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When couples disagree about money

There are few topics as important in a relationship as money. Disagreements about money consistently ranks as a top irritation for couples. It could be due to having opposing views about the role that money plays in your life, disagreements about what to spend money on, and how much to plan for the future.

If I had to guess, I’d say that 80% of couples aren’t on the same page when it comes to how they view and manage money. Although having different views doesn’t always lead to conflict, it certainly requires couples to talk about their differences and find an approach to managing money that works for both of them.

In my money conversations with couples, there are certain questions that predictably elicit different responses from each person. When I ask about their spending habits, one person usually says they have no expensive habits and the other admits they are a bit of a free-wheeling spender. When I ask whether they have an interest in learning about investing, almost always one person is nodding their head and one person is shaking their head, accompanied by some comment like “I have zero interest.” One person can be a future-thinker while the other is a “today” thinker. Some are okay with having a big mortgage and some hate having any kind of debt. Some want most of their money invested in the stock market while the other wants the safety of GICs.

There is no doubt that these differences can cause friction, and not just friction, but a host of big emotions like resentment, frustration, and worry. Since money plays a role in our lives almost every single day, there are frequent opportunities for these feelings to be triggered

I am obviously not a relationship therapist – nor am I a financial therapist. But I have talked to a lot of couples about money. As a bonus, I have personal experience: my partner and I are one of those couples whose views on and approaches to money are on very different planes. If you and your partner don’t agree on money stuff, you’re not alone. (You might enjoy this short podcast segment on Tightwads and Spendthrifts.)

If you’re searching for the silver bullet for your money disagreements, the truth is that you might never find it. Emotions around money mean that compromises are hard to find. Unless one person is willing to adjust – and sometime they are – it’s possible that neither person will be truly happy. Compromises might be needed with decisions about how to spend money on a day-to-day basis, whether to undertake a significant expense like a renovation, whether one person can “slow down” work wise and where to invest savings. These are all big decisions with big financial consequences.

There are, however, things you can do to alleviate the financial disagreements. Here are a few.

1.Do your best to understand the other person and their past experience with money. We all have a money story that was developed starting in our childhood. Factors like how much money your family had, whether you felt financial strain, and how your parents handled their relationship with money have a significant impact on the person you are today. Untangling your relationship with money is something that can take a lot of personal reflection, and understanding your partner’s money story might be even harder.

Ask each other questions about what their experience with money was growing up. I guarantee there will be lightbulbs going off in your head as you gain insight into why your partner feels the way they do.

2. Brainstorm. At times it seems that there can be no possible solution when you are on opposite ends of the spectrum. As you turn the problem over in your mind, you keep coming to the same conclusions. However, most problems have a solution and there’s usually more than one. Set aside some time, open your mind, and start talking. Throw out ideas. Explain your ideas and see where it takes you. You might find that your partner changes your mind about something or comes up with an idea you’d never thought of. At the very least, you will feel like you’ve had a good and honest conversation that opens the door to possibilities.

3. Find the best possible solution. In all likelihood, there will not be a perfect solution. Maybe neither of you will be totally satisfied with the choices you have to make – that’s often the outcome of compromise – but at least you will be on the same page and be pulling in the same direction. Having some financial independence of each other can also be helpful. For example, I have found that many young couples have their own chequing and savings accounts and credit cards. They have a joint account that they use for their shared expenses; each contributes their share to this account and are free to spend the rest of their money how they see fit. This doesn’t solve the problem around things like retirement planning or saving for a down payment, but for some couples, it’s a way to feel like each person has some control over their own money while compromising on other things.

Most of all, withhold judgement, apply empathy, and acknowledge that your approach to money isn’t better or worse than theirs – it’s just different.

Photo credit: Thomas Kinto on Unsplash


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