How to tell your wife -- or husband -- you got a bad bonus

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Moments before the bad news

Moments before the bad news was imparted (Photo credit: S.Tore)

Most banks have announced their bonuses already, and so most bankers will have had the experience of divulging the size of their bonuses to their spouses. In some cases, this will have been painful. If you're a banker with a bonus of disappointing dimensions, here's how you can make matters easier for yourself.

1. Prepare the ground

The easiest spousal bonus conversations are those which don't occur out of the blue, said Rachel Sussman, a relationship counsellor in Manhattan who works with bankers and their partners. There's often a lot of tension in the approach to bonus time, said Sussman. Banking couples need to address this.

"About a month before bonus time you need to sit down with your partner and discuss how you'll handle the bonus information if it's not as good as you'd like it to be," Sussman advised. "Look at whether it will change your lifestyle and how you'll cope with the impacts. You need to discuss your approach in advance," she added.

2. Don't try to protect your spouse from the bad news 

Many bankers make the mistake of trying to shield spouses from the effects of a poor bonus, thereby making matters worse. "Sometimes bankers don't tell their spouses about a poor bonus and before they know it they're having problems with debt. Honesty is the best policy. It's important that couples talk about everything," said Sussman.

Moshe Ratson, another Manhattan-based counsellor echoes Sussman's advice: "You just be straightforward and very frank. Healthy relationships are based upon transparency, honesty and sincerity."

In other words, if your bonus is zero, let your wife or husband know immediately.

3. Don't accuse your wife or girlfriend of being a hypocrite 

One equity researcher who said he hasn't had a bonus for five years, advised bankers to resist the temptation to criticize wives' reactions to the size of their bonus

"My own experience is that a lot of wives and girlfriends of investment bankers don't necessarily like the fact that their partner is in banking - they'd rather be with someone who's doing something much more worthy. Spouses pretend that they don't like the money and the long hours, but the fact is that they also love the expensive holidays and meals out.

"Banking partners are therefore a bit hypocritical. It's tempting to point this out when a bonus doesn't come through. I've never actually said that to my girlfriend though as it would just cause an argument," he added.

4. Don't allow your husband to browbeat you into giving up work

Husbands often react differently than wives to news of a bad bonus. One female ex-managing director at J.P. Morgan, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said it's often harder for female bankers to break the news of bad bonuses to their husbands than it is for male bankers to break the bad news to their wives.

"Women bankers with poor bonuses will often start factoring in the childcare costs and start to think it's not worth continuing in the job," she said. "Conservative husbands will also pressure their wives into questioning whether their job is really worth sacrificing family time for when the bonus is low."

To avoid this situation, she also advises that female bankers signal to their spouses that their bonuses might be disappointing before the bonus is revealed. That way the difficult questions will have been addressed in advance.

5. Try to impress with the actual wads of cash 

Anton Kreil, the ex-Goldman Sachs trader-turned trader-teacher, suggested that the best way to communicate a penurious bonus to a spouse would be to withdraw the bonus from the bank and to present it to him/her in bundles of notes. "Money always looks like a lot more when you actually see it physically," said Kreil. "If I had a disappointing bonus, I'd withdraw it all and give it to my wife for her to count."

6. Make it clear that you're really suffering too 

If your bonus is bad, you should try to evince empathy in your spouse, advised Lex Van Dam, another ex-Goldman trader. "Come in with tears in your eyes and look like you're about to faint," he said. "She'll immediately know and you won't have to explain too much."

Van Dam pointed out that there are marital upsides to a poor bonus payment: "I've seen a lot of rich people get divorced on the back of bad bonuses. If you're bonus is poor you won't be able to split up. It's a positive thing for the life expectancy of a marriage."

David Charters, the author and banker, confirms that bonuses can be good for married life: "Most couples are totally united at bonus time. Regardless of whether they have a strong marriage or not, they both want the maximum possible amount from the firm. If you don't get it, you can at least cry on each other's shoulder."

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