You’ve likely heard the common idiom “opposites attract” to describe some couples. But while that may initially prove true for some relationships, having contrasting money habits could eventually throw cold water on your romance.
The good news is that being able to overcome your financial differences can strengthen your relationship. The key is to broach the topic with empathy and a goal of reaching a middle ground. “Go into these conversations developing a sense of safety and try to really understand where your partner is coming from,” says Nicolle Osequeda, a marriage and family therapist based in Chicago.
So if you’re ready to have a financial heart-to-heart with your significant other, here’s what to do when you and your partner are money opposites.
If you save and spend differently
If one partner prioritizes saving money for a rainy day, while the other spends his or her paychecks with reckless abandon, a couple might end up disagreeing over the best way to handle money. According to Nikiya Spence, a psychotherapist and certified money coach based in Lawrenceville, Georgia, these money tendencies can often be traced back to your respective upbringings. “Money disagreements often run deep and stem from one’s personal experiences and the indirect or direct beliefs you were taught during childhood,” she says. For example, someone who grew up in a financially unstable household might feel more anxious about holding onto their money than someone who grew up in an affluent one.
To work through these differences, a good first step is to determine what you can agree on, such as paying household bills on time or setting aside a certain amount each month for joint savings. From there, consider creating a shared account for household expenses, while also leaving room for individual bank accounts for you each to save or spend as you each see fit.
“The spender should be allowed some grace, within reason, to put money away to spend on the things they want, and the saver should be allowed to satisfy their needs by putting money away to save in their own account,” Spence says. “It should never be an all-or-nothing sacrifice.”
If you have different size salaries
When there’s a big difference between individual paychecks (or if one partner doesn’t have one), money conversations can be fraught with tension. The partner who earns less might feel they do not contribute enough to the household income, while the partner who earns more might feel the burden from being the breadwinner.
But it’s important not to attribute your value in a relationship solely based on your individual earning power. After all, the partner who doesn’t earn as much may handle the bulk of child care or keep the household running smoothly on a day-to-day basis. While this may not count as “work” in the traditional sense, it's a means of providing for the family. “There may be contributions that are not monetary but contribute to the overall good of the relationship,” Osequeda says.
If you and your partner are stuck on how to split bills due to vast discrepancies in your paychecks, “you can look at expenses from a percentage perspective,” Osequeda says. “That means if Partner A earns 75 percent of the household income and Partner B earns 25 percent, then that is how you split shared expenses.” The little extra math can be worth it to make sure the costs of your shared home and lifestyle don’t weigh more heavily on the person making less. Remember: You’re in this together.
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If you have varying amounts of debt
While many partners begin a relationship carrying some type of debt, it can become an issue if one partner avoids the conversation all together.
Ultimately, how the two of you handle your debt will depend on how you decide to combine your finances. For some couples, individual debt may become “our” debt after tying the knot, while others may decide to have each partner handle their debt individually. “There is no right or wrong answer here,” Spence says. “Some people believe that once you are in a committed relationship, all finances should be joint, while others believe that finances and past debts should be kept separate.”
No matter how you decide to go about it, the most important thing is to not pass judgment on your partner. Instead, focus on creating a paydown plan and, if necessary, fixing what led to the debt in the first place. For example, if the debt is a result of overspending, then it may be time to revisit your budget and get a handle on any unproductive spending habits. If it was from having to cover unexpected expenses, then it may be time to beef up your emergency fund.
And keep in mind that’s it’s OK to seek help in tackling your debt. A financial advisor can help you come up with a plan for how to pay it down strategically, while also balancing other money goals you and your partner may have.
If one of you is more hands-on with finances
In some relationships, one partner often takes charge of the couple’s finances, either because they enjoy it more or are simply “good at it.” But on the flip side, that means the other partner can be left in the dark. “Money has a lot of control to it,” says Lisa Bahar, a marriage and family therapist in Newport Beach, California. “The person who holds control of the money generally has more control in the relationship, and the other person is not an equal financially.”
Whether you’re planning to get married or you and your partner have been together for a while, it’s important to address the issue head-on to figure out how you want to manage your money together. “It’s kind of a scary conversation, because you’re facing something that people don’t really like to talk about,” Bahar says. “The first part is to identify that there is a problem, and the second part is to learn how to communicate about what the problem is — and that might be very sloppy, because it’s very emotional.”
If you run into roadblocks, a couples’ therapist or a counselor who specializes in financial therapy can help. Your advisor can also help you work through the different ways you might share financial responsibilities, and what that might mean for your bigger picture financial plan.
At the end of the day, mutual respect is what matters. “You might not agree 100 percent on everything, but by being able to listen and honor each other’s individual needs, you can work through your money differences,” Osequeda says.