My friend Sarah called the other day, seeking some relationship advice. She and Henry have been married for more than 26 years, and the squabbles they've always had over money haven't disappeared as the years have gone by, Sarah told me — they’ve actually gotten worse.
“It’s just so exhausting!” grumbled Sarah. “Too often, I feel angry, stressed and tense. These arguments are also definitely affecting how I feel about our relationship.” On the positive side, Henry and Sarah still care about each another deeply, share a number of interests, and enjoy spending time together.
Sarah is 57 and a self-employed real estate agent who makes a decent income, and Henry, a year younger, pulls down an even healthier salary as a CPA in a large firm. He likes to spend money on leisure activities and luxury items, but she feels they should be saving for their grandchildren and retirement. “He’s Mr. You Can’t Take It With You, and I’m more focused on keeping it for a rainy day. And it’s freaking me out!”
Sarah told me these differences have always been a bone of contention, but recently the arguments have gotten out of hand. “In the past, with the happy distraction of raising our daughters [now 21 and 23], our different attitudes about saving and spending money didn't bother me so much. But now I feel like our stupid money fights are detracting from the quality of our marriage. At times, I am just so angry that I totally ignore him for hours and don't want to see or talk to him.”
Sarah is in good company. In my research on long-married couples, seven out of 10 reported that money causes tension in their relationship. That may be why so many couples avoid the topic entirely. One study found that financial disagreements are often the most distressing for couples: They're more intense, last longer and are more likely to persist unresolved than other conflict topics.
So how do Sarah and Henry begin coping with their money issues without damaging what otherwise is a fulfilling relationship? I gave Sarah seven strategies that can be helpful no matter how long a couple has been married.
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Seven Ways to Prevent Money Fights
1. Have a discussion every quarter — or more often. When couples don’t communicate openly about money, it can become a charged subject and lead to fights — which is why so many simply avoid it. Unfortunately, that 800-pound elephant in the room starts taking up more and more space when you don’t acknowledge it. While Sarah and Henry may frequently squabble over money, they don't discuss it in a calm, cool and self-aware way. The subject is emotionally charged and usually leads to conflict. But, as I advised them, they can diffuse the tension by bringing the issues out into the open more often.
Since Sarah pays estimated income taxes every quarter, I suggested they use that occasion to initiate a “financial tune-up” chat. The more often she and Henry talk about money, the less potent and volatile their conversations are likely to be — and doing it on a set schedule can prevent volatile outbursts in the moment. A discussion at least every three months would uncover potential problems before they have a chance to fester.
2. Stay alert to “baggage” disguised as finances. Too often, disagreements about finances have less to do with money per se than with other emotional hot-button issues, such as security, control, self-esteem and even love. Sarah admitted to me, for instance, that the disparity in their incomes makes her feel less “entitled” to make decisions about money. She often feels envy, powerlessness, inequity and frustration when they do discuss it.
Money is a concrete aspect of all relationships, and it’s common to use it as a smokescreen for emotional baggage. As you discuss financial issues with your partner, look at them from a psychological perspective to see if there are larger, underlying problems. When you feel a lot of emotion around a financial topic, ask yourself, “Is this really about money?”
Two examples: Are you more upset that she wants to invest most of your money in an IRA, or that your personal needs aren't being met when you've worked so hard to put the kids through college (deprivation)? Are you really angry that she spends so much on food, or because your unemployment runs out next month (insecurity)?
If you can’t get clarity, look at how your parents dealt with money, what it meant to you when you were growing up, and how you handled it in past relationships.
3. Keep conversations specific and direct. When you sit down with your partner to have a “money talk,” start with straightforward questions that are as devoid of emotion as possible. Good topics include “What are we spending?” “What are we saving?” “Do we have any big expenses coming up?” “Are there some areas where we’re wasting money and can cut back?”
This piece of advice rang true for Sarah: “Yup, I tend to open with things like, ‘Are you kidding me? We really need another flat-screen TV?’” But she said Henry usually just gets defensive and responds with, “Don’t start with me; I earned this money!” When you go into a discusion with an agenda or an accusation, it’s more likely to take on a toxic tone or devolve into an argument.
4. Next quarter, tackle bigger topics. Besides discussing the nitty-gritty household finances, it’s also important to learn about each other’s attitudes about money, spending habits and cash-management skills. When left undiscussed, these topics can cause big problems. Among the questions to raise: “What are your short- and long-term money goals?” and “What do you think is an acceptable amount of debt?” In Sarah's case, I specifically suggested she confront this question: “What seems fair to you in terms of how we each spend or share our money?”
You could also bring up different money scenarios and discuss how each of you might address or resolve these (e.g., an overdrawn checking account; change in lifestyle or retirement needs; if one of you became seriously ill; or if grandchildren needed money). If you have concerns about your partner's spending habits, financial decisions or your role in managing money, now is the time to address them.
5. Set some ground rules. As in any partnership, couples need to agree on some spending rules or limits. You can pick from a number of possibilities. For instance, you might agree on an amount (say, $100 or $200) that each spouse can spend without needing to consult the other. Above that threshold, you need to discuss it before the item is purchased.
Sarah got upset recently when an enormous package arrived on their doorstep, and it turned out to be a new workout machine Henry had ordered from a late-night infomercial. “It was literally the elephant in the room — and a very expensive one,” she told me half-jokingly, but she was furious because he hadn’t discussed it with her first. Keeping money secrets from a partner is a type of betrayal, which is why I stress the importance of financial transparency. For some people, the best way to stay financially “honest” is to stick to a budget, which includes tracking spending on a weekly or monthly basis.
6. Respect your differences. Some people, like Sarah, see money as a sign of security and stability. They like to save for emergencies, and when financial problems arise, they worry.
Others, like Henry, take more financial risks and see money issues within the marriage as a threat to their self-esteem and confidence. They may have been raised to think that a good provider is someone who doesn’t have problems taking care of their family financially, now or in the future.
Try to understand your partner’s perspective. Compromise is often essential. It’s okay to disagree on some issues, but don’t let them interfere with your overall goals as a couple.
7. Seek assistance if needed. It’s never an easy topic to discuss, but you need to. Bear in mind that not all people are comfortable talking about money early in a relationship. Be patient but persistent, and give it time. If you bring up the topic several times and your partner still gets defensive, this may be a red flag that something more serious is going on. Follow the above strategies, but if you can’t seem to talk about money without one or both of you getting upset, seek out a financial adviser or a couple’s therapist (or, as I advised Sarah, a retirement specialist) to help you sort through your issues.
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Sarah and Henry Find a Happy Medium
Sarah tried to incorporate some of the strategies above into her marriage. Together, she and Henry have decided to make a “money date” every other Sunday afternoon. After several weekends and focusing on a lot of questions (both separately and together), Sarah reports two really good outcomes: “I have stopped feeling guilty about not contributing as much to our bank account as Henry. He told me I contribute in so many nonfinancial ways that he doesn’t even think about it. That made me feel so much better.
"The other good thing is that Henry invented a 'laugh paddle' — a Ping-Pong paddle we place between us during our talks that one of us can hold up when things get too heavy," she adds. "I can even joke about that dust-collecting workout machine now. It makes a great clothes hanger.”