If you’re in a relationship, it’s natural to squabble over little things like whose turn it is to do the dishes or whether to have dinner with the boss on Saturday night. But chances are good that if you’re having a serious fight, it’s about money: 60 percent of people name money as a significant source of personal stress, and one study even found that fighting about money was the top predictor of divorce.
The good news is that there are ways to keep the peace and deal with money issues in a relationship. Below are some common money fights that couples have, and tips from a financial therapist on how you can overcome them together.
“WHERE DOES ALL OUR MONEY GO?”
If one partner constantly racks up a large credit card bill or seems to overuse the debit card, it’s understandable if the other becomes upset. But it’s important to consider the actual purchases being made. In many cases, the person who is perceived as the overspender is the one who has to take care of shared costs like groceries, sports equipment for the kids and birthday gifts, says Ed Coambs, a financial therapist in Matthews, North Carolina. So if you’re just looking at the bottom line, it can be easy to assume the spending is indiscriminate when in reality that partner is just keeping the household humming.
Problems can also arise when partners don’t discuss how they allocate their money, and why. “One partner may be focused on saving diligently for retirement, while the other one sees a bucket of money and wants to spend it on something they want or need today,” Coambs says.
The solution? Both partners need to agree on a household budget. Discuss, for instance, how much it realistically costs to fill the fridge each week. Set mutual goals and put them in a financial context so you can prioritize what you want to save for. If you still find that one person is overspending, designate a joint account for shared household expenses and separate accounts for each partner to spend on whatever they choose.
“YOUR DEBT IS BRINGING US DOWN.”
If you brought debt into a relationship, you’re far from alone. The problem is often not with the balances themselves, but rather the attitude toward them, Coambs says.
This especially can be the case with credit card debt, which is generally viewed as bad debt. And if the debt is all one-sided, one of you may point to the other person’s past spending habits as the reason joint money goals can’t be achieved.
The problem is that this negative attitude won’t get you anywhere. “If the first partner is contemptuous or critical, there’s a far higher likelihood the person with debt will re-enact the behavior,” Coambs says.
So instead of playing the blame game, acknowledge your partner’s financial habits and try to get to the root of why the debt got out of hand in the first place. Perhaps your partner spends money as a temporary stress reliever, or maybe they didn’t grow up with much and now overspend to make up for it. After working together to get at the underlying emotion, you both can figure out a better, cost-conscious solution — for instance, instead of a shopping spree to reduce stress, maybe you decide to take a stroll to your favorite ice-cream store together. Then, move forward with a plan for how to pay off the debt.
“When you partner with someone, their financial reality becomes part of your financial reality. So even if you agree that the debt is not yours, your partner’s relationship with that debt shapes the ways that you make financial decisions,” Coambs says. “It can be hard to accept that your partner's financial reality influences you, but the more progress you can make towards that self-honesty, the easier it will be to co-create new options together.”
“YOU ALWAYS INDULGE THE KIDS.”
In most families, there’s often one parent who can never say no. That’s likely based on differences in how you and your partner were brought up. One person’s necessity could have been the other person’s indulgence, whether you’re talking about toys, playing on sports teams or even help with college tuition.
Just remember that indulging your kids every once in a while doesn’t necessarily mean you’re spoiling them. Do a gut check: “Check to see what effect your spending has on your kids. Is it making them lazy or are they appreciative?” Combs says.
If it’s more the former, discuss together what you want to teach your kids about money. For instance, instead of paying for things outright, you may both decide to give the kids an allowance so they can learn how to allocate their money.
“I DON’T LIKE IT WHEN YOUR PARENTS GIVE US MONEY.”
Receiving money from a parent as an adult is fraught with potential issues, but most of them boil down to family dynamics and expectations. “Pressure about asking for or receiving money can leave a person feeling disempowered, as though the parents feel they can’t do things on their own,” Coambs says. “Yet it can be much easier if a parent has said they are happy to help or want to help.”
Discussing what the money is intended for can also make a difference in how your partner perceives the situation. For example, if your parents give you money to help you pay your mortgage, you might feel guilty about taking a weekend getaway for fear they’ll judge your lifestyle. But if your parents want to help fund your child’s 529 college savings account, the gift might not feel as though there are strings attached. “It also makes a difference if the gift is a one-time occurrence, such as helping with a down payment, as opposed to a recurring pattern,” Coambs says.
So agree on which types of situations you both feel comfortable accepting money, stick to it and communicate those boundaries to your parents. Coambs says the key is to have open and safe communication about the underlying meaning of any monetary gifts.