The tendency to let financial decision-making unfold in relationships without prior planning and communication leads money to be a top contender in couple conflict. All of us have beliefs about money that we bring into marriage, beliefs about how it is all going to work, but too often we do not articulate these beliefs to our partner. Our money beliefs are created, often subconsciously, with influence from our families, society, and gender-related expectations. Often, neither spouse knows what the other expects nor how his or her partner’s beliefs will mesh with his or her own. Hence, the struggle over money.
Each couple faces a unique financial situation, but every couple needs to create an emotionally safe and respectful communication space to understand each other’s perspectives and problem-solve effectively. Below are five strategies to limit financial conflict in your marriage.
1. Set a personal monthly budget. Beyond the typical family expenses (like rent/mortgage, healthcare, food, childcare, etc.), most partners also have individual interests or desires that require financial support. To avoid conflict about individual spending, many couples benefit from setting a personal monthly budget for each partner. Both partners must agree on the amount, say $500 per month, that can be spent (or saved) however each partner sees fit, without criticism or questioning by the other (assuming the spending is legal and consistent with your marriage vows).
The personal monthly budget covers expenses like clothing, coffee, lunches, happy hours, painting lessons, sports leagues, and club memberships. If you do not have anything you wish to spend your monthly allotment on, then you can save it and have more to spend in the upcoming months. With a sense of financial autonomy within the boundaries of the family’s finances, there is less need for judgmental comments like, "You joined another soccer league?" or "Do you really need another pair of shoes?"
“The personal monthly budget covers expenses like clothing, coffee, lunches, happy hours, painting lessons, sports leagues, and club memberships.”
2. Share common expenses. Much financial conflict in relationships can be eliminated with a mutual agreement about how you will share expenses. Many couples divide expenses based on their earned share of the family’s income. For example, if you earn 60% of the family’s income, you pay 60% of the family’s expenses.
However, this strategy can become more complicated for a few reasons. For instance, in dual income families where one partner is taking on a significantly greater proportion of the child care and household labor, leaving his or her partner with more free time, couples may want to consider this spouse as making an in-kind contribution to the family and apply a dollar value to the spouse’s time. After all, time has value. An example: if George and Gretchen each earn $50,000 per year, but Gretchen spends 10 hours per week more than George on shopping, cooking, and cleaning, the couple may want to consider reducing Gretchen’s share of the family expenses to, say, $43%, while George covers 57%. The goal is for both partners to feel as though they are sharing equally and that the division of labor is fair. Fairness leads to less resentment. Every couple’s shared financial situation is different, requiring open, honest, and regularly scheduled conversation.
Another area of potential conflict in sharing expenses is the reality of pre-relationship obligations such as child support, financial maintenance of a former spouse, and student loans or credit card debt. Spouses may feel it is fair to deduct these individual expenses from his or her income before apportioning the family expenses. Using George and Gretchen as examples: if both bring home $3,000 per month, but Gretchen has student loan debt of $650 per month, they may decide to divide the family expenses based upon George’s take home pay of $3,000 and Gretchen’s take home pay of $2,350. Therefore, George would pay 56% of the family expenses, and Gretchen would handle 44%. No doubt, this is an aspect of a couple’s relationship that is ripe for disagreement and for emotions to be triggered (sometimes on a monthly basis). To achieve fairness in your joint financial life, these complicating factors need to be a part of your monthly budget talks.
3. Remember: It’s your money too! It is common for partners to differ in their familiarity and comfort with handling financial matters. However, that does not give one partner a free pass to manage the finances as he or she wishes nor give the other partner an "out" from having to discuss or manage your finances. Couples in which one partner has most or all of the financial control risk falling into a parent-child dynamic around money matters, and this dynamic often leads to resentment. Resentment may develop from the "parent" partner feeling like the bad guy all the time or resenting the extra burden from carrying all of the financial responsibility. It may also develop from the "child" partner resenting his or her powerless position, even if that is what the "child" partner requested at some point in the relationship.
It is each partner’s responsibility to remain aware of and show an active interest in the financial health of the family and as individuals. If you feel unfamiliar with money matters, do not be afraid to learn. Take an online course, read financial books or news sites, visit a financial advisor, or simply ask your husband or wife to teach you more about a particular topic.
4. Manage resentment of pre-relationship obligations. Pre-relationship obligations are increasingly common in modern marriages. As I noted above, they might include student loans, child support, old credit card debt, alimony for a former spouse, and financial assistance for an elderly parent or another family member. A partner is almost always, or should be, aware of a spouse’s pre-relationship obligations prior to commitment or marriage, but that does not always prevent frustration from building around these expenses. It is helpful to view these expenses as legally required of your spouse and as part of the package you signed up for when committing to your partner.
“It is each partner’s responsibility to remain aware of and show an active interest in the financial health of the family and as individuals.”
For the spouse with the financial obligation, be open with your partner about these on-going expenses, and discuss how you wish to meet these responsibilities. Be mindful that griping or expressing frustration about these expenses may trigger your spouse to "pile on" with his or her thoughts and feelings about your past decisions and choices that created these obligations. Financial transparency is best, so be sure to inform your spouse to any changes in your monthly obligations.
5. Schedule weekly or monthly budget meetings. The best way to resolve financial conflict in a relationship is to maintain open communication regarding financial matters. This can be easily done by scheduling routine budget meetings, at least once a month with a specific agenda. Topics to consider for the meeting: necessary adjustments to the family budget, upcoming family or individual expenses, child-related expenses, upcoming large expenses (e.g., home refurbishment, vacation plans), and retirement savings.
Routine budget meetings allow both partners to stay on the same page and increase familiarity with the family’s expenses. It gives the couple an opportunity to discuss financial goals in an open, safe environment and reduce the need for conflict around unexpected expenses. Financial conflict is reduced and resolved by open communication, complete honesty, shared financial goals, and mutual responsibility.
Dr. Anne Brennan Malec is the founder of Symmetry Counseling, a counseling, coaching, and psychotherapy group practice in Chicago. Dr. Malec, who had an earlier career in business, made a significant shift in 2000 when she began her training in the fields of Marriage and Family Therapy. She is the author of "Marriage in Modern Life: Why It Works, When It Works." Dr. Malec earned her Bachelor’s degree from Villanova University in Accountancy and holds two Master’s degrees: one in Liberal Studies from DePaul University, and one in Marital and Family Therapy from Northwestern University. Dr. Malec earned her Doctoral degree in Clinical Psychology from the Chicago School of Professional Psychology. For more information visit www.drannemalec.com.