Successful Step Parenting: Three Potential Pitfalls - No. 1 Financial

Posted at 15:22pm on 18th August 2009

BBC Radio Newcastle, which serves an area from the Scottish Borders to Durham, asked me to speak, this morning, on whether stepfamilies could ever be as successful and harmonious as biological families.

As before, on my interview with BBC Radio 5 Live, I answered a resounding Yes. From personal experience, plus observation of the families I interviewed for my book Stepfamilies, I know that step parenting, while never easy, can be worked at, and blended family challenges are rarely insurmountable.

On the Breakfast Show, I identified three potential pitfalls:

  1. Relationship between the couple
  2. Relationship between step parent and step child
  3. Relationship between absent parent and child

Today, I shall be dealing only with the first.


One of the biggest bones of contention between a couple, whether married for the first time or second, is in the area of finance. There’s no doubt that money can equate to power, and a lack of it to insecurity. Consequently, the way in which disposable income is dispersed between a couple may cause inequality and division.

However strong your love for one another, marrying for a second time can seem quite risky, especially if your first experience was negative. So the subject of money, and who has what, may prove quite intimidating. But so, too, can the reality of dealing with a situation which you have not, previously, discussed. Once the first flush of romance wears off and you’re down to the mundane business of trying to make ends meet, the uncertainty can have the affect of making you feel diminished, as these ladies reveal.

“Losing my widow’s pension when I remarried made me feel I was losing all independence,” said one lady, whom I interviewed for my book.

“When we went away on holiday, I wanted to be able to take some money of my own so I could buy presents for my family without using what I consider is John’s,” said another.

Sorting out your finances and establishing who pays for what may appear to be somewhat cold-blooded, when the wedding preparations are under way. But the fact is that knowing where you stand can, actually, help a couple to bond, and strengthen their commitment.

My second husband, Will, took on my three girls when we married. Prior to that we had both been independent people for a long time: he as a bachelor and I as a single parent. We realised that we had to reach some decisions pretty quickly – in fact before we married – if we were to avoid the possibility of squabbles, or resentment, over money.


I had a small income but Will was the main breadwinner. We worked out a budget, listing income and expenditure, and who would be responsible for which payments. We then pooled our resources – not equally, but in direct ratio to what each of us would be paying for. Crucially, however, we decided to keep our own separate bank accounts.


This method had two distinct advantages. First, it gave each of us the independence to budget within our budget. In other words, if I found I could make savings on, say, food-shopping, I would then be free to spend a bit extra on the girls without having to go and ask for it. Equally, Will never had to feel guilty about going to a football match, because we’d already budgeted for that. And if either of us wanted to buy a gift for the other, we felt that it came out of ‘our own’ money.

The other benefit was that, inevitably, in the early days of being a stepfamily, one or other of the kids would pick a quarrel about who owned what. You know the sort of thing? Kids seem to have an unerring regard for what they consider “fair”. So, perhaps the youngest, would want to watch something on TV that was quite different to what we wanted to see, and instead of negotiating, she’d turn to me and say, “It’s our TV, isn’t it mummy?” It helped to be able to respond, “Yes, it’s our TV in that we had it when your stepdad and I married. But as he pays the licence for it, and the mortgage on our home, it’s his, too, by rights.”


  • If one partner is not very reliable about budgeting or paying bills, or tends to be forgetful, it might then come as a huge shock to the other to discover that vital bills – like the mortgage or life assurance - have not been paid.
  • If you have separate bank accounts, there is the possibility that if one of you falls ill, dies, or some other emergency arises, the other may not be able to access monies put aside for certain bills.


  • Automatic payments: Set up direct debits or standing orders wherever possible – that way, you can be sure that everything will be paid.
  • Joint Accounts: Some couples, in this situation, find that one joint bank account is the answer.
  • Sole Responsibility: Others are happy to entrust the whole area of financial responsibility to the partner with the greater expertise.
  • Emergencies: Will and I took advice on this, and as a result we eventually made each of our independent bank accounts into joint accounts. This means that either may access the other’s account in a crisis; but the reality is that we each of us still manage our own, entirely separately.

The Blended Family: Key To Success Is Open Discussion

The point is that it’s not a good idea simply to drift into a second marriage without reaching some conclusions about what each of you expects of the other in terms of financial arrangements. And you’ll never reach conclusions without discussion. Be open and honest with one another. Take a look at my posts on communicating and feedback. Make sure you end up getting what you both want so that neither of you feels secretly dissatisfied. As the writer, Katherine Mansfield famously said: “I must say I hate money, but it’s the lack of it I hate most.”

I love getting feedback from readers. Do leave your comments to let me know if you have anything to add to this discussion. And don’t forget to pass it on to a friend. To listen in to the discussion on Stepfamilies: BBC Newcastle, Alfie & Charlie at Breakfast

NEXT TIME: We’ll take a look at the second point: Relationship Between Step Parent And Step Child

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29th September 2009
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