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Making money and marriage work together

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Catherine W. Idzerda
Thursday, October 16, 2008

She rounds up when she’s balancing the checking account.

He balances his checking account to the penny.

They make each other nuts.

While she’s tucking away money for the kids’ education, he buys a boat without consulting her.

She’s ready to kill him, and he doesn’t know what the big deal is.

Money might be the root of all evil, but money management is the root of some of the nastiest marital spats on record and a factor in many divorces.

Why can’t two adults—who otherwise get along—manage to talk sensibly of money? What’s the big deal about rounding up? And if the boat was on sale, wasn’t that a wise decision?

Well, here’s the problem: Money issues aren’t all about math. They aren’t about the ability to balance your checkbook or calculate interest.

Money issues are about emotions.

Family values

“You know what they say,” said Rod Benstead, executive director of Consumer Credit Counseling. “‘When love and money meet, the past is always present.’”

How your parents used their money will determine much of your response to money. If they were cautiously giving or generous to excess, if they were sensibly frugal or ridiculously cheap, if they were comfortable with debt or anxious about borrowing—all that will influence your habits.

Now add marriage.

“Anytime you bring two people together they’re going to have different ideas about what money should do and how it should work,” Benstead said.

Spending habits don’t divide neatly along gender lines, either. Stereotypes tend to suggest that women go on “shopping sprees” when they’ve had a bad day or want to treat themselves.

But men do it, too, Benstead said. They might buy items such as tickets to sporting events, the most expensive chain saw on the market or a ridiculously large television and justify it by saying, “I work hard so I deserve this.”

“What you’ll find is that there are savers and there are spenders,” Benstead said.

Buying shoes or a big-screen television isn’t necessarily a bad choice. But if you have to sneak your purchase into the house because you know your spouse will be mad or buy an expensive item when you can’t afford this month’s rent or mortgage payment, then there’s a problem.

In a recent New York Times article, psychologists identified a series of problem financial behaviors including overspending, underspending, serial borrowing and financial infidelity—spending money and lying to your spouse about it.

Did you need that?

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist—or a family therapist—to tell us that money can cause marital problems.

But a family therapist can help unravel the emotional and financial mess.

Here’s what you need to know first:

“Any topic like money is going to be emotionally charged,” said Dr. Candi Vincent, a psychologist with Mercy Options in Janesville.

A rational conversation goes awry when one party gets defensive. Words are exchanged. Shouting ensues.

To avoid that scene, consider:

-- Looking at your own money management style first.

Are you hiding your spending from your spouse? Do you rush home to get the credit card bill before your partner gets home?

“If you’re hiding something, it becomes an issue in the marriage,” said Vincent. “In general, if you’re hiding something, it means you can’t communicate with your partner.”

Sure, you don’t want your spouse to blow a gasket, but financial secrets don’t have any place in a marriage.

Or do you spend money when you’re resentful about something your spouse said, did or failed to do?

-- Having a conversation about money before it becomes an issue.

“Don’t plan to talk about money when you’re tired or have had a hard day,” said Benstead. “Make sure you’re belly is full, the kids are in bed and the television is off.”

Vincent agreed, adding that such talks bound to trigger touchy feelings.

Yes, everyone’s busy, but these are conversations that couples need to have, Vincent said. Schedule them, if necessary.

If the initial discussion is confusing or hostile, set it aside and try again later.

Consider laying out the facts without the emotion.

“One thing that helps is know how the cash is flowing in and flowing out,” Benstead said.

When does each member of the couple get paid? When are the bills due?

-- Remembering the ground rules of communication.

Express how you feel without blaming anybody. Be specific. Don’t make fun or your in-laws.

Listen while the other person is speaking—instead of pretending to listen while you’re actually preparing your counter attack.

And remember: Practice makes perfect.

Men, especially, often find it difficult to communicate their feelings.

“Be patient with yourself and you’ll improve,” Vincent said. “Eventually, it won’t feel so awkward.”

A marathon session isn’t a good idea, either.

“You don’t have to solve all of the problems in one conversation,” Vincent said.

-- Creating your own plan—despite your differences.

What are your financial goals, individually and as a couple?

“It’s communication, it’s just talking to each other about what your hopes and dreams are,” said Benstead.

Just because you don’t share the same style of financial management, doesn’t mean you can’t find a compromises.

“It’s less about what is right and more about what is different,” said Jennifer Fruin, a counselor with Family Services.

So it’s OK to disagree:

“You might still disagree, but both people’s needs should be taken into account,” Vincent said.

A system that involves his, hers and ours usually works best, Vincent said.

Managing your money is part of being a grown up, and it can help you feel in control of your life.

Even with the his-hers-ours division, couples still have to be open and honest about their finances.

Last updated: 10:42 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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