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Workable solutions for couples when fighting about money

Workable solutions for couples when fighting about money

Money matters can often be a source of conflict in any marriage. The origins can be traced to actual financial problems for the couple, such as falling into debt due to overspending or a sudden loss of income, or different attitudes, values, and habits surrounding money stemming from each partner’s upbringing. Money is an emotionally laden issue, and sorting it out is like trying to untangle a box of hangers from your closet.

As with any recurring argument, when couples continually argue about money, it usually means there has been no resolution. Couples can end an argument and “make-up” because they dislike the conflict, but they fail to resolve the problem. Things can be better or feel better for awhile then the issue resurfaces continuing the vicious cycle of unresolved financial problems and tension. Whether the issue is financial or within the relationship, or both, it is important to find workable solutions.  


Do

Do fix the problem, not the blame

Too often, couples get into blaming each other: “You spend too much money on sports equipment. If you didn’t buy that new golf club, we wouldn’t have that balance on the credit card! You are always overspending.” It isn’t helpful, even if it’s true.

It is better to start with, “Honey, I have some concerns about our credit card. There is a big balance this month, and we agreed to limit our purchases. I know that the new golf club is important to you, but it is important to me not to have a large debt. If you think you need something, I’d like for us to discuss it together. That way we can both figure out where to cut back if we make an extra purchase.” 

Do make an appointment to discuss the issue

Business meetings are scheduled and people prepare for them. Couples should do the same for important issues. Instead of reacting emotionally, get some distance and write out your thoughts and feelings about the issue. Figure out how to say things in such a way so your partner will listen. Point out ways that your partner does a good job with finances, or mention skills your partner has that can be applied to fixing the problem. Then propose a solution to the problem.

“Honey, I know you share some of my money concerns because you handled all the details of refinancing the house. I’d like both of us to work on the credit card debt. Each month, can we sit down together and assess our expenses, and limit what we put on the cards?”

Do listen to each other and acknowledge each other’s concerns

Since money can be such an emotionally charged issue, it is often hard to listen to someone else’s point of view. For example, if Jamie’s parents always had financial problems because they were careless spenders, she may be anxious when Bill makes impulsive purchases, even when there is enough money in the budget for them. That may exacerbate Bill’s fear of being controlled because his mother held the purse strings when he was growing up. So, when Bill and Jamie sit down to discuss money concerns, it may seem as if there are more people at the table than just Bill and Jamie.

Bill and Jamie should be prepared to take turns talking, and listen as the other speaks. Once Bill has made a point, Jamie should “play back” what she has heard.

“So, Bill, what you’re saying is that when you bought the sports jacket, you knew you had enough money from your clothing budget to cover it and your old jacket was starting to wear. You also felt judged and reprimanded when I yelled at you for buying it.”

When it is Jamie’s turn to talk, she can explain her concerns and Bill can repeat what he has heard. Some sessions may take several rounds. It is okay if you don’t understand your partner’s point right away. If you are making a genuine effort to understand, your partner will clarify. What’s important here is that you and your partner feel understood. Only then can you move on to sort out the issue and problem solve. 

Do resolve the issue

Too often, couples want to feel better, so they apologize or “kiss and makeup,” without solving the problem. Just acknowledging the issues won’t always resolve them. Bill and Jamie need to come up with a plan so that they don’t arrive in the same situation a few months down the road.

One possible solution for Bill and Jamie is to agree on a dollar amount that each of them can spend without consulting each other. If one wants to spend more than the agreed upon amount, then the purchase needs to be discussed. If the amount is $250 per month, and Bill wants to buy new skis, then he and Jamie need to discuss it. Perhaps Bill uses two months of his allotment, or they agree that some of the money comes out of another fund.

Sometimes solutions don’t work, and that should be okay. Couples should have regular meetings about how things are going. Jamie can say, “You know I thought this would work, but I don’t feel right about it. Let’s talk about some other ways to manage this.”

Do keep your solutions balanced

It is important for both partners to feel good about the new plan or approach to the problem. Both partners should have a say in how the money is spent and budgeted. No one should feel they have to ask permission to spend some money. If one partner controls all the money, the other is going to feel resentful.

Often one partner in frustration will say, “Fine, you take care of it, I’ll stay out of it!” One problem here is that they don’t mean it, and then have to backtrack. Or they really do stay out of it and feel resentful, play the game of “I told you so!” or act stubborn and refuse to help even when it is needed.

It is certainly okay for one partner to manage the checkbook, or handle the investments. Couples should consider what makes sense according to skills, interest or schedule. (The accountant might be better at paying the bills, but given the travel schedule, it might make more sense for the partner to do it. However, no matter who takes over different parts of the finances, the couple needs to discuss the issues together and stay informed. 


Don't

Do not keep secrets

Hiding purchases, credit card statements, or trips to the casino can’t lead anywhere good! Not letting your spouse know that you’ve spent money may temporarily let you off the hook, but in the long run, secrets hurt your relationship and compound your financial problems. If you believe that you can’t let your spouse know about your purchase, then either you shouldn’t be spending the money or there is a big problem in your relationship. If you have a spending or gambling problem then you need to address it. If the problem is within the relationship, then you need to address that problem.

Do not get caught in co-dependency

If one partner tries to control a spouse’s spending, that partner is setting up a co-dependent relationship. It might look something like this:

“Honey, can I buy a new pair of shoes?”

“Sure, Dear, you’ve been really good about not buying things lately, so go ahead and treat yourself!”

Here, the one partner is the one in charge and grants permission to spend money. The better scenario would be “That’s up to you.” 

That puts the onus on the spender to decide if the shoes are necessary and within budget. It adds to the trust in the relationship, and signifies equality rather than a lopsided relationship or a parental one. If there is a serious problem with overspending, then the couple should get professional help for both the overspender and the partner. This way, the overspender can resolve those issues and together they can learn how to handle the issue and its impact on the relationship and the finances. 

Do not use finances as a weapon

Sometimes couples use finances as a way to get back at each other. Bill may feel resentful of Jamie’s controlling the budget and commenting on every little purchase. “No one is going to stop me from getting what I want! I’ll show you!” and off goes Bill to get his skis.

When Jamie finds out about the latest shopping excursion, she responds, “We’ll see about this frivolous spending! I’m canceling the credit card!” This will infuriate Bill who then opens up a new credit card account.

Let your partner know you are angry, but talk about it—don’t go to the sportswear store. Set aside some time to discuss your feelings, help your partner understand your hurt and anger, and engage in problem solving. Listen to your partner’s feelings as well.

Bill may be surprised to learn that Jamie’s mother had serious problems with overspending that impacted the family’s finances, and partly because her father also ignored the issue. Or Jamie may learn that Bill felt deprived as the youngest child in a poor family because his needs were last on the list. 

Do not avoid the financial issue or the conflict

Like keeping secrets, avoiding the issues may help couples feel better in the moment, but down the road, the issues are still there and may likely be larger. Sometimes, problems do go away and avoidance gets reinforced. (Like when as a kid, you put off studying, and then the teacher decided not to give the test.) One way to know that avoidance isn’t working is if the issue continually resurfaces.

There are two categories of avoidance here, one is the avoidance of confrontation or conflict and the other is the avoidance of the financial problem. Avoidance of confrontation is a relationship issue, while the other is a financial issue. Neither one typically goes away on its own.

Waiting to let your partner know you maxed out the credit card is only postponing the inevitable. Your partner is likely to be even angrier that you waited to tell him, or that he had to find out on his own when he went to use the card at a business lunch. Borrowing from your home equity loan to pay your bills without having a discussion about the real issues is only going to put you both in more debt. (Sometimes debt is unavoidable, but couples need to talk about and consider all options together.) 

Do not hesitate to get help

There are times in relationships when couples need help in sorting out the problems and arriving at solutions. When you can’t figure things out on your own, you may need to get professional help whether it’s for the relationship or your finances. Seek the assistance of a licensed therapist (psychologists, social workers or marriage and family therapists are licensed in each state) for your relationship, and a certified accountant or other financial professional for financial issues.

Sometimes financial situations deteriorate quickly—often the result of unemployment or huge medical bills. Needing help doesn’t mean you’ve done something wrong. It’s more an indication that something has happened and you are unsure of how to handle it, or that what you have been doing isn’t working. You seek medical attention for a broken leg, seek financial assistance for a “broken” budget.

Relationship issues more often happen over time, and then a crisis occurs, which brings things to a head. Couples may also get frustrated because the same old issues remain. Again, when what you are doing isn’t working, get some professional help.


Summary
Jumping cartoon

All couples have conflicts over money that can stem from serious debt to money management, or can be traced to different values, beliefs, and attitudes about money learned long before the relationship. No matter the origin, when money or emotions are out of control, the couple needs to solve the problem.

It is important to discuss these issues when you have some distance from your emotions. Partners need to listen to each other without judgement and make sure each feels understood. Then work on solving the issue. Even if a plan doesn’t work, the couple can move to another solution that works and addresses the money issue.

Avoidance of the issues, keeping secrets, and power imbalances don’t work. Using money to get back at a partner only escalates the problems in the relationship and the financial worries. Couples need to talk openly about their concerns and discuss solutions that are balanced and respectful of both partners. When partners can’t come to a workable solution and the arguing and tension continue and money issues worsen, it is time to get help from a finance expert and marriage counselor. 


More expert advice about Finance for Couples

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Mary Kelly Blakeslee, Ph.D.Retired Psychologist

I am a recently retired Psychologist. I had a private practice since 1985, first in Springfield, then Summit New Jersey. My practice consisted of individual and couples therapy, with adolescents and adults, covering issues of depression and anxi...

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