Marriage counselors hear couples complain about all sorts of problems in their relationship. However, one of the big things that counselors say many partners struggle to get on the same page about is money.
When not addressed, financial problems in marriage can compound and ruin a relationship. So it is important for couples to learn how to manage finances in marriage to prevent fighting. After all, if you don’t deal with these money problems now, you could be headed toward a different money problem — an expensive divorce.
1. Not Talking About Money Before Marriage
One of the most common problems that licensed clinical social worker Lee McMichael said she sees among couples is a failure to discuss finances before getting married. “It’s an uncomfortable topic and people aren’t talking about it,” she said.
Often when couples are young and don’t have a lot of money yet, they don’t realize the importance of discussing their finances with each other. If they don’t get on the same page about where they stand financially and what goals they want to achieve, it will create problems in their marriage down the road, McMichael said.
Advice: Discuss Finances Before Saying 'I Do'
When McMichael meets with couples who haven’t talked about their finances, she starts by asking them to share with each other what their experiences with money were like when they were growing up. This helps them understand why their partners think about money the way they do.
Couples also need to discuss what their current financial situation is and what their goals are. This will help them understand what their partner wants, how it aligns or differs with what they want, and what they need to do create a financial plan that benefits both of them. If necessary, McMichael said couples should meet with a neutral third party such as a financial planner to help facilitate a conversation about their finances so they don’t break up in couple’s therapy over unresolved money matters.
2. Keeping Financial Secrets
Being secretive about finances is one of the top relationship problems that couples have, said Heather Garner, a licensed certified social worker and owner of Garnering Change Psychotherapy. “They often believe that they can resolve the issue on their own without their partner finding out and without having to tell their partner,” she said.
However, this approach can backfire. A GOBankingRates’ survey found that keeping money secrets is the biggest financial deal breaker among couples.
Advice: Be Open to Resolving Financial Problems Together
Garner said that when she works with people in couples therapy who are keeping money secrets, she helps them explore their resistance to being open and finds a way for them to talk to their partner about their finances. “After the other partner is brought in on the secret, I work with the couple to come up with a plan of resolving the financial crisis and then to repair the broken trust between the partners,” she said.
3. Financial Infidelity
It’s one thing not to be open with your partner about your finances — such as with the amount of student loan debt you have or past money mistakes you’ve made — but it can be an even bigger problem when a partner hides spending that’s related to inappropriate or illicit behavior such as gambling or an addiction.
Unfortunately, this is an issue that licensed professional counselor Rich Oswald has seen with clients in couples therapy. Not only can financial infidelity hurt trust among couples, but also it can ruin their finances if hidden spending gets out of hand.
Advice: Get Professional Help
To eliminate financial infidelity, the first thing couples need to do is be honest and open, Oswald said. But if an addiction is the root of a partner’s financial infidelity, that partner needs to seek treatment for the addiction, he said. In the meantime, the other partner might need to maintain a separate bank account to protect his or her finances from the lying partner’s destructive financial habits, Oswald said.
4. Arguments Over Spending Choices
As a family therapist and head of research for relationship counseling app Lasting, one of the most common money conflicts Liz Colizza hears from couples is how to spend money. The reason these conflicts arise is that people value things differently, she said. What one spouse might consider a good use of money, the other might consider being a waste.
Advice: Make Purchasing Decisions Together
To avoid conflicts over how to spend money, couples should do two things. First, they should attempt to understand why their partner wants to spend money on certain things. “Always remember to ask, lovingly: ‘Can you explain to me why you value this purchase?’” Colizza said.
Then, you can discuss together whether that purchase is good for your finances as a couple. “When you make financial decisions for the ‘we’ – is this purchase good for us? – your marriage’s health grows,” Colizza said.
5. One Partner Is Financially Savvy, the Other Is Not
Another common issue Garner said she sees during marital counseling sessions is one partner who is financially competent and one who is financially irresponsible. “This causes a significant amount of stress and conflict between the partners and often leads to resentment,” she said.
Advice: Get Financially Educated
Often, the partner who is struggling with money lacks a financial education, Garner said. But rather than encourage that partner to learn more about money on his or her own, Garner said couples should take a financial literacy class together so they both learn the same approach to managing money. “It also gives them the same language to use when discussing finances and also has them on the same page in terms of financial goals,” she said.
6. One Spouse Has More Control Over the Finances
When one spouse works and the other doesn’t — or one makes a lot more money than the other — it can create financial problems in a marriage, Garner said. “The disparity in incomes can often lead to feelings of inferiority or dependency in the nonemployed partner while the employed partner may experience feelings of superiority,” she said.
The spouse who is earning more or is the sole breadwinner tends to take control of the household budget by setting spending priorities and financial goals. The spouse who is earning less or nothing at all is left without a voice in the family’s finances.
Advice: Create a Budget Together
To avoid letting one spouse have complete control over family finances, couples should have a monthly budget meeting and act as joint and equal chief financial officers of the family’s finances, Garner said. “Developing a budget together that meets the needs of both parties is likely to reduce the feelings of inferiority,” she said.
That budget should include an equal amount of “pocket money” for each spouse to spend freely, Garner said. This will help prevent the nonworking spouse from feeling dependent on the other spouse. More importantly, though, couples should keep the lines of communication open about any disparity they see in their finances, Garner said.
7. Disagreements Over Supporting Adult Children
Older couples in relationship counseling often disagree about how much financial support to provide to their adult children or grandchildren, Garner said. “Often, differences in attitudes toward money that have been worked out throughout the relationship resurface when adult children or grandchildren request financial assistance,” she said. “One partner is often accused of giving the adult child too much aid and making them financially dependent, and the other is accused of not caring or being a skinflint.”
Advice: Decide Together on Financial Assistance Terms for Adult Children
Couples should review their budget together or meet with their financial planner to explore how much financial assistance they can provide to their adult children without it impacting their retirement funds, Garner said. If they agree to provide support for their adult children, they need to decide whether their assistance is a gift or loan. If it’s the latter, both partners should be clear about what the conditions of repayment will be and what the consequences of nonpayment would be, Garner said.
8. Avoiding Money Matters Altogether
Some couples can’t talk about any money matters without arguing. They disagree over who pays for what, how to spend money, how to save money, who controls the budget and so on. So to prevent the fighting, they stop talking about their finances altogether.
Advice: Take the Emotion Out of Money Matters
Couples who can’t talk about money without fighting can avoid getting so emotional by treating their family finances like a business, said Tina B. Tessina, a psychotherapist and author of “How to Be Happy Partners: Working It Out Together.” “Viewing your family dispassionately as a business doesn’t sound romantic, but if you can step back from your feelings long enough to view your relationship from this perspective, your financial situation will make more sense, money problems will be easier to solve, and you’ll be able to discuss financial decisions with less difficulty.”
To do this, approach money conversations with your partner as you would discuss a work issue with your boss or colleagues. “Even if your boss makes you angry, most likely you would use self-control at the office and blow off steam in private,” Tessina said. Then as you have a chance to think about the situation, you develop a better way of handling it and approach your boss with a solution.
“You can do the same thing with your spouse when you have a money problem,” Tessina said. “Instead of saying the first thing that occurs to you, such as criticism or blaming, stop and think of a response more likely to lead to a discussion of the problem, rather than an argument.”
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