Four of the most sensitive subjects in marriage are sexual intimacy, in-laws, parenting, and money. Ironically, it is the last one that is often the least talked about aspect of a relationship, but the one that causes many couples the greatest problems. In fact, a survey conducted by Citibank indicates that 57 percent of divorced couples said financial disputes were the primary reason they didn’t get along. Furthermore, a study of 2,000 men and women by Roper Starch Worldwide confirms that money, more than issues of sexuality, parenting, or in-laws, is the most common source of conflict for today’s married couples.
Such studies verify this observation made at the turn of the century by spiritual writer Oswald Chambers: “Money and marriage are the two things that make men and women devils or saints.” Here are 10 smart ways to avoid money conflicts and keep them from sabotaging your relationship.
1. Discuss financial issues openly and honestly.
Couples should make it a point to establish a common understanding about how money will be made, spent, and saved. In their book Getting Ready for Marriage, family therapists Jerry D. Hardin and Dianne C. Sloan recommend that couples answer the following money questions together in order to gain a common understanding concerning their financial life:
- Will you both work after the marriage? after children are born?
- Who managed the money at home (mother/father)?
- Who will manage your money?
- Do you plan to save money each month? How much?
- Do you plan to buy a house? How soon? How much will need to be put down?
- Do you have basic insurance: medical, homeowners, automobile? How much do you need?
- Are you a spender or a saver? What about your mate?
- How many credit cards are too many?
- Define “fun” money.
- Will you have separate or joint checking and savings accounts?
2. Know the money facts.
It’s surprising how many mates do not know how much money comes in and where it goes from month to month. Many conflicts can be avoided by simply taking the time to know the money facts in your family. Shelby White, author of What Every Woman Should Know About Her Husband’s Money, says: “Both partners should know how much money the other has or owes, how assets (stocks, etc.) are held, how much and what kinds of insurance.” White also advises both partners to: review the tax return (don’t just sign it); understand your entitlements under your partner’s retirement plan; know where the house deed, insurance plans, credit card account numbers and credit limits, as well as where other important financial papers, are kept. “The keys to a financially secure union are knowledge and participation, not control and abdication,” White says.
3. Be fair.
When there is an issue over money in your relationship, consider prayerfully the command of the apostle Paul: “Be devoted to one another…. Honor one another above yourselves” (Romans 12:10, NIV).*
One man became angry with his wife when she started working after years of staying at home. The source of his anger was not that she took a job, but that she considered her new income “fun money”. “I’ve supported my wife for years with my paycheck, yet her paycheck is only for her clothes or for courses she wants to take. My money is the family’s money. Her money is her money. It’s not fair.”
4. Keep it a team effort.
The optimal way to avoid money conflicts is for mates to make decisions together,-whether it is a monthly budget or issues pertaining to long-term planning. Remember to hold financial discussions at a time when you are both rested and relaxed. Too many couples deal with money only when tensions are already very high. Family financial challenges are met more effectively when neither one of you is stressed out.
5. Deal sensitively with conflicts.
Emotional issues connected to finances can be defused when couples are prepared to deal sensitively with a conflict. In her book Sex, Money, and Power, family therapist Linda Barbanel offers these general guidelines:
- Maintain receptive body language. Keep your arms unfolded, make nonthreatening eye contact, and don’t point in an accusing way.
- Try to describe feelings without using a loud, cold, or sarcastic tone of voice.
- Convey your observations about the situation and explain what makes you so upset. Make a point of sticking to neutral, factual statements rather than opinions.
- Do not pass judgment on your partner.
- Edit out assumptions before you speak.
- Stay away from emotionally charged terms such as disgusting, ridiculous, and always. These only fan the flames of anger.
- Avoid becoming defensive and don’t shut down emotionally when working through a money conflict.
6. Switch roles.
One middle-aged professional man was convinced his wife was too extravagant. “No matter how much money I place in the household allowance account, you always run short,” he accused angrily. “You have no idea what food costs as our family grows,” she shouted back. When they calmed down, he agreed to take on the weekly grocery shopping for the next month. His first shopping trip was enough to show the husband that his notion of how much it costs for groceries was at least 10 years behind. In their case, the role switching was enough to resolve their conflict and lay the foundation for talking about future financial issues from a healthier perspective.
7. Be reasonable.
Extend common courtesy to your partner. If you’re too loose, make an effort to show some discipline and restraint. If you’re too tight with money, make a concerted effort to loosen up. One woman, seeking counsel from a divorce attorney, complained: “Although my husband makes in excess of $100,000 per year, he has established such a tight family budget for me that I’m afraid of ordering a bagel when having lunch with a friend for fear of running over budget.” The lesson from her sad and unhealthy experience: never make your mate a beggar. Be sure your worldly goods are shared properly.
8. Learn from each other.
For Susan, a New York writer, money symbolizes security, and she likes to fatten the savings account regularly. However, for her husband, David, money symbolizes freedom, and he is a freewheeling spender.
“We have fought for years over finances, but now are trying to understand and learn from each other,” Susan says. “There’s much less tension between David and me because we’ve taken time to learn more about our families’ history with money.” When Susan was a small child, her father lost all his money because of poor financial judgment. “I now know that’s why I get upset with my husband’s propensity to buy things. On the other hand, I know David is reacting to his own parents, who were excessively meticulous and tight in financial matters. He’s beginning to convince me that if I like a dress, I don’t have to save up for it. I can go ahead and buy it. And I’m beginning to convince him that he’s not compromising his freedom by paying bills on time.”
9. Practice the diplomatic art of compromise.
Compromise means that one or both parties change some of their fiscal ways. Karen is in the habit of paying a credit card bill the day it comes in. Her husband, Kenneth, is annoyed, believing that waiting until the due date allows them to earn 30 days’ worth of interest on the money. Karen bristles each time they eat out and Kenneth leaves one of his lavish tips at the restaurant. The resolution to such frictions is compromise. Curtailing these habits, even slightly, will often smooth out financial rough edges in a relationship.
10. Don’t let old ideas get in the way.
Couples often operate the same way their parents did. Sound financial advice for one generation is not always smart for the next generation. For example, if your parents grew up during the Depression, they may have instilled overly cautious, conservative behavior in you. To correct an imbalance like that, together try to make decisions based on the facts and based on what is good for both of you now, not on what your parents would have done.
Finally, one of the most encouraging facts about money matters is that once couples begin talking about them, the issues are often downsized. Openness allows couples to resolve problems rather than stew about them.
* Texts credited to NIV are from the Holy Bible, New International Version. Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Bible Publishers.