Arguments about money disturb many marriages. When you consider that about one third of adults with partners report money as a big source of conflict in relationships, it’s no surprise that financial problems are a leading cause of divorce. In this episode of The Agent of Wealth Podcast, host Marc Bautis is joined by Chris Felton, a financial services entrepreneur, speaker, trainer and the co-author of the best-selling book Couples Money: What Every Couple Should Know about Money and Relationships. Chris candidly shares his very personal story of how his wife Marlow went from the brink of divorce, and struggling financially to financial freedom and harmony.
In this episode, you will learn:
- How to take accountability for financial hardships in your relationship.
- How couples can create harmonious goals and attack them together.
- How couples can track financial progress.
- Strategies to improve a couple’s finances.
- And more!
Resources: Couplesmoney.com | Couples Money: What Every Couple Should Know about Money and Relationships | Couples Wealth Blueprint | Chris’ Instagram | Chris’ Twitter | Bautis Financial: 7 N Mountain Ave Montclair, New Jersey 07042 (862) 205-5000
Disclosure: The transcript below has been lightly edited for clarity and content. It is not a direct transcription of the full conversation, which can be listened to above.
Welcome back to the Agent of Wealth. This is your host, Marc Bautis. On today’s show I brought on a special guest, Chris Felton. Christopher is a financial services entrepreneur, speaker, trainer and the co-author of the best-selling book Couples Money: What Every Couple Should Know about Money and Relationships, which he wrote with his wife Marlow Felton. Chris, welcome to the show.
Marc, good to be with you. Thanks for having me.
I’m excited to talk about today’s topic… Mindset is so important when it comes to money and finances — and especially so when it comes to couples. I know you have a lot of expertise when it comes to money and relationships. What spurred you to write the book, Couples Money?
Well… The depths of hell in my relationship.
Growing up, my parents argued about money and divorced over money. 60% of divorces are tied back to money. Even though I was a CPA (Certified Public Accountant) and worked in that field for seven years, then went on to own a financial services company, I never really learned how money worked.
When I left corporate America behind, I was going through an expensive, painful divorce. I went on to marry my second and last wife, Marlow. At that time, she didn’t know much about me. She didn’t know how expensive the divorse was, that I had $250,000 of unsecured debt, that I signed a stupid lease for my office, and that I was paying my ex-wife $5,000 a month. She didn’t know a lot of things.
While I was getting introspective and trying to figure out what I wanted out of life, I got the intuition to hand the books over to Marlow. At that point, she learned everything.
She was like, “I thought you’re a CPA, a financial advisor… Why are you broke? Do you know how bad this is?”
We sat down and had what I called the “come to Marlow” meeting. At that time, Marc, budget was the four letter word to me, even though I know it’s six letters. She was trying to get me to change some of my financial behaviors.
One of my favorite quotes is “Optimism and delusion sleep in the same bed together.” That was me at that time — I didn’t want to look at it (my finances). I didn’t want to address the issues. I had a tendency to say, “Yeah, I get it — but it’s all changing because this is coming and this is coming…” You know: My biggest client is right around the corner.
So fast forward about six months. We’re living in a rented house and we’re literally out of money. I have to pay my ex-wife a court-ordered $5,200 on the first of the month, and I don’t have it. I’m an entrepreneur in financial services, and we’re in the Great Recession (2008). I was out of credit cards I could go to. There was nothing left.
Marlow, on the other hand, had savings — she had her money situation straight. That day, I had to ask her for her savings to pay my ex-wife. Marc, I don’t know if you’ve ever talked to anyone that had to go to their wife and asked for the money to pay their ex-wife… It didn’t go well.
I can imagine.
My wife is five foot nothing, and everyone in my office is afraid of her. Volcanic Marlow erupted (that day). She threw her purse at me.
When we do speeches, we act out the purse throwing story on stage. It’s pretty entertaining.
But it wasn’t entertaining at that point. She kept saying, “What’s wrong with you?” You know… cussing me out. Finally I say, “Well, if it’s so bad, why are we still together? Why are we still married?” There was silence after that. She went upstairs and I sat there alone thinking, ‘I created all this.’
How to Take Accountability for Financial Hardships
I was no longer blaming the economy, the recession, my ex-wife, etc. It became clear as day that I created everything. This was the first time in my life that I realized every financial problem in my life was my doing. I just sat there and said, “Oh my Lord.” And then I started thinking about everyone in my life.
My mom’s broke.
My dad’s broke.
My grandma’s broke.
My grandpa’s broke.
My great grandma and great grandpa, on both sides of my family, are broke.
I was a CPA and a financial advisor, and I was even broke.
I said, “Wow, there’s got to be something here.” I wanted to figure it out. So, the next day, Marlow and I came together. She ended up admitting she was part of the problem, too. We decided we weren’t going to declare bankruptcy or get divorced. Instead, we decided to reach out to financially independent couples that we knew. Not only did these people have wealth, but they were successful in all areas of life: Health, spirituality, kids, you name it. We wanted to figure out what they do and how they think.
I also decided to go all in on changing my belief systems. I didn’t know how long it was going to take me, but I decided to go all in, like an Olympic athlete. If you’ve ever met an Olympic athlete, they’re not partially in, they’re all in on what they do.
Some changes I made include:
- Waking up early.
- Read books on money and mindset.
I got committed, we both did.
The Couples Money book was a result of that journey. Marlow flew around the country and found people who were successful, uncovered how they think and act, and wrote about it. When we compared their ways to ours, we could pinpoint where we were self-sabotaging.
It wasn’t easy, but we just shifted, and we’ve had a massive financial transformation — going from broke to financially free. And we did it in a relatively short period of time.
We don’t have it all figured out, but we’ve applied mindset techniques, systems and processes. My goal now is to help people by giving them hope and the motivation to do the same.
Looking back at your journey, would you have done anything different?.
I believe things happen for a reason, but I would have done one thing differently: Owned the results sooner. That was a big lesson Marlow and I got from writing our book. Middle class thinkers, the masses, don’t want to look at their situation because they don’t want to feel bad. But if you don’t want to look at it, then it never gets any better.
The COVID-19 pandemic taught many people this. I mean, my Lord, the average small business owner had two weeks worth of savings. People were waiting for a $1,200 stimulus check. I mean, it was just delusional thinking.
I don’t have it all figured out, but one key to create success is to stop being delusional.
There’s another part to my journey, too: I got a coach. The right coach. I mean, I couldn’t have figured it out on my own. If I knew what to do, I would be living it. So I hired someone who was financially free and had the right mentality. I do wish I would’ve engaged with someone a bit quicker, so I would’ve owned my stuff quicker, versus feeling guilt and shame… Those are all real human feelings, but they’re worthless feelings.
Yeah, I wish I would’ve started a few years earlier.
Do you think you would’ve been able to still do it (become financially free)? I know you mentioned Marlow helped a lot in the journey. Do you think you would’ve been successful without that kind of support and structure from her?
No. I mean, it was a pretty big mountain, dude. A quarter of a million dollars of credit card debt, while leaking a few thousand a month, and in the great recession.
There’s no way I would’ve been able to do it without her, and the book wouldn’t have been written without her either. It’d still be trapped in my computer, right? So if you want to get something done, give it to a woman.
But in my previous marriage — which once again, I created that divorce — it became evident after the fact that it wouldn’t have worked with her. It took a Marlow to support me and move forward with me. She didn’t spend time fixing me — she owned her part in the situation and we supported each other as we both fixed our ways.
In the book, we talk about how resentment doesn’t help anything. Couples need to go shoulder to shoulder and get clear on goals, then attack them together. A husband and wife on the same page becomes the ultimate mastermind.
How do couples get on the same page, especially if they have opposite financial beliefs? Like if the husband is a spender and the wife is frugal. Do partners need to be on the same page in terms of mindset?
How to Create a Common Goal
You can have different personalities, as long as you have a shared, common goal. Even though Marlow and I had different programming — we grew up differently in different belief systems — we created financial goals that we both agreed on.
96% of Americans retire broke.
60% of divorces tie back to financial problems.
Our world is rigged with distraction, so if you don’t know what you’re aiming for (as a couple or individual) you’re not going to hit it.
So that’s where it starts. I’ll ask a couple, “What are you aiming for?” And they respond, “Well… I mean, I don’t know.” I call that the beach ball in the ocean of life, they’re living by default.
Financial Lessons From Highly Successful Couples
#1: What You Focus On Grows
When Marlow and I started our journey to financial freedom, we knew there was a lot of debt to tackle. But one of the lessons we learned from the couples she interviewed is: What you focus on expands. So, for example, if we could focus on the debt only, nothing was really going to change until we created wealth. We needed to learn how to save money and deal with the debt. Obviously we weren’t going to ignore the debt, but creating wealth versus fixing debt was an energizing conversation to me.
“I’d been focused on debt, and the more I focused on it, the more it grew.”Chris Felton
So Marlow and I sat down and I said, “What do you want?” She said, “What would make me feel better is if I had $100,000 saved in the bank.” At the time, that seemed like Mount Everest.
#2: Goal Setting Should Be An Emotional Process
We’ve learned that the masses think goal setting is a logical process. For the world class people that Marlow interviewed, goal setting is emotional. You have to have compelling emotional reasons for why you want to achieve a goal.
When the goal of creating a budget didn’t work for me, I asked myself, “Why do I want this?” I spent probably an hour discussing why I wanted it with Marlow. For me, the stress on her wasn’t worth it. My kids were little, they lived in Atlanta, and I hadn’t seen them in a long time. I didn’t have the money to go see them. That’s emotional. I wondered, in my whole family tree, who’s going to break this? I want to. I was determined to break the generational poverty problem. That was emotional — being an example. I also have a team of people that I led and wanted to serve as an example. That was emotional.
So when you ask yourself why you want a goal, it is usually always tied back to people, not things like a car or home.
Every morning I reminded myself of our goal: To save $100,000. And I reminded myself why. I still use this technique today.
Marlow and I had different approaches and mindsets, but we were clear on the goal and why we wanted to go after it. And still to this day, we have a weekly check in to assess our progress, create new goals and get clear on our why.
That makes sense. So once somebody has created a goal and determined why they want to achieve it, what is the how? Did you look for assistance from your mentor or coach?
Yes. My coach actually said, “You’re a pretty good goal setter, but you’re a horrible goal achiever.” He started by teaching me a system, which is actually explained in depth in a book called The 12 Week Year by Brian Morgan. This was back before the book was written, but… It’s about getting your focus on the quarter.
Each quarter, Marlow and I track our income, savings and net worth. Using your annual goal, break it into progress points based on the quarter. Then utilize strategies, tactics and processes to achieve quarterly results every week.
This sort of took the pressure off, right? It’s about taking small steps. So what my coach got me to do is reduce the goal to what I wanted to do this week. Strategies, tactics and processes. Then, at the end of the week, you course correct.
I’ve never been a guy that had a problem with taking action. It’s just sometimes I just take action for action’s sake, not having a compelling vision for where I was moving. So the annual to quarter to week breakdown, still to this day, helps me achieve my goals. It was transformational, especially because I was doing 52 small course corrections over a year versus what most people do — try to make 30 changes on January 1.
I’m a proponent of that quarterly planning, it just breaks into more manageable chunks than if it was looking further out. One thing that I come across a lot with couples is the concept of segregating funds. Have you seen couples have more success either way, segregating or not segregating funds?
Does Marriage Have to Mean Merging Money?
Well, it depends on the relationship. But I tell people that money is a relationship. If I don’t respect my spouse, we’re probably not going to staying together. It would become a dysfunctional relationship, or a non-existent relationship. So money is a relationship and you need to respect it.
For Marlow and I, segregation caused issues so we decided to combine our incomes. We still allocate our accounts today. But the number one thing that we do, which I recommend, is we allocate fun. That’s probably what saved our marriage.
It was Marlow’s idea, the fun fund. Once we proved that we could save money, she said, “Hey, I’m giving you $500 a month for fun.” Obviously I have access to more fun money now. I could tell you, Marc, down to the penny, how much money is in my fun account. I use that money to go see my kids, for Christmas presents, for happy hour, golf, whatever it is… it comes out of my fun account. That way it’s not coming out of an account that’s meant to move us forward financially. And Marlow’s got hers for hair, nails and all that. We talk about it in our book, it’s really simple.
If you’re single out there, you can do it on your own. Allocate x amount of money for fun and when it’s gone, it’s gone.
So although our income is combined, the segregation of funds is crucial, especially the segregation of funds for fun. Because Marlow and I both know that if one of us goes out and has fun, it’s not getting removed from our financial independence account.
How do you manage not reverting back to your old ways?
How to Get Back On Track When You Slip Into Old Ways
I think if you have a compelling reason to move forward toward your goal, you will come back to it. When you’re really connected to your why, you’ll see success.
Now, you might revert back here and there, but you’ll catch yourself. It’s not about trying to be perfect, it’s about fixing yourself. One of my favorite quotes is, “We’re a miracle and a mess at the same time.” You need to be kind to yourself.
I’m not saying that I didn’t slip or revert back, but reminding myself every morning:
- What my goal is, and
- Why I want to achieve it
Kept me going. Still, to this day, I need constant reminders of why I’m going to the next level.
Plus I have an accountability partner in my wife, and we meet weekly to assess our progress. I’ll remind myself, “I better show progress.”
But if you revert back, catch yourself and forgive yourself. I call it revision: Revise, recommit and keep moving. Falling off is part of it.
Right. You mentioned having a fun budget. How do you actually implement that? Is it a spreadsheet or a separate bank account? Or is the money tracked somewhere else?
How to Track Financial Progress
It probably could be more efficient. My wife is the CFO of the house, so she keeps tabs on everything. At the end of every year, we sit down to A-B. This is a concept we talk about in our book: It’s determining point A, which is where we are, and point B, which is where we want to be (our goal). Then we have that weekly meeting, where we discuss our position in relation to point A and point B. That’s a simple spreadsheet for me. I look at it every week and it takes a few minutes. This stuff’s not hard, Marc, it’s just easier not to.
Right. I think you mentioned it earlier, but being accountable probably helps a lot as well.
Big time, yeah.
You mentioned Marlow is the CFO of the family. Have you seen that approach work where one person takes the lead? Have you seen co-CFOs work with couples?
I don’t know about co-CFOs. In our relationship, Marlow wanted to do it. I think that’s the question to ask: Who wants to do it?
Keep in mind, I’m the CEO of our business. As my mentor says, I’m the guy focused on the goose that lays the golden eggs, and she’s focused on nurturing those golden eggs. That segregation of duties has really worked for us. I’m not saying we’re the perfect model. Couples need to figure out what works for them.
And how long has it been since you had that conversation where you laid it all on the table to now?
15 years. Our book is 10 years old, which is unbelievable. Amazing things have happened since then.
Over that 15 years, what are some of the biggest changes that you’ve had to make? Whether it be beliefs or systems.
I used to buy into the concept that everything is hard — it’s hard to make it, it’s hard to keep it. We are programmed by society to believe that everything’s hard and difficult. Now, there are going to be challenges in life, I’ve had a lot of them… But I call this the hero’s journey. We feel like we have to go do certain things to earn success, and sometimes we create obstacles in the process. I did it, I created multiple obstacles. My divorce was one of them.
But there’s no happy ending to an unhappy journey. Yes, things are sometimes hard, and you may struggle, but you can’t just say: “I’ll be happy one day.” I had to give up that mindset in order to create the energy to put towards achieving our goals.
You started off this episode with your story of being broke and in debt, having to hand over the books to your wife — and all of the stress that followed. I see people, multimillionaires, who still go through money mindset and financial stress issues. Money really affects a lot of us, it’s not just limited to people who don’t have a lot.
All right, we’re just about out of time. Chris, thank you for being on the show. You gave some great tips and advice. I know money is very emotional, and you might look at it and say, “I know what to do!” But focusing on that mindset element is a whole other ballgame. How best can someone reach out to you and find out more information about what you do?
You can head to my website, couplesmoney.com. There, you’ll find all sorts of resources. We have a Couples Wealth Blueprint, which is a four-week transformation that you can do at your own pace. You’ll also find different talks I’ve done around money mindset and how to get unstuck. I also have a complimentary 60-minute coaching session on all things money and mindset available. That’s a $500 value.
Anybody that books that and meets with me, I’ll send a complimentary Couples Money book. I’m actually re-reading it for the first time in a few years, and I’m like, “This is a pretty damn good book.” I told my wife, “We did pretty good honey.”
Perfect, we’ll link to all that in the show notes. Thank you, Chris. And thank you to everyone who tuned into today’s episode. Don’t forget to follow The Agent of Wealth on the platform you listen from and leave us a review of the show. We are currently accepting new clients, if you’d like to schedule a 1-on-1 consultation with our advisors, please do so below.