Managing money as a couple can be tough. Maybe that’s why some studies show that fighting over money is common, even in happy marriages.
- 70 percent of married couples argue about money — more than argue about chores, togetherness, sex, snoring, or even what’s for dinner.
- 80 percent of couples with children under 18 fight about money.
- 22 percent of spouses say they’ve spent money they wanted to hide from their spouse.
- Husbands don’t think their wives care about money as much as they actually do.
Money fights can drive a wedge in a marriage, leading to secrecy and control issues. When not properly addressed, these problems can lead to constant friction — or even divorce.
But here’s the thing: you don’t have to fight with your spouse about money. In fact, with today’s tools, staying on the same page about money is easier than ever. Here’s how to fight (properly) with your spouse about money, so that you can come to a lasting agreement and money management plan.
Know Where You’re Coming From
As with all things marriage and parenting related, many of your money hang-ups probably come from your parents. Even if they didn’t actively talk to you about money, you’ve inherited attitudes and behaviors from them.
So each spouse should do a personal money inventory. Ask yourselves the following questions, and honestly assess your feelings and approach:
- How did I see my parents manage money? Did they spend or save? Did I feel secure in their financial choices?
- Is my identity wrapped up partly in how much money I make? If so, does it bother me if/when my spouse earns more money?
- Do I think money is primarily for saving or primarily for spending?
- Does having debt make me feel anxious and worried, or is it no big deal?
- Does not having a lot of money in savings make me feel anxious?
- What do I want for our financial future in five years? Ten years? Twenty years?
- Do I feel like my spouse spends too much money? Or is too controlling over our spending?
- Do I feel that our family manages money well or needs major improvement?
- Does keeping a strict budget make me feel more in control or more anxious?
- If I could change three things about our current financial management plan, what would I change?
These are just some questions to get you started. Asking and answering questions like these can reveal underlying attitudes and assumptions about money that are likely turning up in your fights with your spouse.
Now Figure Out the Real Issue
Once you’ve looked at your own money attitudes and assumptions, look at a specific situation you’re about to fight with your spouse about. Then, dig into what’s underneath your frustration with this situation.
Here are some examples that might ring true for you:
Your husband wants to spend $20,000 on a bass boat. Is the real problem that you can’t afford to spend that much? It could be! But maybe the real issue is that he’ll now spend even more time at the lake instead of spending time with your family. Or maybe the issue is that the last unnecessary purchase was also his, and you have other fun things you’d like to spend money on.
Your wife consistently blows the family grocery budget, limiting what you can put towards debt each month. Perhaps the underlying issue is that your mom used to feed your family on a shoestring budget, and you want to be able to do the same. Or maybe the problem is that debt makes you really anxious, so you want to cut back wherever you can to pay it off. Or perhaps you just really prefer to stick to a budget and get frustrated when others don’t comply.
You find yourself making secret credit card purchases and hiding them from your spouse. Maybe the issue here is that you just want some privacy when buying clothes or personal items. Or maybe you feel that your spouse is too controlling and that you never get to indulge. Maybe the real issue is that you have a spending problem and aren’t ready to get help.
In each of these situations, lots of emotions can come into play. It’s important to try to understand these emotions before the fight escalates. That way, you can approach the situation appropriately.
It’s also helpful to try to understand your spouse’s motivation. Maybe he thinks the bass boat will be a great tool to build relationships with your kids. Or maybe she really hates making things from scratch and so needs a bigger grocery budget. Sometimes your spouse’s underlying issues will come up during the fight. But try to put yourself in their shoes before you bring up the problem.
Set the Right Time and Place
If money is constantly a source of friction, you won’t want to bring it up just anywhere. Right after work or during a hectic family dinner is probably not the right place. You might actually want to plan out a time and place to talk about the issue.
The goal here isn’t to create the perfect conditions. They’re never perfect. But you should try to choose a time that’s free of distractions — emotional or otherwise.
While you’re at it, consider setting up a standing meeting to talk about money. Constant communication is one way to keep these fights from cropping up. Even half an hour every other week can keep you on the same page once you work through some of these first-line issues.
Talk Honestly, and Listen, Too
Bottling up about money issues won’t do you any favors. These types of issues tend to snowball and escalate — especially if your current spending or debt patterns are unsustainable.
Whether your marriage is currently healthy or unhealthy, telling the truth — gently and with love — is always the best approach. This may not be a pleasant conversation. But honesty is, as they say, the best policy.
When you’re having this conversation, be sure to approach your spouse open-mindedly. Listen to your spouse, and be curious. Ask questions to try to understand your spouse’s perspective. This can be difficult, since their perspective may paint you in a bad light. It can be difficult to hear why the $20,000 bass boat, blown grocery budget, or secret purchases make sense.
But understanding your spouse is key to understanding the issue and, hopefully, solving the problem.
Try to Compromise
Many money conversations start to look like all or nothing situations. Buy a new car or don’t. Remodel the kitchen or don’t. Rework the debt or don’t. Go on an expensive vacation or don’t.
But with some brainstorming, you can usually find some middle ground. It may not be what you originally had in mind. But marriage is a long series of give and take. So you may need to give a little to get a little.
For instance, my wife and I did this with the purchase of our home four years ago. I didn’t want to offer the list price, but we did because my wife offered to make some other financial sacrifices to make up the difference.
In our examples above, there’s plenty of room for compromise. Here are some ideas:
- Buy the bass boat, but buy it used so it’s cheaper. Then, commit to taking the kids with you fishing at least half the time.
- Bump up the grocery budget a bit but plan meals as a family so you can live a little more frugally, too.
- Set up a system for personal spending so you can each feel free to do what you want with some portion of the budget without having to be secretive.
- Buy a new-to-you car that’s within your agreed-upon budget.
- Work together to DIY some kitchen upgrades so you can get some of what you want for less.
- Work some overtime so that you can afford to take the pricier vacation.
As you can see, compromise in these situations involves some give on both sides. But the result — a more harmonious marriage with shared goals — is totally worth your while.
Make Long-Term Goals Together
Over the course of years, your views about money will change. It may take years for you and your spouse to move towards a center ground on money. It will take work and lots of these conversations over lots of years.
But while you’re working through this, you’ll find that you can dream together again. Do you remember doing that when your relationship was young? You probably talked a lot about what you wanted your life together to look like in five years or twenty years.
But as the years wear on and you get caught up in the day-to-day management of life, these conversations can be fewer and further between. Money conversations that start as problem-solving discussions can become these sorts of dreaming discussions. As you figure out how to solve your right-now money issues, remember to think about your longer-term goals as a couple. Then, find ways to work towards them.
With a view like this, working out money issues may be the best thing you ever do for your marriage!
Sometimes You Need Help
Sometimes money issues become serious. One spouse is driving the family deeply into debt. Or one or both parties are making secretive purchases constantly. Or maybe you’re just constantly at odds about money and can’t figure out how to solve the problem.
The point here isn’t to set off alarm bells. But if you’re constantly fighting about money, it may be time to seek some professional help. A certified financial planner can help you think through both short-term and long-term goals in a realistic way. Or more traditional marriage counseling could be the answer if the underlying issues are really about communication.
The key to fighting with your spouse about money, to recap, is to:
- First, understand yourself
- Next, understand the particular problem
- Then, set the right time and place
- Then, be honest, but seek to understand, too
- Finally, be willing to compromise
The more often you follow these steps with money problems, the better you’ll get about communicating about — and succeeding with — money.