For Richer, For Poorer

Picture yourself having an intimate, satisfying conversation with your spouse.  What are you talking about and how do you feel while you are imagining the conversation? Now, picture yourself talking to your spouse about your finances.  Did you get the same warm glow?  Or do you find that like many couples your most hopeless and frustrating conversations are about money?  Younger’s 2012 study and other similar studies on sources of marital conflict, reveals that money is the topic most likely to lead to a couple’s most severe and frequent arguments.  It is such a potentially explosive source of marital distress that scientists know that couples that argue a lot about money are at very high risk for divorce.  Research tells us that most families do not know how to manage their money, despite being wealthy by world standards.  Polls of Americans show that 70% of us live from paycheck to paycheck, regardless of the level of income, and 46% of us have $10,000 or less saved for retirement.

What is it about money that makes it so difficult for marriages to manage?  The Bible has a lot to say about money.  It gets mentioned over 800 times, more than most topics.  The implication is that we must have a lot to learn about money.  Research on the correlation between the amount of money you make and your level of happiness shows that there is little correlation.  As long as someone does not live in abject poverty and can meet basic needs for food, shelter and clothing, then they can live well and enjoy life.  Making tons of money does not end up leading to tons of happiness, even though most people assume that they will be happier if only they could have more money.  So the problem for most marriages is not lack of money, but rather a lack of some combination of the following: financial skills, financial self-discipline, financial sharing and mutual agreement about the purpose of money in the marriage.  Money can also become the way in which marital conflict is expressed.

Many marriages suffer from lack of financial literacy.  Financial struggles repeat themselves because no one makes the time to learn the basic skills necessary to manage a checking account, create a budget, build a savings plan or follow a retirement plan.  Most couples spend much more time planning for their wedding than planning for their financial future.

Other marriages suffer from lack of financial self-discipline.   People buy things that are unneeded in order to avoid emotional distress, express revenge, socialize, feel special, feel wealthy, or feel powerful rather than do something constructive that would actually solve the problem.  Spending fails to follow a plan based on agreed- upon priorities and quickly gets everyone into trouble, usually with credit cards.  Lack of discipline with managing credit cards and checking account balances can also create conflict when no one takes the time to record what has been spent or notice how much money is left in an account or how much money is owed.

Some marriages never develop a comfortable way to share money.  Often the spouse who makes more money feels entitled to spend more money or make decisions about how money is spent, using the justification of working harder as entitlement to these privileges.  Sometimes the main breadwinner underestimates the real expenses needed for a homemaker to run the household and becomes inappropriately stingy.  Problems can also occur when couples fail to legitimize the financial priorities of their spouse and do not allow for individual differences in spending priorities.  For example, a husband may consider having a high quality piece of sports equipment to be a spending priority while his wife considers a high quality line of facial creams to be of similar priority.  Unless both parties can agree when and how these priorities can be addressed, there will be conflict if spending for one person makes it impossible to spend for the other.

Inability to agree upon the purpose of money in the marriage can create conflict.  Properly used, money is a tool that can be used to care for basic needs such as food, clothing and shelter and to care for the needs of others through tithing, charitable giving and taxes.  Money can also be used to achieve other emotional and social goals that the couple must agree upon.  Anxiety about lack of resources may make it hard for some spouses to accept spending for any purpose other than paying bills and saving money.  If someone equates spending with achieving social status, then they will be unhappy any time their spouse is disinterested in acquiring material wealth, e.g. someone wants an expensive prestige car and the other spouse wants an inexpensive used car that gets good gas mileage.

 Money can also become the vehicle for expressing the conflict in the marriage.  Often when this happens, one person inappropriately controls the money while the other spouse is prevented from having full access.  Spouses may hide money, hide spending habits and fail to consult each other about important purchases.  Angry resentful spouses may fail to spend money on their partner, or prevent their partner from making necessary purchases, by showing their partner with this behavior that they are “worthless.”  Spouses who feel unloved and unrecognized in the marriage may also spend in secret in order to claim their worth.  Instead of money becoming the tool to achieve important mutual goals, it becomes the weapon of choice for a broken marriage.

Here are some suggestions to help you improve your marital financial skills:

  1. Make sure that you, and your spouse, develop financial literacy. Learn how to manage your checkbook, read your bank statements, how to pay your taxes and how to manage your savings and retirement money.  Just because you do not like dealing with math and numbers does not mean you cannot learn the basic concepts.  Let your computer do the math for you.  Take a class at your local community college or read some books or magazines on personal finance.  You cannot afford to avoid this challenge.
  1. Be honest with yourself and your spouse about your spending habits. If you do “retail therapy” or “revenge shopping,” then you have a problem, no matter what your friends tell you.  If you have ever hidden a purchase, or been slow to reveal a purchase, then you are undermining your marriage.  Consider giving up your credit card(s) or debit card so that you can use cash only to help you curb your spending.
  1. Figure out what money you have to spend each month and what expenses you have to pay each month. Prioritize what you both want to do with your money, then make a plan that you both agree to follow that fits in with what you make and what you have to spend on expenses.  This is called building a budget.  No business or government would function without one; neither can your marriage!
  1. If you recognize that you have predictable arguments, fights, or problems managing money, dare to get help from a financial advisor and/or a counselor. Most people are more reluctant to talk about money than they are about sex.  Many couples feel so ashamed of their financial difficulties that they do not reveal them to their pastor or friends.  Don’t let shame keep you from getting the help that you need.
  1. Practice talking to your spouse about money. Start by answering these questions to help you understand each other:
    1. If I had a million dollars, what would I spend it on?
    2. How much money do you think we need to have when we retire?
    3. Do you believe that we should help our children pay for their education after high school?
    4. What purchases besides food, clothing and shelter do you consider essential?
    5. Do you know how to balance your checkbook? Read a bank statement? Read a quarterly IRA statement? What an investment account is?
    6. How much money do you think we should save each month?
    7. How do you feel about tithing? Did you tithe before we got married?
    8. Have you ever made purchases that you regretted? Why?
    9. Are there any things I buy that bother you? Why?
    10. Have you ever bounced a check?
    11. What do you think we should each do if one of us loses our job? Cannot work?
  1. Consider building a certain amount of personal discretionary funds into your budget for each of you to spend without having to explain to the other. For example, each of you may spend up to $20 per week (or $100 per month) on any activity or purchase that is not a necessary expense, such as a pedicure, dinner out with a friend, or gourmet coffee drinks.  This allows each person the opportunity to feel trusted and in control of personal spending without having to justify the expense to their partner.
  1. When you both have separate incomes, consider having two separate checking accounts in both of your names. Split up the bills according to relative income and share the bill paying and savings responsibilities so that the burden does not always fall upon one spouse.
  1. Always take advantage of any employer-matched retirement savings plan, no matter what your income or outstanding debt may be.

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