If you and your spouse argue about money, you’re not alone. According to a 2014 Harris Poll, money is the No. 1 thing couples fight about, and a study by Kansas State University found that disagreements about money are the No. 1 predictor of divorce.
Although there’s some contention over the current divorce rate in the U.S., most experts agree that over 40% of marriages are destined to end in divorce. And when you consider that money arguments are likely to be the main cause, finding a way to discuss finances and resolve money issues with your partner becomes crucial to the long-term success of any marriage.
Why Money Causes Problems in Relationships
According to Sonya Britt-Lutter, the head researcher of the Kansas State study, arguments about money lead to divorce more than fights on any other topic: “It’s not children, in-laws or anything else. It’s money — for both men and women.” This is true regardless of where individuals fall on the socioeconomic spectrum.
According to the American Psychological Association (APA) Stress in America survey, compared with other “touchy” topics, arguments about money are usually “more intense, more problematic, and more likely to remain unresolved.”
So why do fights about money get so bad?
1. Money Is a Core Survival Issue
Money is an unquestionably emotional issue for many, and a big part of what makes the topic so emotional is money’s connection to our survival. We need money to meet our most basic needs, including food, shelter, and clothing. Because money is so intimately connected to our survival, we have many fears, emotions, and expectations about it. Thus, when we’re stuck in situations where there isn’t enough money, our emotions run high.
A CareerBuilder report found that 78% of Americans live paycheck to paycheck, according to CNBC, and CNN reports that 40% of Americans can’t cover a $400 emergency expense. When couples argue about money, a great deal of the arguments are about these two issues. Half of the Harris Poll survey participants said they argued about unexpected expenses, while 32% said their arguments were about insufficient savings.
2. Financial Struggles Cause Stress & Anxiety
Prolonged financial pressures lead to increased levels of anxiety, and increased anxiety leads to more conflict with spouses. As explained by Deborah L. Price, author of “The Heart of Money,” “Where people are fearful and anxious about money and their personal finances, they are frequently too overwhelmed and stressed to be focused and present.” This leads to more intense and emotional arguments.
And there are many Americans feeling financial distress. According to the Acorns 2017 Money Matters Report, 42% of survey respondents reported feeling “anxious and depressed” when they thought about their financial future. According to a CNBC report, 85% of respondents to a 2018 survey say they worry about money “sometimes” and as many as 30% of Americans say they worry “constantly” about money.
In addition to getting stuck in the paycheck-to-paycheck cycle, one of the biggest financial pressures on couples is debt. According to a 2017 survey by Ramsey Solutions, the larger a couple’s debt, the more likely money is to be a top cause of fighting. By contrast, the survey found that money wasn’t even one of the top five topics debt-free couples fought about.
The 2018 Fidelity Couples & Money Study also found debt to be a top stressor in marriages. Moreover, the study found a correlation between those who identified debt as a primary concern and couples who argued more frequently overall. In other words, couples in debt were more likely to argue in general, not just about money.
These surveys show that the more financial pressures a couple suffers, the more their marriage suffers. However, if couples can find a way to work together to get out from under the burden of debt, it can bring more peace to the relationship. According to Alexandra Taussig, senior vice president of lifetime client engagement at Fidelity, “It’s not the debt you bring into the relationship that matters, but how you work together to handle your debt over the long run.”
3. Our Relationship With Money Reflects Our Values
How we think about money is deeply tied to our ideas about right and wrong and what we value. We get these ideas from all kinds of places — our families, our culture, and even our beliefs about what’s possible for ourselves — and since we all have different backgrounds and experiences, we can bring some very different ideas and values about money into our marriages.
Because money management is so connected to what we feel are the “right” ways to do things, it’s easy to jump to judgment when others don’t deal with money the same way we do. It can also cause us to fear the judgment of others, and that fear can lead to some relationship-damaging actions.
For example, a CreditCards.com survey found that 19% of Americans in live-in relationships are hiding either a bank account or credit card from their significant other. Similarly, the Ramsey Solutions survey found that one-third of those who argued with their spouses about money claimed to have hidden a purchase from their spouse because they knew their spouse wouldn’t approve.
When a spouse hides financial matters from their partner, it’s referred to as financial infidelity. Financial infidelity can be especially problematic in marriages because it breaks down trust in the relationship. In fact, more than half of the respondents to the CreditCards.com survey said that financial infidelity was at least as bad as physical cheating, and 20% said it was worse.
Understandably, how we behave with money, which is the direct result of our money values, can have a profound effect on our relationships.
4. Money is Connected to Our Sense of Identity
Money isn’t just about surviving; it’s also deeply connected to our definition of success. In essence, money defines our choices and, in turn, defines us.
Money determines how we dress, where we buy or rent a home, what social groups we join, even what we eat. It can also dictate our future. How well we do at things like paying off or avoiding debt, saving for big goals like buying a home, or investing for retirement affects not only our today, but also our tomorrow.
At its essence, money is a tool — no more and no less. But it’s a tool we use to achieve certain things that define our selves and our lives. So when couples disagree on financial management, it can feel as if they’re arguing less about money than about who they are.
5. Dividing Up Financial Responsibilities Can Cause Conflict
When it comes to financial decisions and responsibilities, couples don’t always work as a team. The APA survey found that only 33% of respondents shared an equal role in household financial decision-making, and only 23% reported shared management of household finances.
Many couples divide up financial roles in a way that naturally causes conflict. For example, one spouse might handle the daily household spending, while the other focuses on long-term savings and investments; the APA points out that those two roles are “naturally at odds with one another.” Thus, the way financial management duties are divided can be an additional source of conflict for couples.
How NOT to Solve Money Conflicts With Your Spouse
There’s no doubt that if couples want a long and happy marriage, they must address their financial issues. However, the typical advice on how to solve financial conflicts is often unhelpful. Much of it is surface-level — suggesting, for example, that couples address their issues by sitting down and making a budget together.
While this can be a useful step in an overall financial plan, it rarely works to resolve the underlying conflicts for the simple reason that fights about money aren’t actually about money; they’re about our hopes, dreams, fears, and inadequacies. And until we address those things, we don’t have much chance of resolving our money conflicts.
So, before we get to what does help, here’s some of the traditional money advice for couples that doesn’t work.
1. Labeling Each Other
Plenty of articles about couples and money label one partner as the “spender” and one as the “saver.” The problem with this way of thinking is that it implies one way as “right” and the other as “wrong” — and most often, it’s the spender who’s in the wrong.
What this kind of thinking assumes is that there is an absolute, one-and-only correct way for a couple to manage their finances. But, with the exception of a few general principles — such as “spend less than you earn” — much of financial management is highly personal. That’s why we call it personal finance. The “right” way to manage your finances depends entirely on your goals as individuals and as a couple.
Money, at its most basic level, is a tool to help you and your spouse live your best lives. What that means will look different for everyone. Hence, what you decide to spend your money on — and how much you decide to spend — as well as what you decide to save your money for and how much you need to save to reach your goals, will look different for everyone.
These kinds of labels also overlook the complexities involved in both spending and saving. For example, sometimes spending can be a good thing that helps a couple reach their financial goals, and sometimes saving, when taken to an extreme, can actually hold a couple back financially.
Finally, putting one spouse in the wrong is never helpful for bringing peace and harmony to a relationship. If your situation truly involves a spouse with a genuine overspending problem or an under-spending one, there are more effective ways of managing the situation than pointing fingers, blaming, or shaming.
Further, when we address both the weaknesses and strengths of spending and saving, they are no longer a source of division; instead, a couple can use their individual strengths to realize their financial potential and make better decisions together.
2. Making a Budget Together
First, let me say that every couple should make a budget together. It’s part of working as a financial team.
The problem with this traditional advice, however, is that it’s often brought into the conversation too soon and usually as a way of dealing with an “overspending” spouse. Like with labeling, using budgeting to “fix” an overspender comes with a set of problems that are likely to do more harm than good.
First, it’s a solution that puts one partner in the wrong, and the budget can come off as a punishment intended to reign in that partner.
Further, it doesn’t fix the issue. If one spouse truly has a problem with overspending, the only real solution is to address the root psychological causes of the overspending.
Finally, making a budget should never be the first step. Even for couples who are relatively on the same page with their finances, budgeting should be the last step that comes only after they discuss their financial goals and values. Until you come together as a couple to decide what you both want your money to do for you, budgeting won’t serve any real purpose.
The notion that relationships depend on compromise seems to be as old as, well, relationships. I remember, for example, being given this advice by my grandmother — who, it’s worth noting, frequently fought with my grandfather about money.
While there’s nothing inherently wrong about supporting your spouse and making sure their needs are met, the way we typically approach compromise belongs to an outdated model for relationships that is “demands-based.” The demands-based relationship model assumes that it’s our partner’s job to meet our needs. For example, “I am terrified of not having sufficient savings, so I need you to not spend any money on shoes.”
We often approach conflict in our relationships, financial or otherwise, with what we want to “get” from the other person, such as a sense of financial security. But focusing on what you want another person to do so that you feel better is an “I” focus, not a “we” one. As a result, what we typically call compromise — such as, “OK, I’ll buy fewer shoes” — isn’t actually about working together as a couple; it’s about appeasing demands.
The end result of the demands-based relationship model is that “compromise” ends up making neither spouse feel better. The one who needs to save every penny ends up feeling like it’s not enough, and the one who’s been asked to spend less feels resentful.
So, rather than navigating the relationship like two separate people each trying to get their own needs met, a couple needs to come together over common goals and then figure out how to meet those goals together as one married unit. The idea is to put the focus on what “we” are trying to create together, rather than on what “I” need from the relationship.
How to Get on the Same Page With Your Spouse About Money
Ultimately, for money conversations to be truly productive, there must be a paradigm shift on two levels.
First, external solutions, such as money management methods and tactics, don’t work to address the internal problems that are causing the conflict. Remember, money fights are not about money; they’re about our hopes and fears. So what we need are methods that address these hopes and fears.
Second, we need to move away from demands-based relationships and conflict management to focus more on coming together over shared values and goals.
Here are some more effective methods to help you and your spouse get on the same page when it comes to your money.
1. Talk About Money
According to the Ramsey Solutions survey, couples who say they have a “great” marriage are twice as likely to talk about money daily or weekly than those who say their marriage is “okay” or “in crisis.”
So, first and foremost, to avoid money arguments, discuss financial matters regularly. Many experts recommend having either weekly or monthly sit-downs with your spouse to discuss such issues as budgeting and bill paying, as well as your hopes, dreams, and goals.
It’s important, when talking about money with your spouse, to establish some ground rules for discussions, as arguing about money is technically “talking” but hardly conducive to marital bliss.
Here are some suggestions to guide your conversations:
- Commit to Work Together as a Team. Even if you have separate accounts, as a married couple, you’ve decided to join your lives, which means you have common goals and interests. Further, when you come together as a couple, you’re able to meet those goals, such as paying off debt or buying a house, much faster than you could on your own.
- Commit to Transparency. Although transparency can be scary for some due to the fear of what the other person will think, lies and omissions stop you from growing together as a team and erode trust.
- Commit to Non-Judgment. Blaming, shaming, finger-pointing, or otherwise making your spouse feel “wrong” will divide you more than bring you together. Moreover, it could make one spouse feel less inclined to share, and talking about money is already difficult for many, even before judgment is brought into it. If you truly have a problem with something your spouse is doing, turn the conversation around by addressing your own fears and worries rather than blaming and accusing.
- Commit to Embracing Multiple Perspectives. Remember, there are many ways to think about and manage money. Your views may not match your spouse’s, but that doesn’t mean theirs are wrong.
- Commit to Listening. Rather than focusing on trying to explain things or getting your own point of view across, focus more on listening to and attempting to understand your spouse’s point of view. That doesn’t mean your own point of view isn’t equally important, but if you both focus on listening to the other, then you’ll both have the chance to be heard.
- Commit to Taking a Time Out If the Conversation Gets Heated. Research shows that conversations about money easily turn ugly because of how closely they’re wrapped up with our fears and insecurities. If your discussions become heated, take a time out to avoid having your discussions — which are intended to bring you together — drive a wedge between you.
- Commit to a Time Limit. Not only can talking about finances be difficult, but it can also be exhausting. Don’t try to solve everything in one sitting. If you know you have a time limit, you’re more likely to be productive by sticking to dealing with only one issue at a time.
- Commit to Keeping It “Fun.” Although financial management may not be the most enjoyable topic, you can lessen some of the stress and tension by keeping your financial conversations casual. Pop some popcorn, throw some cookies in the oven, or brew some coffee to help create a less “serious” mood.
2. Share Your Values
When it comes to what to talk about, start with your money values. Essentially, your values are your “why”; they are what dictate your goals. You can’t get on the same page as your spouse about goals unless you begin with why you have those goals in the first place.
For example, do you believe it’s important to live frugally now so you can save as much as possible for the future? This value is what drives your goal to save for retirement.
Going deeper, is your desire to save motivated by a need to feel financially secure? Or do you want to save as much as you can so you can retire as young as possible because you value freedom above all else?
Knowing why you and your spouse want the goals you do can make all the difference. For example, not too long ago, my spouse and I weren’t on the same page about buying a house versus renting. I wanted to buy; he wanted to rent. So, he shared with me that his desire to rent had to do with not wanting to spend his free time working on a house. I shared with him that I wanted to buy a house so we could raise our son in a good school system with a great neighborhood and community.
Once we both shared our “whys,” we were able to come together on our shared goal. We decided we would buy our home and also make sure we routinely set aside enough money to hire professionals for repairs and maintenance.
3. Share Your Hopes, Dreams & Goals
In order to work together on your finances, you need to uncover all your shared hopes, dreams, and goals. That’s not to say that you won’t have some individual ones, but creating your future together means having an overall mutual vision for it.
For example, one of you might have a dream to go back to school; that’s an individual goal. You might have shared goals of buying a house or paying off debt. Your shared goals might be further broken down into couple goals and family goals. For instance, as a couple, you might want to travel after you retire; as a family, you might want to pay for your children’s college tuition.
Talking about goals is important because until you know what they are, you can’t work together to achieve them. Research also shows that couples in happy marriages are more likely to discuss their financial dreams and goals. The Ramsey Solutions survey found that 87% of respondents who said their marriage was “great” also worked with their spouse to set long-term goals for their money. Additionally, 94% of those with “great” marriages discussed their money dreams together.
To get this conversation started, take some time to each create a separate list of your financial goals over different periods: one year from now, five years from now, 10 years from now, and so on. Then, come together and share your goals. Are there any common goals? How can you work together to meet them? Which do you value the most?
Focus first on the dreams you share, as you’ll build those together. Then, consider how you might support each other in making one another’s dreams come true.
Once you’ve discussed your goals and values, you’ll be in a much better position to do some mutual financial planning, such as making a household budget. But, before you get there, there’s one more crucial step.
4. Share Your Money Beliefs & Fears
For many, sharing their financial fears can be harder than sharing their dreams. But knowing what your partner is most afraid of can help create a deeper bond and understanding.
Further, if you listen to one another in an earnest attempt to understand, and not to judge or blame, sharing fears — even more than dreams — can foster feelings that your spouse “has your back” during financial planning discussions. Financial intimacy requires the willingness to be vulnerable and to accept each other unconditionally, flaws and all.
Our money beliefs and fears are most often shaped by our personal histories — our families; our childhood, teenage, and adult experiences; and our cultural backgrounds, which can include socioeconomic class as well as geographic region and ethnicity. Because our fears are so intimately connected with our histories, sharing these can also facilitate a much deeper understanding of each other, thereby fostering greater intimacy.
What we think about money can be a recipe for conflict. That’s not only because our beliefs may differ from our spouse’s, but because we may not be fully conscious of what they are. Many of the things we take for granted about our own experiences are actually beliefs we picked up along the way from our families and culture. If you’re not fully aware of your beliefs about money, it’s worth it to take the time to do some digging. You can do this by simply observing the thoughts you have about money and then questioning them: Is this thought really true? If not, where did it come from?
You can do the same thing with your fears and insecurities about money. Although it’s certainly possible to have positive money beliefs, many of our money beliefs tend to be limiting and intimately connected to our fears.
When my husband and I were newlyweds, we shared one car. It was my car, which I had brought with me into the relationship. He had just graduated from school and was struggling to find work, whereas I had already been working for a couple of years. I really wanted to buy him a new car, but he refused to allow me to do that.
His refusal triggered money fears and limiting beliefs in both of us. I wanted to buy him a car because I thought it would be easier on me; I wouldn’t have to drive him around to the temp jobs he was working at the time and would have access to my car whenever I needed it. When he refused to allow me to do this, my first reaction was to feel resentful and angry because it triggered a deeply rooted belief in me, leftover from childhood, that I “had to do everything” by continuing to drop him off places.
That wasn’t at all what was going on for him, though. He didn’t want me to buy him a car because he felt uncomfortable having anyone spend that much money on him. For him, the belief behind this was that I would think he was using me for my money.
The other factor in play was that our beliefs about money can often be complex, stemming from our personal histories. I grew up in a relatively affluent family, with parents who adopted the attitude that if they had the money available and one of us needed financial help, help was freely given. On the other hand, my husband grew up in a lower-income family where money simply wasn’t available, so when help came, it often came from outside sources. So for my husband, help brought up feelings of guilt or of being a burden.
For us as a couple, talking about our feelings, beliefs, and personal histories led to a much deeper understanding of each other. It also allowed us to move past hurt feelings and work together as a team. I stopped feeling resentful once I knew why he was responding the way that he was, and he’s gradually been able to come to terms with accepting help from me.
Having these kinds of conversations is so crucial because they can be one of the core ways to get on the same page as a married team. When you share your fears about money and the beliefs behind them, it results in better communication, deeper bonding, and the ability to work together as one financial unit.
5. Make a Plan
Only after you’ve done all the work listed above should you attempt to make a household budget or financial plan. You must understand all of the beliefs, fears, emotions, and values you’ve connected to money before you can make a mutually effective plan.
Although planning shouldn’t be the first step, it is crucial to coming together as a team to manage your finances. Taussig observes of Fidelity’s 2018 survey that “[c]ouples who plan together tell us they feel financially strong … Openly discussing financial matters helps people feel more confident, more closely aligned and better equipped to take on the future.”
So, after you’ve taken the time to discuss the underlying issues and meanings you’ve given to money and to your goals, it’s time to sit down and figure out how to work together to meet them.
There’s been a great deal of research and discussion about the detrimental effects of financial issues on marriages, but it may be time for one more shift in perspective. Rather than seeing financial issues as challenges to be overcome, you can instead choose to see them as pathways to help your relationship thrive and to build your best lives together.
Because so much of how we discuss money is not only financial, but also emotional and deeply tied to our hopes, dreams, fears, insecurities, and even identities, working through financial issues together can create greater intimacy and connection and a stronger foundation for your marriage.
What’s more, once spouses come together on the same page financially, they’re able to maximize their financial potential. When you work together to achieve shared goals, you can go much further than you can on your own. And there’s nothing quite like having someone committed to the same things you are and working with you to achieve the same goals.
What are some of your financial goals, hopes, dreams, and fears? Have you shared these with your spouse, and are you working together to achieve any of them?