Money can be a tense subject for couples, with topics such as debt, credit history and attitudes toward handling finances liable to lead to heated arguments. Spouses, who have promised to love and cherish each other, can turn into judgmental and cruel critics when their financial philosophies collide.
Still, “most couples feel they are on the same page,” says Lorna Kapusta, vice president of women investors at financial firm Fidelity.
The 2018 Fidelity Couples & Money Study, which surveyed 1,662 married or cohabiting couples, found that 76 percent of those who weren’t concerned about debt said they communicate exceptionally or very well about money matters. Among those who do feel concerned about debt in their relationship, 57 percent say they have no trouble communicating.
However, those numbers may not paint the full picture. “When you actually pull back the curtains, what you reveal is there are some discrepancies,” Kapusta says. For instance, 49 percent of couples have no idea how much to save to maintain their current lifestyle in retirement. A third of couples disagree about sharing their passwords to online financial accounts, and nearly half of couples who entered into a marriage with debt contradict each other when asked whose responsibility it is to pay it off.
Before letting major money talks drive a wedge in your marriage, try these strategies to prevent conflict later.
Commit to transparency. Being honest and open is a crucial first step toward creating harmony in a relationship. “It’s hard to build financially if [couples] don’t have full disclosure,” says Kathe Meade, president and retirement consultant at Meade Wheeler Financial Group in Jackson, Michigan.
To achieve full disclosure, couples need to share details about debt, credit scores and spending habits. Only then, after a productive discussion, will they be able to clearly evaluate their financial situation and make plans for the future.
Share your goals. Financial goal setting is also essential to creating a happy marriage. “When I talk about goals, I’m not talking about money,” Kapusta says. Instead, couples need to consider what they want their everyday life to look like and what they hope to achieve in the future, she says.
While money needs to be part of the discussion, it’s more important for spouses to have an understanding of their plans – whether they involve providing a college education for their children or traveling in retirement – before assessing how to make shared goals a reality.
Understand your significant other’s backstory. When it comes to finances, fewer things are more important than knowing a spouse’s history. People raised in wealth may have a vastly different approach to money compared with those who faced poverty as children. Without understanding what motivates each other about money, spouses have little hope of finding middle ground.
“Usually what’s embedded in the battle is that one person wants it now and [the other person] is worried they will always be destitute,” says Joe Heider, president of Cirrus Wealth Management in Cleveland. Those wants and fears won’t make sense without knowing and respecting a spouse’s previous experiences with money.
Put your spending plan in writing. Heider says it’s not unusual for someone who likes to spend money to marry someone who is a saver. Such an arrangement can even be beneficial if a saver helps a spender rein in impulse purchases, or a spouse who likes to buy helps their more frugal half enjoy money more.
However, it can also cause resentments if spouses feel they are being constrained. Having a written spending plan or clear-cut budget figures may eliminate some of that friction. “The person who is more of the free spender can see there is not the amount of money they thought they had,” Heider says.
Pay down your debt. The 2018 Fidelity study found that people who are concerned about debt are more likely to say money is their biggest relationship challenge and argue about finances. Beyond that, “I think credit card debt is something spouses aren’t always honest about,” Meade says. One spouse may get a credit card and keep his or her spending secret, a habit that can lead to distrust and unhappiness in a marriage.
Avoiding debt can eliminate the source of some money arguments. Without debt, it may be easier to balance the budget, achieve shared goals and reach a consensus on spending versus saving.
Schedule regular checkups. Finding financial bliss with a spouse isn’t possible with a single conversation. Instead, it is a series of discussions and reviews to ensure that both parties remain on the same page. “Just as you get a health checkup every year, you should get a financial checkup,” Meade says.
Some couples might meet with a financial advisor on an annual basis. Others schedule regular date nights in which they review the household budget and adjust goals as needed. “It’s really nice to do it with a glass of wine,” Kapusta says, “[but] don’t have two or three because money can get emotional.” Excessive alcohol combined with heated emotions won’t make for a productive discussion for either spouse.
Get professional help if needed. Sometimes spouses aren’t able to successfully navigate money matters on their own. Regardless of whether the disagreements are due to diverging money opinions or deep emotions, it might make sense to bring in a finance professional who can act as an objective third party during the conversation.
Kapusta says you don’t need a lot of money to see an advisor. “There is financial help for everyone,” she says. If you don’t know where to look, she recommends starting with the provider of your workplace 401(k) plan if you have one. Though not offered by all companies, many plans provide access to a financial advisor or similar service as an employment perk.
Many couples struggle to address the issue of money in their marriage. But with honesty, a realistic spending plan and a commitment to continued communication, finances don’t have to cause stress in a relationship.