Despite being green, money can be a rather black and white matter. Either someone tends to be a conservative saver or an outright spender. And when these two personalities couple up it can cause money-related confrontations from the first date until it’s time to plan the will.
Our relationship with money is psychological. It’s an integral part of a personality blueprint created in childhood and fueled by messages from our parents and other influential adults. Carolyn has always been a saver, the result of an upbringing by a single mother who struggled to make ends meet. Her mom believed that anything can happen and a healthy savings account was the best kind of security blanket. She rarely purchased new clothes for herself and dressed Carolyn mostly in secondhand outfits. To save on babysitting costs, she brought Carolyn to her office during school vacations.
Carolyn’s husband Dave is a spender. His blueprint includes parents who loved living on the financial edge, spending every penny on new cars, vacations and the latest technology. He also had a very wealthy uncle who preached risk-taking. Dave sees spending as an emotional rush and an instant gratifier. He finds Carolyn’s natural instinct to save boring and constraining while she walks around with anxiety that they don’t have enough savings for the future. As the years pass, each tries to compensate for the other’s perspective by digging their heels in deeper—she spends even less and he buys even more. They argue about it, and because each is unable to empathize with the other perspective it’s a stalemate.
These vastly different approaches to finances can dominate a relationship, causing fights, stress and secrecy. Savers open secret accounts while spenders use cash to hide their tracks. This financial infidelity may seem harmless but any kind of perfidy is damaging. Lack of financial agreement is like any other difference of opinion between a couple, whether it is about disciplining children or the
amount of time spent with in-laws. Difficulty compromising in any of these important areas can, over time, erode an otherwise healthy relationship.
Mending the financial rift starts by sharing financial blueprints. Spend time—it could take many conversations—to understand how each person developed his relationship with money. Besides childhood experiences, the way you handle money is influenced by the financial gains or losses you’ve had as an adult. (Think about how you felt after a big rise or dip in your 401k).
The empathy you experience for each other is a start towards compromise. Each needs to understand that blueprints cannot be erased, only changed over time with love and support. Carolyn will not succeed in getting Dave to stop feeling the urge to spend, but perhaps once he understands it causes her anxiety, he may agree to grow a savings account with a percentage of what he normally spends. Dave will probably not get Carolyn to agree to a five-figure vacation, but maybe she will earmark some savings for a reasonably priced trip.
Unlike unpredictable events that can throw a relationship off track (like a death in the family or change in employment), managing money is part of daily decision making. Once a couple agrees to be on the same financial page there are daily opportunities to work towards that accord.
Research shows that having enough money to meet basic needs increases happiness. But it’s a slippery slope—having more money doesn’t make you any happier and can in fact cause more problems. These four examples of the most common financial pressures are a good starting point for balancing contrary attitudes and creating a coupled blueprint for a healthy relationship with money.
We live for today and have practically no savings.
What gets in the way of saving? Are you overspending to cope with sadness or does more stuff increase the feeling of security? Money and belongings will bring only fleeting happiness. Real joy comes from feeling content in relationships and through meaningful experiences. Start to spend less and see how you feel. Once spending is out of the picture, you might discover authentic sources of happiness. Then saving will come naturally.
My partner and I constantly fight about spending and saving.
Arguments over spending money are common, but in truth, having opposing opinions about spending is no different from any other issue in a relationship. To stop arguing, both parties need to communicate better and compromise. Tammy and her husband fought for years about this until they agreed to discuss any purchase over $200. This agreement improved their communication and significantly reduced expensive impulse purchases.
Money is a taboo subject—my partner and I evade it.
Avoiding discussions about money is likely due to discomfort stemming from childhood. Breaking this mold is important because honesty about finances is crucial to a healthy relationship. Start small, easing into more sensitive topics. Marjorie began by asking her husband if they could review credit card statements together. He had always assumed she wasn’t interested and was relieved to share the burden. Sara felt in the dark about her future because there was a significant difference in age between her and her husband Carl. She took a humorous approach. “I know you’ll probably outlive all of us mere humans, but just in case, I’m wondering if you think we have enough savings to support us for the rest of our lives?”
Is it wrong that I don’t tell my spouse what I spend?
Many people neglect to tell their partners about expensive purchases, or mask the cost. Judy feigns ignorance when her husband doesn’t recognize something she’s “had for years.” No matter how small, financial infidelity can cause distrust. If you or your partner covers up spending, it is time to have a serious discussion about money. Sometimes the issue is a psychological fear of spending—once aired, the anxiety will be alleviated. In other cases, by spending secretly, one partner denies the other one participation in household decisions. This is a more serious form of secrecy and talking about it is the first step to forming a more honest and healthy relationship.
It doesn’t have to be tax season to think about correcting bad financial habits. Finances are an omnipresent issue, whether or not a spouse or mate is adding to the stress. Our money talks to us year-round, and when it does, don’t just listen, talk back to develop a healthy relationship with it and your partner.
Dr. Susan Bartell is a nationally-recognized psychologist and author practicing in Port Washington. drsusanbartell.com