Family

When Couples Bicker About Bucks, It’s Not About the $$$

How much does each spouse value safety and security? What's the connection for each person between dollars and dreams?

When married couples fight about finances, it’s most often about spending and saving. Seventy-two percent of married people with conflicts over money have a problem with their spouses’ spending. Just as many said they have trouble saving money. This is according to the National Survey of Marital Strengths conducted by Prepare/Enrich.

It comes as no surprise that many married couples are concerned about spending — and the struggle to save. Seventy-eight percent of full-time workers live from paycheck to paycheck, according to a recent report from Career Builder. Seventy-one percent of those workers are in debt.

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But when couples fight over finances, money is not the reason they quarrel. At the core of these conflicts is what money means for each spouse, and what connection they make between dollars and their dreams.

My wife is a saver. To her, money in the bank means security. Her dream is to be debt-free. Debt places her security in someone else’s hands. Being debt-free gives her more control over her life.

I’m a spender. To me, money is the key to having fun toys and enjoyable vacations. My dreams include owning the latest and best consumer technology, and long tropical vacations.

In the homes in which we grew up, our parents learned some hard financial lessons. Her parents accumulated heavy debts. When my father’s work hours were cut, he collected and redeemed soda-can deposits to buy food. We didn’t want to live like that.

Before we married, my wife and I agreed that one of our first tasks as newlyweds would be to pool our finances together and form a financial plan. For over 28 years our plan has allowed us to use every paycheck to set aside money for charitable giving, saving, paying our household expenses, vacations, and personal spending.

Related: Secrets of a Solid Marriage (Hint: It’s Not Sex)

We’ve seldom had conflicts over money. Our plan gives respect to what money means to both of us and has allowed us to fulfill many of our dreams.

If finances are a source of conflict in your relationship, consider taking these steps as a path towards financial peace in your marriage:

1.) Adopt a wealth perspective. One of the remarkable findings of The Normal Bar survey, conducted by Chrisanna Northrup and her colleagues, is that among the thousands of people surveyed, income was not correlated with relationship happiness for couples. The ratio of couples who were happy versus those that were unhappy stayed relatively stable whether their annual income was less than $20,000 or over $250,000.

One of the distinctions between happy and unhappy couples is their focus. Like wealthy people, happy couples tend to focus on what they have. That’s what I call the “wealth perspective.” Unhappy couples tend to have a scarcity mindset, focused on what they lack.

Related: Secrets of a Lasting Marriage

The more you appreciate what you have, the less you’ll focus on acquiring more. With this perspective, the less defensive you’ll be when discussing financial issues with your spouse.

2.) Share and listen to each other’s “money story.” Set aside time for you and your spouse to share and listen to what money means to each of you. Share what influence money had on your childhood. Share what money means to you as an adult. Then share what dreams you have for money in your future.

As you each listen to your spouse’s money story, do it with an attitude of curiosity. Ask questions to help you understand their point of view.

Avoid judgment. When my wife and I have conflicts over money, it’s because one of us says something that diminishes the value of the other’s dream. Saying things like “You don’t need that,” “That’s expensive. I can’t believe you’d spend that much,” or “We can’t afford that” will launch you into conflict.

Related: A Family’s Scariest Money Habit: Comparison

If a conflict arises, take a break. Lower the tension. Don’t return to this step until you both have cooled off.

3.) Develop a financial plan. Work together on a financial plan that prioritizes how you each view money and its role in achieving your dreams. To do this, you’ll need to first make an inventory of your nonnegotiable items, and where you can be flexible. Put this in writing and share it with each other.

When it comes to making a financial plan, Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University and Crown Financial Ministries are two programs that provide helpful tools.

Once you have your initial plan in place, every three to six months evaluate together how it’s working, and make adjustments as needed. As you evaluate and make adjustments, always give priority to what money means to each of you and to your dreams.

You’ll need to first make an inventory of your nonnegotiable items.

4.) Practice generosity. Worry about finances cultivates a scarcity mentality. This is opposite to the wealth perspective. Build a budget for charitable giving into your financial plan.

Generous giving doesn’t only benefit those who receive your gifts. Practicing generosity cultivates a wealth perspective, helping you appreciate what you have. Working together to help others can also add purpose and meaning to your marriage. This benefits your relationship and adds to your personal happiness.

Jon Beaty, counselor and father of two, lives near Portland, Oregon. He’s the author of the book “If You’re Not Growing, You’re Dying: 7 Habits for Thriving in Your Faith, Relationships and Work.”

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