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Jun 1, 2017

Money And Marriage: It Ainít Easy

by Ken Finkelstein

Ken FinkelsteinThe leading cause of marital stress and the number one reason for divorce: Money.

Whether good or bad economic times, romantic partners argue about money. Whether struggling to make ends meet, comfortably middle class, or fortunate to be among the 1%, money issues trigger conflict.


It's Not Just About Money

On the surface, disagreements revolve around saving, spending and investing money.

But dig below and you’ll find the root of contention isn’t money. It’s bigger and deeper than money. And it’s complicated and thorny and knotty and tricky and just plain tough.

The real issues sowing seeds of conflict? Let’s start with not understanding what money means to your partner. When you don’t understand each other, it’s awfully tough to find common ground.

To illustrate what I’m talking about, consider fictional Julie and Jake. Let’s say J & J agree to replace their ten-year-old clunker. But, try as they do, they’re unable to move forward, disagreeing on what kind of car to buy and how much money to spend. Jake prefers a sub-compact, gently used car with minimal maintenance costs whereas Julie wants all the bells, whistles and horsepower.

At first glance, this is a run of the mill money squabble. Lift the hood and you’ll see something else. You’ll see that, for both Julie and Jake, their spending decisions are informed by their personal relationship with money, a relationship shaped during childhood and adolescence.

For Julie, her parents were financially successful by any measure and didn’t hesitate to spend money, to indulge in material comforts for themselves and their children. Julie’s takeaway from her formative years: if you have money, you deserve to reap material rewards.

Jake’s family was different. His parents too were financially successful. But they lived modestly, did not spend frivolously, did not spoil their kids, and placed a premium on lifelong independence and financial freedom. Jake’s takeaway: satisfy needs, temper wants, and plan for a financially stable future by maximizing savings.

With different family approaches, and different lessons learned, money friction between Julie and Jake are inevitable. And if neither J puts effort into understanding their own relationship with money and what’s driving their decisions, then peaceful compromises are not likely.

Reading The Money Leaves

Money has different meanings for different people. For Jake, money is mostly about safety and control. For Julie, money represents freedom, success and love. Others may attach power, prestige or generosity to money.

Problems for J and J stem from not having insight into their money-related behavior. Once they step back, think about how they emulate their parents saving, spending, and investing patterns, then they’ll get a handle on what’s motivating their financial decisions. And once they understand their own behavior, and share this understanding with each other, then they’ll be much better equipped to compromise. Not least because of knowing that these kinds of arguments are not about money!

Self-knowledge alone isn’t a balm for all money-centred strife, although it’s good to know. Other issues exacerbate disagreements such as: whether or not you share significant money decisions with your partner; whether each of you has a fair and equal say and; when the partner earning less money feels as if their financial contribution is inadequate and, as a result, their self-esteem suffers. Unless these issues are discussed and fairly resolved, resentment will grow, arguments will escalate, and trust will break down.

As I said, it’s complicated and thorny and knotty and tricky and just plain tough, this whole money and relationships business!

Maximizing Compatibility

So, you love each other. Maybe you’re even nuts about each other, in a good way! But when it comes to finances, there is close to zero compatibility. What do you do?

You communicate. You talk to each other. Open up. Reveal your hopes and dreams and fears and debts and assets. In a relaxed, peaceful way replete with humour and warmth because, hey, this is your life partner and you love her/him, and there’s no place for anxiety or ill will where two healthy adults are discussing what is the best way forward.

You compromise. Instead of digging in, insisting on having things ‘your way’, you stay flexible. You take one or two or three or more for the team because that’s what partners do for each other. They understand that money management is a joint responsibility, accept the differences that each person brings to the relationship, recognize any pressure their partner is under, and help out where possible. The bonus of working together? Mutual caring and respect is reinforced while disharmony is kept to a minimum.

Budgets Are Not Sexy

Sexy, schmexy. So drafting a family budget is not your idea of fun? Opinion noted. Now, forget about judging the process and understand that budgeting is the most effective way to track your money.

And when you track your money, you are way more likely to reduce frivolous spending, contribute to savings, achieve your financial goals and (drum roll please) minimize money-related combat because … through the budgeting process you will have set financial ground rules and boundaries that keep you both on the same path.

I mean, if you both want to retire at, say, age 55, and move to Peru because you do not want to live another day without sipping ridiculously delicious Peruvian coffee then, budget-wise, what must be done to make this happen? Likewise, if you want to buy a home, top up retirement savings accounts, save for the kids’ education costs, pay off the mortgage – again, structure the budget together to make goals a reality.

The alternative to drafting a budget, reviewing it semi-annually, and adjusting as necessary to account for life changes, is something called a hope and prayer. And this alternative is not recommended by nine out of ten financial experts.

A little bit of financial order goes a long way to making life more enjoyable or, at the least, less fraught.

Two Becomes One

In a healthy relationship, there is no more ‘yours’ or ‘mine’ when it comes to money matters. You’re a team. And as a team, you’re building together for a common future. If you don’t accept this line of thinking, then money issues will definitely be an ongoing source of stress.

Because by not accepting the team concept, you’re going it alone and, last time I checked, partnership involves more than one person. And if you insist on ‘my way or the highway’, well, that’s a sign of deeper issues, starting with lack of respect and trust that will ultimately corrode your relationship.

Shhhh! It’s Secret

Referring back to the ‘Marriage Is a Team Game’ line of thinking, don’t hide money issues from your partner. Don’t keep a secret credit card or make large purchases without telling your partner. In the wider world, that kind of behavior is called deception and it’s not looked upon kindly. Because intentionally deceiving your partner indicates trust issues, and leads to you becoming another divorce statistic.

That said, no one cares to be micro-managed. In this regard, you may want to agree upon a dollar amount that would activate the I-should-tell-my-partner-about-this purchase-because-I-love-my-partner. For example, both of you agree to make a point of telling the other when a purchase costs more than $100, or whatever dollar amount suits you. This sort of behavior sets rules from the start. And these rules serve to eliminate surprises while reinforcing trust, respect, and peaceful relations.

Thrifty Couples Are Happier

If you value relationships, friends, giving effort, and purpose, then you walk hand in hand with happiness. And if you value loading up your existence with material stuff, then the worse off you’ll be as far as happiness goes.

Of course, this notion of value I’m spouting is from a bygone era. It doesn’t have to be but that seems to be the general direction of things. I know, we live in a society that elevates a corporate culture promoting product cycles lasting maybe six months, one where we consumers are encouraged to buy the latest model, the biggest home, the most luxurious car, and spare no expense because (hello banks and lending companies!) you have the option of borrowing money and going further into debt.

Stuff. It’s a powerful draw for most of us. The mere wanting of stuff is enough to turn some of us into bobbleheads; bouncing around excitedly, our mind shut off from any other thoughts, like the inevitable weight we’ll feel under the burden of credit card debt or home line of credit debt, and the gloomy pessimism we experience when not in control of our financial destiny. Oh yes, then there’s the relationship damage caused by runaway consumption and resulting debt.

The thing is, Living the Dream is not about having everything you want. Nope. It’s more about balancing saving and spending, achieving self-sufficiency, knowing that you do not have to rely on someone else for your livelihood. And the more you spend beyond your means, the less you save, the more debt you accrue, the less likely you will ever know this kind of freedom or happiness, the kind that thrifty couples know well.

Sidestepping The Minefield

Sure, potentially, money and relationships present a minefield of trouble. But it doesn’t have to be this way. And it won’t be this way if you’re willing to put in the effort to understand the source of your own feelings about money, and to respect, trust and engage in an ongoing, open dialogue with your partner.



Ken Finkelstein, LL.B. J.D.,