Arguing about Money

July 25, 2014
Jeff Brown, MD

Half of American couples argue regularly about money, and they can often get deep into their lives together before the difference surface.

About half of American couples argue regularly about money, and money problems are the number one stated reason for divorce. Why do we live this way, and what can we do to manage our finances and our relationships better?

Notice that I said money is the number one “stated” reason for divorce. As is often also the case with medical patients, there is always a “good” reason and there can also be a “real,” or underlying, reason either for an office visit or for a money argument.

Too often couples caught up in emotion and in preparation for a life together do not have an objective discussion beforehand to communicate their thoughts and feelings about real key issues that always come up. These include sex, religion, child rearing, division of labor, and relations with family. But, most importantly, how to manage money is issue number one.

Harris Interactive reported that married couples average 3 money arguments per month, with that number rising to 4 for those ages 45 to 54.

So people often get deep into their life together before real underlying differences about how to manage finances crop up and that delay just complicates things. But everyone learns, usually expensively, that money issues do not just “work themselves out.”

Here are a few ideas to help prevent future conflicts and to resolve unhappy existing ones.

Communicate

First, and it may sound trite, but communication is the key. Think about how your parents handled money. Often, and unconsciously, that is how we instinctively behave toward money when we enter into a life relationship. So it helps to remember the role and practice of money in your childhood home and consciously decide what aspects you value and which behaviors upon which you feel you can improve.

Recognition

Money arguments can be a stand-in for power struggles, and there is often a disconnect between the “saver” in the family and the “spender.” This duality involves status aspirations, shopping therapy/stress relief, unmet security needs, and issues of freedom and independence. I don’t want this to devolve entirely to a psychiatric analysis, but it does help to be aware of some common problem areas.

Write down your thoughts

A practical approach might start with each party writing a “money letter.” Money and its uses are personal, so it can only help to identify and take responsibility for “what is” as well as “what should be.” Dr. Phil, of pop psychology fame, says, “If you want to own it, you have to name it.” Who knows, your letter’s revelations might part the clouds for you both and let the sun shine in.

After the money letters are written and shared, the next step is to create a communal spending plan. Notice that I did not say a budget. Spending is what we do with our money, even if we wisely include savings in that dispersal.

Review

Schedule a regular time—weekly, monthly, etc.—to review your progress and hash out the recurring “want” vs. “need” discussions. Some couples do well by maintaining an agreed upon percentage of personal or collective earnings in a separate accounts. Whether these might handle individual responsibilities or just personal, non-justified spending is up to each couple.

As in all human affairs, we always do better when we have transparency and accountability (governments take note). It might be a bit rough at first to get all of this out and on the table, but it will soon be apparent that all will feel better for it—especially with fewer money arguments to look forward to.