As we all know, money is a primary source of discord in many relationships. Conflicts often arise about how to spend our money, as well as how much money we should save. But when we look deeper into the topic, we discover that, at their heart, conflicts over money aren’t really about the number of dollars in a couple’s financial stash. Instead, these arguments have a much more emotional component: they actually reflect our hopes, dreams, fears, insecurities, and inadequacies. Money is a source of personal power, since it truly influences what we can and cannot do in our life.
Wildly differing personal experiences and beliefs around money
To avoid financial fights, delve deeper into your own (as well as your partner’s) beliefs about money. What does money really mean to each of you? What are the real bases for your individual beliefs about money, and how best to spend or save it?
It could be that, as you grew up, one of your family members was extremely frugal, saving every cent that came his or her way. Although your relative had some money when he/she died, they never really enjoyed life; therefore, you have vowed to walk a completely different path. Maybe your mom or dad had a gambling or drinking problem, causing your family to be uncertain about where their next meal was coming from. Or it could be that, since you never had nice things to wear when you were growing up, it is very important to you now to buy gorgeous designer clothing for yourself. Then again, if you were raised in a household where money was never an issue, you may have a far less structured and restrictive attitude toward finances.
All of these situations shape and define our outlook and emotional approach to money, both as individuals and in our relationship -- beginning in childhood, going straight through our teen years, and on into adulthood.
Here are a few common reasons why couples find themselves in the midst of arguments about matters of the wallet. I hope that examining them will help guide you on your quest to “making cents”out of everyday money disagreements that can be oh so destructive to the relationship!
1. Spending and saving habits aren't anywhere near being aligned
If one partner comes from a more privileged socio-economic background than the other partner, you may argue about priorities. That makes sense. So, let’s say one partner grew up in a family that spent freely on anything they desired (including luxurious housing and vacations) while the other partner may have experienced housing or food uncertainty at times, had limited access to competent and timely medical care, or had a parent who spent money on foolish pursuits, which negatively affected the rest of the family’s priorities. It’s highly likely that verbal sparks may fly when both partners head into a potentially emotional “dollars and cents” conversation.
If one partner feels positively about spending lavishly so you can enjoy life now, but the other partner wants to save as much money as possible, a compromise must be reached. The old “spend some, save some” approach is advised -- so both partners feel that their financial goals are being addressed.
2. Since joint money goals haven't been established, what are we actually working towards?
When entering a partnership, especially one that is committed and long-term, you have joint goals, as a couple. One of those goals should be to align the important items on which to spend your money, such as: Buying a house, traveling, establishing a business, starting a family, saving for your children’s college education, saving for retirement. Discuss and agree on these high-level goals right off the bat in order to avoid disagreement about how funds are to be spent down the road.
3. Trust issues/lack of openness/honesty
It is important that, as a couple, you are open and honest about your individual spending. Having your mate suddenly discover you’ve made a big purchase – or even several small ones that add up to a significant sum – without their prior knowledge can be a negative surprise, and can impact their ability to trust you.
Couples should have an open dialogue about money, with an agreed-upon amount that each partner can spend without having to check first with the other. But if one of you wants to buy something above that monetary threshold, have a discussion that allows each partner to be understood as to their reasoning for the potential purchase. A key part of ensuring that this dialogue is constructive is knowing each other’s personal money beliefs and what that purchase means.
4. One partner holds the purse strings; the other partner wants to yank on them
This situation frequently occurs when one partner is the primary breadwinner, or comes into the relationship with significantly more money than their mate. This can cause a constant comparison of salaries, and can make the lower-income spouse feel “lesser than” his or her partner, as well under-appreciated, under-valued, and bitter. It may also result in a financial disparity, resulting in arguments about who is “allowed” to spend freely because they earn more, and who must “ask permission.” This inequitable financial situation can cause considerable disharmony, so finding a solution that works well for both people is truly important.
“When there’s a big difference between a couple, the inequality can threaten to erode your bond, unless you address it head-on,” says psychotherapist Kate Levinson, Ph.D., author of “Emotional Currency.”
5. One partner is influenced by his/her family regarding finances; the other partner has no voice in the matter
Whether in a marriage or a committed relationship, one partner’s family members’ values can influence financial discussions and ultimately impact the overall health of the couple’s relationship. Whether a partner’s family is trying to exert pressure to gain control over the couple, or are simply coming from a place of generosity, love and support, a family’s strong involvement in a couple’s financial affairs can leave the “out-law” partner feeling that his or her opinion does not matter. Watch for these types of scenarios popping up, as they can create an atmosphere of resentment between the partners that can, over time, chip away at even a good, solid union. Therefore, it’s critical that both partners communicate openly and honestly about family involvement in matters concerning the couple’s finances. The couple must agree to stand united in all financial decisions, where family members from either side are concerned.
6. Labeling spenders and savers in a marriage
According to the Gottman Institute, when it comes to money, it is important to avoid the dichotomy of characterizing one marriage partner as the “spender” and the other as the “saver.”
The spender sees himself or herself as wisely using money as the basis for a happy life, filled with comfort, well-being, and generosity. In stereotyping the spender, however, the saver often uses terms such as frivolous, impulsive, and self-indulgent.
The saver sees himself or herself as practical, conservative, and wise. The saver values money as security, success, and power. In stereotyping the saver, however, the spender often uses terms like stingy, selfish, and cheap.
The truth is, since we’re all savers and spenders at different times in our lives, stereotyping each other isn’t helpful at all.
Each of us has a family history regarding money and values that was instilled in us over our lifetime. Part of our work as compassionate partners is to understand, rather than to define or judge one another.
In short, it pays to get your dollars and cents right in a relationship. Make that subject a priority early on. It just makes good relationship sense.
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