Money doesn’t just talk ― sometimes, it hollers and stomps its feet. Finances pretty much top the list of things couples fight about.
What makes money such a raw topic, and how can you fight less about it? We asked experts for their thoughts.
Understand that money arguments aren’t really about money.
You only think you’re squabbling over your credit card bill, said Syble Solomon, a financial behaviorist and creator of the interactive tool Money Habitudes. You’re actually fighting about what money “emotionally represents: love, security, power, control, status, acceptance, etc.”
“Until people understand that, it is very difficult to resolve issues,” she said.
While one person may see money as the freedom to do what they want ― say, to go out to dinner tonight ― their partner may want to stick to a budget because they think of money as a way to achieve future goals.
The solution in such disputes is to dig a little deeper and figure out the underlying issues. Set mutual goals for your finances and determine the best route to reaching them.
Use your indoor voice.
Start by having open, honest conversations when there isn’t a crisis, Solomon said ― which includes finding a time when neither party feels hungry, tired or in any way out of sorts.
She created a game that serves as an ice-breaker to these conversations. Money Habitudes presents players with 54 different statements about money (for example: “When I go shopping, I have to buy something” or “I will spend a lot of time and energy to get a better deal”). The player decides whether he or she agrees or disagrees with each statement by sorting the cards into three piles: that’s me; sometimes, it depends; and that’s not me.
The pattern of answers can be a starting point for a constructive conversation about money, financial beliefs, and how those beliefs affect their lives and their relationships, Solomon said.
Seventy-three percent of people say their partner is their “financial opposite,” according to an Ameriprise Financial study. Still, they have chosen to build a life with that person. Keep in mind that you really do want to be with your partner who thinks differently than you, and keep the yelling in check.
The higher earner in a relationship generally feels entitled to dictate spending. And shouldn’t.
Marriage is a joint venture, unless you have prenuptially stated otherwise.
In every relationship, one person outearns the other. Yet both partners contribute to the relationship in different ways, Solomon said. One may generate more income, but the other is the primary caregiver of offspring or older relatives. One may work, but the other attends school to get an advanced degree and, ultimately, a better-paying job.
Using money to control your spouse can seriously damage your relationship. It can help to set a specific dollar amount for each partner’s discretionary spending, or to agree that you’ll discuss any purchase over a pre-agreed limit, Solomon said. The goal is to diminish the idea that one partner controls the other.
Disagreements don’t mean your relationship is suddenly on the line, said Gary John Bishop, a personal development expert and author of Unfu*k Yourself: Get Out of Your Head and Into Your Life.
“Structured in the right way, shared in the right way, talking about your fears, upsets and frustrations over finances can bring you closer as a couple,” he said.
Too many people go straight to the nuclear button, which accomplishes little except hurting the relationship.
The secret to great money conversations? “Talk about yourself. Talk about your hang-ups, your resentments, your failings, your fears, your concerns, your broken promises and bullshit,” Bishop said. “Who knows, maybe this responsibility thing might catch fire and you’ll finally get that breakthrough you’ve been after all these years.”
“It’s balancing control and letting go — both are important,” she said. “When one person is too controlling the other will, subconsciously, spend more freely.”
Own your own garbage, and stay empathetic.
Stop blaming and start taking responsibility.
“Own your upsets, own your broken promises and emotional purchases,” Bishop said. “Open up to each other about what intimidates, frustrates and constrains you around the subject of money. Make the effort to get what this subject is like for the other person all the while giving up the need to blame or make wrong.”
The reason why conversations about money end in raging arguments or stony, resentment-hoarding silences is simple, according to Bishop: “Survival. When it comes to money, or the lack thereof, we all too quickly descend into our most base, fight-or-flight selves.”
This is why you may find yourself “feverishly blistering your way through the credit card bill or Amazon account to see who the biggest sinner was, quietly justifying that completely necessary pizza bathed in a lake of extra cheese that you bought that hungover Sunday morning,” he said.
Don’t assume that practical is synonymous with adult.
Adults know how to have fun, too. Every relationship has one person who is more practical than the other ― and nowhere is it written that being practical always trumps having fun, Solomon said.
“Often the point of conflict is where couples actually balance each other. The partner brings something they actually want to grow or limit in themselves,” she said.
Don’t lose sight of that.
Know the difference between an argument and a fight.
A fight is about each person trying to dominate the other to win, said Jay Heinrichs, a rhetoric professor and best-selling author of Thank You For Arguing. The goal of an argument is to win over the other person and get them to agree with you happily. In a relationship, it’s better to argue ― even if it isn’t easy.
“The first goal should be keeping the relationship intact,” Heinrichs said. “A divorce usually isn’t good for finances. So it’s best to start out by saying, ‘I love you. Even when I think you’re wrong, remember that I love you.’”
Try to keep the argument away from blame for what happened in the past, or “proof” that the other person is a spendthrift or an idiot. Focus on solutions, not blame.
A rule of thumb: Switch to the future tense, such as, “I get why you’re angry about what I did, but let’s talk about how we’re going to deal with this credit card debt.”
Remember: The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago ― and the next best time is right now.
Everyone would like to be more comfortable with how to handle money. Bishop said making massive changes in financial habits can mean you “quickly find yourself blown away by the kind of life-changing commitment it takes to make them happen.”
Instead, he suggested making simple promises that you can deliver on and develop over time. And don’t forget to let go of the frustrations.