Elizabeth Sloan - Marriage & Family Therapist
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Money Conflicts

Money Conflicts in Marriage

Most couples want to pay their bills and have enough left over to build wealth, save up for big expenses, and create a nest egg for retirement.

Even so, money is a touchy subject for almost all couples.

  • "I never know how much we have, or where it goes. I just know we never have enough."
  • "I feel like we're drowning in debt. Every time I pay it off, my partner just charges more."
  • "Financial goals? Are you kidding? We can't even agree on how to pay our bills every month."

Does any of this sound familiar?

It should. Disagreements about money are one of the top two areas of conflict in committed relationships (the other one is sex).

Before the recession, about 13% of couples argued about money several times a month, according to Money magazine. 1 Since the recession began, the percent of couples who argue about money has risen to 43%. 2

Heavy debt loads, reduced income, and loss of financial safety nets have ruined many relationships. Some research indicates that conflicts about money may be the number one reason for break-ups and divorce. 2

Money Personalities

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Usually, couples don't argue about how much money they have. They argue about what to do with the money they do have.

The truth is that money is more than just a form of currency. It's symbolic. It means different things to different people.

Everyone has what's called a "money personality" or a typical way of handling money based on deeply held beliefs and values. Our money personality drives things like whether we buy lunch on the fly, or pack a sandwich every day. Whether we buy a new car every year, or drive the one we have until it falls apart. Whether we set aside money for a rainy day, or figure we will cross that bridge when we come to it.

  Discord over Retirement

More than 80% of spouses disagree about a major component of retirement planning.

Retirement issue % that disagree
When to Retire 60%
Work after Retirement? 44%
Sell Real Estate? 44%
Retirement Lifestyle 42%

Source: Fidelity Investments

In fact, when it comes to money personalities, opposites attract. According to research, "tightwads," who generally spend less than they ideally would like, and "spendthrifts," who generally spend more than they would ideally like, tend to marry each other. 3

We develop a money personality early in life, when we observe - and are directly affected by - how our family earned, saved, spent, and thought about money.

  • If our family lived within its means and discussed financial decisions calmly, there's a good chance we feel comfortable talking about money.
  • On the other hand, if we saw our parents unable to pay bills, use credit unwisely, and yell at each other about finances, money may be a sore subject.

We usually don't give much thought to having a money personality. We simply assume that our habits, attitudes, and expectations are normal. It can be a big surprise when our partner does not agree with our basic assumptions.

Talking about Money

We know beyond a doubt that what couples argue about is not as important as how they argue about it. 4

When you listen to each other and try to understand your differences, you stand a much better chance of not letting finances come between you.

But how do you talk to each other about money, and what do you talk about?

Financial Literacy

Financial literacy means having the knowledge and skills to use money wisely and build wealth. By doing what prosperous people do, you can make informed choices, avoid pitfalls, and know where to turn for help.

For example, financially literate people have strategies for

  • Monitoring cash flow, spending, and saving
  • Reducing taxes
  • Planning for retirement
  • Managing investment portfolios
  • Using real estate to build long term wealth

If you don't know how to work with the tools that build wealth, it's not likely you will become prosperous. Even after a lifetime of hard work.

Money 101

This is where Money 101 can help. Money 101 is a comprehensive approach to helping couples handle money productively. By addressing both relationship skills and financial literacy in one program, Money 101 goes beyond most other financial programs.

Money 101 is based on a workbook developed by Caring Couples, Happy Lives. The workbook organizes materials, tips, tools, and resources to walk you through changing how you relate to money as a couple.

The program starts by helping you take stock of your finances, then teaches skills to help you break through whatever holds you and your partner back financially. The focus is on helping you

  • Work with your emotions, so you see how your money personality and emotions may affect your habits for earning, spending, and saving.
  • Become a financial team, so you and your partner can work as a team to capitalize on your money strengths and handle your challenges without blaming, yelling, and accusations.
  • Gain financial literacy, so you can build a financial toolkit to help you reach your financial goals.
  • Create an action plan, so you leave with a way to implement what you have learned to produce results.

Becoming a Financial Team

In Money 101, you have the chance to ask your partner questions about financial teamwork, such as

  • Should we pool our money, or have separate accounts and spending plans?
  • How much and on what should each of us be free to spend without consulting the other?
  • How should we handle it when we disagree about money?

How Do We Get Started?

Money 101 is not a class or group. You go through the program privately so you get one-on-one, individualized attention. Since your sessions are private, you can schedule and pace the sessions to suit your needs. There is no deposit or up front tuition. You pay as you go. Contact us for a free 30-minute phone consultation to talk about your specific goals and interest in Money 101.

1   Men, Women, and Money, CNNMoney, March 14, 2006.
2   How to Recession-proof Your Marriage, EyewitnessNews, May 2009.
3   Fatal (Fiscal) Attraction: Spendthrifts and Tightwads in Marriage, Journal of Consumer Spending, April 2008.
4   The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, John Gottman and Nan Silver, 1999.

Special thanks to Alexandra Krafchek, who assisted in the preparation of this article.

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