Getting engaged to my now-husband was one of the most exciting moments of my life … but, early on, that excitement quickly morphed into a knot of stress.
Once we started to talk about moving in together, we had a conversation about money. The next day I woke up with a queasy feeling.
I was a free spender, and my soon-to-be-husband has always been a saver. I would have to confess that I had credit card debt—and a lot of it. I’ll never forget the look on his face when I finally mustered up the courage to reveal how much I owed. He was flabbergasted, and then furious. I was sheepish and, of course, defensive.
The argument that ensued wasn’t exactly fun, but it was productive. After a lot of talking and negotiating, we came up with a money management plan to meet both our financial and emotional needs. Ten years later, both of us are still on the same page.
Money is the top reason couples fight, but it doesn’t have to be. Whether or not your resolutions have to do with strengthening your relationships, the new year is a great time to refresh the way you connect.
I turned to experts Syble Solomon, financial expert and creator of the interactive tools “Money Habitudes” and Dr. Taffy Wagner, author of “Bride and Groom Money Talk FAQ.” They shared the top eight situations that couples fight about when it comes to money, and how the two of you can get on the same page—for keeps.
1. One of You Is a Spender and the Other Is a Saver
Why you fight: You have very different ideas and values when it comes to money. The spender feels constrained and the saver feels insecure. Couples often see only the negative side of their partners’ financial habits.
How to stop: Learn to recognize your partner’s financial strengths. Take buying a car as an example. While a saver may gravitate toward an inexpensive used car, the spender may want a new, more costly vehicle. To arrive at a compromise you can both live with, you want to combine the saver’s ability to sniff out a good deal with the spender’s ability to commit to a purchase.
Do You Have a Spending Trigger?
Are you a spender and your partner is a saver, or vice versa? Are there specific things that set you off and make you spend money?
The bottom line: Aim to make a better decision as a couple than you would as individuals. Before you make any big purchase, have a heart-to-heart about your needs and expectations, and set an absolute limit for how much money the two of you are willing to spend.
2. You Have a Single-Income Household
Why you fight: The person who earns the money expects to be in control of the spending, while the non-earning partner in the relationship believes the decisions should be made jointly. And this dynamic is creating stress, conflict and an imbalance of power.
How to stop: This issue really boils down to control, and marriage is a partnership: Using money to control your spouse—even subconsciously—can seriously damage your relationship. Start by broaching the subject at a calm time, not when you’re arguing about money, and explain your feelings. One technique that can help is setting a specific dollar amount for each partner’s discretionary spending, or agreeing that you’ll discuss any purchase over a certain limit before buying it.
The bottom line: This can be a long-term issue. If one of you breaks the new rules you set, talk about why you did so, and make adjustments. If you still find yourselves at a stalemate, consider enlisting the help of a marriage counselor. An impartial third party can help each of you understand the other’s point of view.
3. You Disagree on Spending Priorities for the Kids
Why you fight: You’re not really arguing over private education versus saving for college, or designer duds versus second-hand shoes. What you’re really fighting about are values.
How to stop: If you don’t talk about the real issues, you’ll keep having the same fight over and over again. A lot of these conflicts arise from the way each spouse was raised. For example, maybe you went to private school and think that will set your kids up for a successful future, while your partner went to public school and thinks that’ll make your kids more self-sufficient. Either way, just explaining the emotions underlying each of your beliefs will help you find common ground.
The bottom line: Try to reach a compromise. Always start by asking if you’ll have to sacrifice anything to spend the money in question. If the conflict isn’t about the expense, hash out exactly what is behind it and meet halfway. Maybe you send your kids to private school but have them buy their own clothing with allowance money, or send them to public school but pay for extracurricular activities to provide extra enrichment.
4. You Have Debt
Why you fight: Dragging around debt always causes stress, especially if you can’t afford to pay it off–or if you disagree with your partner on whether to save your cash for a rainy day or pay off your outstanding balances.
How to stop: One of the easiest ways to alleviate the situation is to tackle that debt. For which debts to pay down first and how to balance that with savings, read this. To get aggressive and take care of your debt once and for all, take our free Get Out of Debt Bootcamp. Either way, schedule a time to sit down, crunch the numbers (how much debt you have, what kind it is, how much savings you have, how much you each earn), and decide what’s realistic.
The bottom line: You have to talk about your priorities; you might define security as being debt-free, whereas your partner feels safer with a hefty savings account. Once you know where the other is coming from, it will be easier to agree on an approach.
5. You Keep Your Bank Accounts Separate—But Maybe Not Equal
Why you fight: Maybe one person takes on more of the fixed expenses, like the mortgage, car payments and insurance, while the other partner pays for the variable expenses such as clothing, food, transportation and household items. Variable expenses can’t be predicted, so one partner can often wind up “in the hole.”
How to stop: Having separate accounts doesn’t have to be a source of conflict. A good rule of thumb is to divvy up the monthly expenses based on the percentage of income each person contributes to the household. For example, if one partner has an annual salary of $50,000 and the other makes $25,000, the partner who earns $50,000 can contribute twice what his or her spouse does.
The bottom line: It’s a good idea to sit down once a month and talk about what’s being spent and on what, so each person is aware of the entire financial picture.
6. One of You Is a “Secret Spender”
Why you fight: This is sometimes known as “financial infidelity.” It may be that one of you isn’t used to being accountable for your spending habits, or that you fear the reaction of your partner. But when your secret shopping sprees or piles of debt are discovered, your partner will feel betrayed, and you will be on the hot seat.
How to stop: If you’re already deep into your relationship when this pattern of behavior is revealed, there are several ways to handle it. Create a separate bank account for the spender and give him or her a fixed amount of spending money each month, or, if the situation is dire, enlist the help of a counselor to find out why the shopper feels the need to keep secrets.
The bottom line: The easiest way to avoid this fight is to have an open discussion about your spending habits before you ever merge your finances. If you’re already in the relationship, focus the conversation on the importance of trust.
7. The Designated “Money Manager” Doesn’t Pay Bills on Time
Why you fight: Obviously, the person who is failing to meet the financial obligations of the household is putting the family in financial danger (poor credit ratings, expensive late fees or even foreclosure on a home). On the other hand, that person may feel overwhelmed and resentful at having to bear the brunt of the financial responsibility.
How to stop: Set a date each month to sit down and sort through all the bills together. Take this time to discuss the overall state of your finances and solve issues as they come up. This way, one person won’t feel like he or she is shouldering all of the burden.
The bottom line: Look for practical ways to lessen the burden on the money manager, like signing up for automatic online bill payments. Or, shift the responsibility to the other partner for a few months to see if that works better. The key is not to place blame, but to try to find a solution together.
8. One of You Borrows Money From Family—Without the Other Knowing
Why you fight: Borrowing money from a family member is always fraught, and when in-laws are involved, the stakes are doubled. Those proverbial apron strings become reinforced with steel once you accept a loan. And sooner or later, your partner is going to notice that you’re making a monthly payment to Mom.
How to stop: This argument comes down to trust. You want to discuss not just the fact that money was lent, but that the decision was made in isolation. Your partner should always be your first stop when it comes to solving financial problems.
The bottom line: If you’re strapped and your parents can or want to lend you some cash, talk to your partner before taking that check to the bank. If he or she objects, talk about what alternative options might be feasible.
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