a web of entrapment woven by the dominant, rich and/or famous partner. In reality, however, the tides are shifting. There’s been a 400% increase in prenups since 2010, largely driven by millennials ― who are, on average, getting married later in life and who view their marriage as more of a true partnership. Household debt is also climbing at a head-spinning pace and interest rates are equally high.
Our relationship, at present, doesn’t have much of a power imbalance. We have similar financial trajectories and neither of us stands to come into any massive financial windfall from our families. While that may change over the course of our lives, we used our prenup to assert our present and future hopes for our partnership, and draw the boundaries of what we consider ours ― both individually and as a couple.
As I explained the gist of all this to my friends, I found myself feeling defensive about a decision I had carefully considered. I’d read the entire prenup front to back and highlighted the few questions I had so my attorney could review it. Because my partner is getting an advanced educational degree, I actually had significantly more money than him at the time and I felt more financially empowered than ever before in my life. The pulsing anxiety I’d felt about money for most of my life had finally faded to a distant background hum. I felt immense pride that both my partner and I had overcome periods of financial turmoil and our previously fear-based relationships with money to make a healthy plan to share our wealth.
As people my age are considering prenups more than any previous generation, I found myself wondering when the social acceptance for the decision to choose one will finally show up. I also wondered why I had allowed other people’s thoughts about our prenup to shake up my confidence in our decision, when I’d always felt that establishing one would make the foundation of our marriage stronger.
I finally came to the realisation that everyone else’s opinions about our prenup were just that ― opinions. If we didn’t feel the need to give credence to everyone’s thoughts about our wedding location, budget, or what vendors we should prioritise, then why should our approach to this piece of paper be any different? Our prenup reflects our values: our commitment to open and honest communication, to parity and teamwork in all the things that we do, and to our love and support for each other.
Others may see a prenup as a sign of danger or even defeat, but to us, it’s a sign of hope. We hope to continue to have difficult but fruitful conversations with each other in times of adversity or discomfort. We hope that we can overcome any big obstacle that throws a wrench in our life’s plans and emerge stronger together. We hope to never again have a relationship with money that elicits fear. And most importantly, we hope that we never get a divorce.
Paula Tsvayg works in international marketing by day and writes feverishly by scented candlelight at night. A born-and-raised New Yorker, she recently relocated to the New Hampshire woods with her husband and their new puppy and misses good pizza and bagels. When she’s not reading (or writing), you can find her spending time with friends, watching dramas on TV, or cooking ambitious recipes.