With the holidays approaching and the end of the year on the horizon, many couples experience increased financial stress and conflict. For many, the topic of money is a difficult issue to talk about. Managing the household income and making choices around spending, saving, credit, and debt — plus the added pressure of holiday purchases and end-of-the-year taxes — can result in stress and anxiety.
Recent research by the organization Ramsey Solutions found that money is the number one issue couples fight about. Unresolved issues involving money are the second leading cause of divorce, with infidelity being the first. The findings of this research confirm that money is one of the most challenging factors that couples face in their relationship.
Many reasons cause dealing with money issues in a relationship to be a problem. Four of the major ones include the following:
• For many people, money and possessions are intricately connected to identity. What we have, where we live, what we wear, or what we drive says something about who we are. When we define ourselves by these things, the stress around having and spending money is high.
• Consumer debt is significantly easier to obtain than in generations past. The Ramsey Solutions research reports that of the couples getting married 25 years ago, 43 percent started their marriage with consumer debt. For the couples who have married in the past five years, 86 percent began their marriages in debt. The easy availability of credit and higher student loan debt are two major contributors to this percentage doubling in the past quarter of a century.
• It is no secret that more income is required to support a family than in generations past. Recent generations have seen an increase in both people in a relationship working outside the home. The stress of both having to work puts additional pressure on communicating about and managing money.
• The stress of managing finances exposes underlying relationship issues a couple may have. To manage finances well, good communication and problem-solving skills are needed. A couple must have a basic stance of being allies versus adversaries in a relationship. Ultimately, a willingness to sacrifice for the other and for the relationship is crucial to relationship success in all areas.
Couples who are willing to take an honest look at these four areas and participate in objective conversations about them can lessen the stress that money and managing finances place on their relationship. One of the main questions a couple will face is whether to keep their finances separate or to mingle them. Many arguments have been posed for both. Research indicates a growing trend for couples to keep their money separate; while a slight majority still combine finances, 49 percent of couples have their finances separate entirely or to a significant degree.
A leading argument for separating finances is that mingling them can cause stress. This is true. To mingle finances, couples have to negotiate differences in spending habits, priorities and values, and strategies for financial management. Communication is vital when operating out of shared accounts or using shared credit cards. Some have argued that knowing what a partner chooses to spend money on can be a source of stress.
Plus, there is no way around the fact that couples have shared expenses. Some couples have addressed this with a “yours, mine, and ours approach.” The idea is that each contributes in some equivalent way (based upon individual income) to the joint expenses of a household, and then the remainder of each one’s money remains separate. In such an arrangement, individual money is managed as each sees fit.
As a marriage and family therapist with more than 30 years of experience working with couples, I am not in favor of the separate finances arrangement. Marriage, or an intimate partnership, is a relationship of vulnerability, trust, mutual sacrifice, and accountability. Such a relationship is built upon a foundation of openness and honesty. The skills needed for a successful marriage/partnership are the same skills needed for combining finances. Said another way: I believe it unrealistic for couples to think that if they cannot share and combine finances, that they will be able to share a household, parenting, and a bed.
A combined approach to finances involves communication, negotiation, and agreement on priorities, budget, investments, and spending. It is helpful for each person to have an equal and agreed amount of “discretionary spending” each month. This allows for each to be able to spend on the items individually valued, like clothes, hobbies, or activities, without stress and tension in the relationship.
Regardless of the approach, communication is essential. The communication skills necessary to manage the stress of finances are the same skills necessary for a successful long-term relationship. In all honesty, I have seen few relationships in which all other aspects are healthy and good except for financial management. Healthy, thriving couples figure out how to communicate about money. Here are some suggestions:
Develop a Healthy Relationship
The first step in developing a healthy relationship is to become a healthy person. Begin by looking at your core values. What is important to you? Do you have healthy self-esteem that is based upon a realistic and accepting view of yourself? Or, is your view of yourself based upon comparison to others, popular social standards, achievements, or possessions? Develop a set of values and principles that take in a larger view of the world than just yourself. A primary value here is selfishness versus willingness to sacrifice and compromise. When you show up in a relationship with a partner who has done the same, working together on finances will be significantly easier.
A fairly common situation occurs when a couple has unresolved offenses and hurts from earlier in their relationship. Unresolved and inadequately forgiven, these offenses get played out in the realm of money. When one or both parties are carrying a grudge, hurt, or unforgiveness, it will hinder their ability to work together on financial issues.
Develop Good Communication Skills
All good relationships require good communication skills. These include boundaries (knowing what you think, want, need, feel) and the assertiveness to speak them to the other. Additionally, couples must grow in their ability to problem solve and resolve conflict. Remember, conflicts are merely problems that need a solution. A conflict occurs when two people want something different at the same time. It is a problem that needs a solution. Here is a short outline for solving problems. While it may seem overly simplistic, it helps communication to stay on track.
• Accurately identify the problem.
• Generate/brainstorm a list of possible solutions.
• Evaluate the possible solutions with pros and cons and pick one.
• Implement the solution.
• Evaluate the solution concerning whether it worked. If it didn’t, try another from the list.
A frequent conflict in the area of finances comes from differing money styles. One is a spender and one is a saver. Spending and saving are both necessary. Begin the conversation by understanding that neither person is right or wrong. It is really just an issue of values and compromise. Finding a balanced approach to finances that incorporates both is important.
Deal With the Money Ghosts
I use the term “money ghosts” to describe the unresolved money issues from your past that are haunting you now. One of these ghosts is not receiving knowledge or education about money and finances from your parents or guardians while growing up. This ghost is easy to deal with. A multitude of books and websites offer solid financial advice on topics such as how to budget and communicate about money.
Another money ghost is debt that has either been brought into the relationship or that has been accumulated over the years of the relationship. It is very important for couples to communicate about money when they are considering marrying. This includes each one’s current financial situation, budget, and debt they would bring into the marriage. If this is done in the beginning, the couple can develop a plan together for addressing debt. While this may seem like obvious advice, many couples enter marriage not having communicated about debt, which is crucial. Take an honest inventory that will allow you to take steps not to add to the debt and eventually to eliminate it.
Do Not Commit “Financial Infidelity” in Your Relationship
One of the biggest mistakes a couple can make in dealing with money in a relationship is to be dishonest about money decisions, expenditures, or debt. Lies of omission or commission in this area can be as painful and destructive as other types of infidelity. Remember, healthy relationships are built upon a foundation of trust. A solid financial situation in a marriage requires the same trust and honesty.
While finances can be a significant source of stress in a relationship, they don’t have to be. Exercise such practical steps as:
• Have regular budget/finance meetings. At least monthly is recommended, possibly more often if needed. An annual financial meeting is advised for re-evaluating goals and strategies.
• Plan for out-of-the-ordinary expenses, such as vacations, holidays, home and auto repairs, and other costs.
• Keep an ongoing list of future needs and wants.
• Agree on mutual accountability and open access regarding finances.
• Commit that neither will make a purchase over an agreed amount without the agreement of the other.
• Deal with debt. The two main approaches for paying off multiple debts are the “debt snowball” approach and debt consolidation loans.
• Seek a financial counselor if necessary. If money issues are more relationship-oriented, see a marriage/relationship counselor.
With a commitment to each other and to financial health, a couple can learn to manage money together. Take advantage of this upcoming holiday season to improve your money management. Your relationship will benefit.
Dr. Thomas Barbian is the executive director for the Christian Counseling Center of First Presbyterian Church in Columbia. He received his doctorate in clinical psychology from the Cambridge Graduate School of Psychology and Counseling in Los Angeles. He also holds a master’s degree in marriage, family, and child counseling and a bachelor’s degree in biblical studies.