Are You and Your Partner the Perfect Financial Match — or a Disaster?
Family finances can cause relationship tension in unexpected ways. But teamwork is a game-changer, even if a couple’s financial philosophies are different.
- 41% of divorced Gen Xers and 29% of Boomers say they ended their marriage due to financial disagreements.
- While many couples rarely discuss their finances, a life-changing event is usually the catalyst to seeking counseling.
- Opening up can be the key to sharing financial fears and goals and reinvigorating a relationship.
When you say “I do” or move in together, you may imagine all the warm moments that come with starting a family: the holiday meals, weekend getaways, the movie nights at home. Few of us consider that we’re also launching a financial partnership too.
But if recent years have been any measure, the finances of any family are sure to experience highs and lows, unexpected windfalls and surprising job losses. It’s a lot to weather without a clear view of how you’ll react together in good times and bad.
Problems can occur in families with two well-off partners where, on paper, there should be little reason for concern. What does it take to clear the air? You won’t be surprised to hear that the answer starts with open communication; however, it also includes self-reflection as each partner unpacks disparate attitudes towards money that are established in childhood.
Here, experts share their best tips for opening up about money.
Allowance for childhood memories
“We each grow up with our own complicated relationship to money,” explains couples financial coach Adam Kol. Those experiences can range from a family that didn’t explain proper budgeting to traumatic situations with missed rent payments or food insecurity.
“Then you come together with another person to build a life, including a financial life, now it becomes exponentially more complicated,” says Kol. “That's without even touching on the commitments or obligations that either partner may have to parents, siblings and children.”
In a culture that still finds money a taboo topic, many issues between couples aren’t the result of needing money as much as stifled communication. Kol recently counseled a husband and wife in their late 30s, George and Brenda (names have been changed), who have two kids, with one heading off to college. George earns a better-than-average salary for where they live, while Brenda makes extra money from a part-time personal business. Though their house and investments give the family six figures of combined wealth, they’re also carrying well into five figures of credit card debt.
George wasn’t worried about the burgeoning obligation, spent freely and even wanted to take a new job that he’d love, yet would pay him less. But Brenda was so petrified by their credit card debt she couldn’t imagine spending money on anything non-essential.
“It took some real patience and persistence to get her to open up,” recalls Kol. “Her husband could tell she was feeling anxious. But without her sharing those wants and needs, and without him validating her experience of anxiety, there was a disconnect.” Eventually, Brenda went from saying she didn’t want anything to change to opening up and quickly envisioning six figures of things she’d like.
“Just because you know what you want doesn't mean you're going to get it,” explains Kol. “But at least that’s a place to start. They were both opening up about their fears and worries and their hopes and dreams. They were able to finally look at their actual financial data and decide, ‘Okay, given the hopes, dreams, fears and worries, given the current situation, how can we bring all of that together to make a plan that honors each of us?’”
Talking it out
While many couples rarely discuss their finances, Kol says a life-changing event — such as sending a child to college, moving into a new home or needing to care for a parent — usually inspires them to seek counseling. After an initial discussion, a financial coach categorizes couples into one of four types based on their communication style.
Emergency: The partners aren’t talking to each other about money, or if they are, the discussions are filled with tension or fighting. Each person doesn’t have much awareness about the other's financial situation, and they haven't shared their financial priorities and goals. There’s considerable potential for anxiety and resentment.
Avoidance: These couples may not not be fighting, but they're avoiding talking about money because they're worried it's going to be uncomfortable. They may have a vague sense of each other's income and expenses, as well as their goals and priorities, but they're not actively working together.
Partial Partners: They're somewhat in the know, but they don't know all the details of each other's financial lives and things aren't perfect. When they talk about money, it's probably still uncomfortable, but they're making progress.
Relationship Rockstars: People who are communicating regularly and working together on shared financial goals.
Most of Kol’s clients tend to fall into the Avoidance and Partial Partners categories. They realize something is wrong in their communication, but they aren’t sure how to improve it.
The person who initiated financial conversations often wants to blame the partner who shut down or got defensive. In reality, it's both of them. Because if you want to be with this person, it doesn't matter how you got there. It matters that you got there, and you need to work together to have a healthy, constructive relationship around money.
That’s why when Kol sits down with clients, he explores the couple's emotional attachments to their resources. “How does it feel when you talk about money? Do you know each other's income and expenses? What about debts and assets? Are you on the same page with your next big financial priority?” are typical questions.
While one partner often tries to blame the other for problems, Kol often sees responsibility on both sides. One person may try to talk about money, but they pivot away from being a teammate when the conversation doesn't go well.
“Next thing, you know, it's been years,” says Kol, “The person who initiated financial conversations often wants to blame the partner who shut down or got defensive. In reality, it's both of them. Because if you want to be with this person, it doesn't matter how you got there. It matters that you got there, and you need to work together to have a healthy, constructive relationship around money.”
Money as control
At their worst, financial challenges between couples may start with minor deception and finger-pointing and develop into psychological abuse.
Psychotherapist Joyce Marter has counseled patients in relationships where money represents power and control. If one person is financially literate and the other is not, then the one who is more comfortable making financial decisions tends to take over the budgeting and expenditures, she says, using it as a wedge to tamp down their spouse.
“It's far more common than people probably imagine,” notes Marter. Women, in particular, get cultural messages from an early age that they’re not good at math and, as a result, recoil from financial discussions.
One of Marter’s clients, a master’s degree-educated woman, had stepped back from a successful professional career to raise children. The husband came from a wealthy family and earned a huge salary.
“She had no idea what their budget was,” recalls Marter. “He would spend a tremendous amount on trips and things that were important to him and then tell her that he couldn't afford her gym membership.”
Marter worked with her patient on disempowerment issues and assertive communication. A couples counselor separately told the wife to consider leaving the marriage, and she eventually got a divorce. She’s since created her own business, which is enormously successful. She’s also become financially literate.
“She’s now dating people who value her for all that she is, and in retrospect, has realized she was in a really abusive situation,” says Marter, author of “The Financial Mindset Fix.”
Marter also pointed to another client, who grew up with family trauma — trauma her marriage was recreating. (Her husband made her take the bus to work while he drove a luxury SUV.) With the support of counseling, the client advocated for herself at work, got raises and started a personal bank account for her earnings, eventually securing a better job.
“She went back to her husband and said, ‘This is not working for me. If you care about me and our relationship, we need to have financial transparency and work as a team,’” recalls Marter. “He responded to that. They did some work together on their relationship and their financial planning and are now doing really well.”
In the end, says Kol, “there isn’t necessarily a right or wrong way to think about money.” For example, being a saver or a spender each has pros and cons. Savers may be doing the wise thing but not enjoy their money as much as they might, while spenders can get into trouble if they are careless with their money even as they enjoy what they’ve worked for.
The work to change shouldn’t be focused on what’s “bad,” he says, but how each person reacts in specific situations. Letting down guards and communicating can create a new sense of intimacy, teamwork and partnership that is a game-changer even if a couple’s financial situation is tenuous.
“Think about the difference when you feel like you're on your own, or you're going to fight with your partner,” says Kol. “I’ve seen that change transform relationships in a matter of moments, even if nothing has changed in their bank account. Because that frees them up, it lifts the weight off their shoulders, and it rekindles that enthusiasm, that love for working together with the person you've chosen to spend your life with.
Says Kol, “That's the whole point of you getting with somebody or why we get married because we saw a life that is better with this person than by ourselves.”
About the Author
Neil Gladstone is a writer in New York City. He's penned articles about tech, personal finance, health, entertainment, travel and food for publications such as The New York Times, GQ, New York Magazine, Thrillist and Travel & Leisure.