If you gathered up every list of “Things Couples Most Often Argue About,” money would be on every single one. A poll done by Money magazine found that 70 percent of couples argue about money above many other stressors. And the rate is even higher among younger couples with children. As a couples therapist, I can tell you that money is a very real problem in relationships.
Money is complicated—in part because it’s so simple. If you think of money strictly in terms of math, it’s actually pretty easy to wrap your head around. But money isn’t just math. It’s loaded with meaning informed by history, context, desire, and energy, as well as fear, ignorance, insecurity, and compulsion.
Early in my own marriage, my wife and I had to have some complicated conversations about what the meaning and purpose of money actually was for us.
When I was growing up in southwest Virginia in the eighties and nineties, money was scarce. My mom was a teacher, making teacher money. I couldn’t even tell you what my dad did for a living. He bounced around meaningful but short-stinted jobs most of my childhood. I began working in middle school and have earned my own money ever since. When I was in high school, after a run of particularly bad luck (and bad choices), my parents declared bankruptcy.
My wife’s story is totally different. She grew up just outside of New York City in one of the country’s most affluent communities. She wore fancy clothes and belonged to a fancy country club. Her family traveled to tropical resorts for spring break and Colorado chalets in the winter. She graduated from college without any student debt and didn’t start working until she was in her twenties.
As my wife and I learned firsthand, conversations about money are challenging when one partner comes from a place of scarcity and the other comes from a place of surplus. We realized that despite our different backgrounds, we both have a complicated relationship with money. When money means “security” to one person and “freedom” to another, deciding how to handle finances together can be a challenge.
As painful as it may be, addressing money matters in a healthy and constructive way will minimize anxiety and hopefully shorten that list of things you and your spouse argue about. Here are three steps to addressing money in your marriage and doing it right.
01. Address your assumptions.
The very first step in getting ahead of money conflict is to address your preconceptions and assumptions. You may not even know you have them until you take that intentional step. Take a moment to actually write down some ideas about money. Seriously, write them down. I bet you’re surprised by what you discover.
An intentional reflection on your assumptions will start at home. What was the role of money in your home? What did it mean? Who had it? What did they do with it? How did your family’s financial status compare to your community? What was that like? How do you feel about debt? Get curious about where your ideas about money actually come from. Knowing the roots of your theories and impulses about money can help you be proactive about where you’re headed. It can also help you see how your partner’s answers to these questions might be different from your own.
02. Be proactive rather than reactive.
Couples who are successful at money conversation have a strong sense of where they came from. They also have a strong sense of where they’re going. What do you want the role of money to be in your home? What do you want money to mean? What decisions do you need to make or what systems do you need to put into place to help make those ideas become reality?
The best way to diminish the stress and strain of money is to understand your future goals and dreams and plan proactively to achieve them. You can do this even from a place of scarcity. It’s never too early to hire a financial adviser, start saving, or start giving.
Personally, I can tell you the one thing that diminished our anxiety about money was choosing to give a specific portion of it away. When we decided the meaning of money was to serve others, it had a lot less power over us. Choosing a forward-thinking attitude governed by hope more than fear and generosity more than greed will go a long way toward crafting your financial future, especially if you suspect that an actual conversation with your partner will be tough.
03. Have the conversation.
I think you should assume, at least initially, that money conversations will be awkward and tense and confusing and emotionally loaded. The reason is that these conversations are rarely really about money. They’re about fear, control, hope, dreams, trust, commitment, and generosity, or lack thereof. But it’s critical that you not let that deter you from actually talking . . . especially if you’ve already done the first two steps.
If you want to avoid conflict about money, you need to be having conversations on purpose. Yes, you should talk about your budget, and you should be tracking your spending. But you need to be talking about the much bigger picture, too. Comparing notes about your assumptions, sharing your dreams, making plans—these conversations will help you solidify your stance and will make budgeting and tracking easier. By having intentional conversations that consider both the math and the meaning of money, you can get ahead of some of the ways money sneaks up on you.
My wife and I came from very different places money-wise. We had to do a lot of work to find a happy medium. But money conversations are among some of the most fun that we have. It’s tempting to talk about problems, but we choose to dream about solutions instead. We’ve also had lots of practice and have been through enough seasons to know that thinking and talking about money is a long-term game. Be patient. Just like anything else worth investing in, it takes time to realize a return, but it’s worth it.