After a long day of work and taking care of your kids, you’re exhausted and just want to relax. So you order takeout instead of cooking. Then your partner turns up and, upon learning of your plan, makes a snarky remark about the futility of working all day only to blow it all on dinner. An argument ensues, ruining your appetite, leaving your entire family depressed, and wondering, once again, how to stop fighting over money.
Sadly, scenes like these occur daily and sometimes trigger people to contact me for financial planning. But I have noticed that when couples fight about money, the arguments are rarely about financial matters alone. Instead, they stem from each person’s worries and fears, which often go unaddressed until they become a problem. So, in the following post, I’d like to explain why this happens and what you can do about it.
Why Do Couples Fight Over Money?
When discussing personal finances with couples, their balance sheet is only one piece of the puzzle. To help, I need to understand who they are and how they make financial decisions. Therefore, these conversations can get intense, revealing a lot about why so many couples find themselves arguing about money. I have learned that these struggles are typically the result of profound differences in personality styles, family histories, and capacity for risk.
Making decisions about how to spend money is tricky. But when you must collaborate with someone you love, it can sometimes become downright impossible because different personalities can clash, especially when emotions outweigh practicality and the stakes are high.
For example, consider the financial goal of retirement. In your early 30s, preparing for retirement requires little more than a monthly savings plan. This simple step is hugely impactful, yet many are slow to get on board because retirement seems a long way off, and other concerns are more pressing.
But not everyone feels that way, and for couples, this is the type of situation that creates conflict. How can you find common ground when one person is a planner, and the other prefers to live in the moment or simply lacks the patience or interest to focus on your finances?
The culture you grow up in and your family of origin dramatically influence your thoughts, attitudes, and beliefs about money. And it doesn’t matter if you embraced or rejected your childhood teachings; you received the messages and buried them in your subconscious. Those messages affect your perspective on life and how you think, feel, and act in various conditions.
For instance, if you grew up in a poor household and lived in fear of being evicted, you will have a different financial perspective than someone from an affluent family. Depending on how your parents handled the situation and your unique personality, you may have unresolved feelings of vulnerability that continue to influence your relationship with and choices about money.
Capacity for Risk
When most people think of risk tolerance in the context of finances, they focus on how your time horizon should affect the asset mix in your portfolio. But in my view, it goes deeper than that, especially when making financial decisions as a couple. Each person will have a unique set of stressors and circumstances that will affect their ability to tolerate risk, even (or perhaps especially) partners with a shared history.
For example, imagine a couple in their 40’s with two kids, two pets, and a mortgage, living in hurricane country. They have built some wealth, but most of it is in their retirement accounts and home, so depending on each person’s perspective and underlying fears, this life they have created may feel precarious. Heated debates might occur about how much insurance they need or whether to invest in hurricane shutters, but these disputes aren’t just about money; they might also be about each person’s desire to feel safe.
How Do Financial Arguments Affect Relationships?
I see all types of families in my practice – unmarried and married couples, blended families, late-in-life marriages, you name it. And many of them argue about money, so I get to help unravel a new challenge daily.
For instance, what would you do if you made a modest income, had no debt aside from a mortgage, and fell in love (and wanted to marry) someone with significant debt? Or, maybe, you are wealthy and want to marry someone who is not.
The sensible thing would be to speak with your future spouse about money and decide together what to do about the situation to set expectations and avoid resentment. Yet, people in the honeymoon phase of their relationship often avoid these conversations, then find themselves at odds later.
Money issues like this become a sore spot that can lead to destructive behavior. Some people hide their spending, secretly racking up credit card debt until it becomes overwhelming. Others tell lies to stop fighting about money, such as neglecting to mention that they ate out for lunch (to avoid spending time packing one as agreed).
Unfortunately, such behaviors chip away at the foundation of the relationship, potentially:
- Eroding trust
- Creating resentment
- Diminishing the couple’s sense of intimacy
- Negatively impacting your wealth
They could also lead to divorce, which leaves you in a weaker financial position. Ironically, this is what you were trying to avoid every time you picked a fight. So, it is in your best interest to learn how to stop fighting over money, if only to prevent realizing your worst fears.
So, what can you do?
How to Talk to Your Partner About Money Without Fighting
When dealing with any relationship problem, compassion and communication are essential. You must understand and empathize with where your partner is coming from, from a balance sheet perspective and, most importantly, emotionally. Only then can you work to come up with creative, mutually satisfying solutions. That means listening more than talking and framing grievances using “I statements” (explaining how your partner’s behavior makes you feel vs. accusing them of wrongdoing).
From this perspective, below are some steps you can take to talk about money without fighting.
1. Develop an Understanding of Your Partner’s Financial History
If you and your partner come from different backgrounds, explore the effects of their childhood environment on their thoughts, feelings, and approach to money. Then, once you understand their perspective, gently challenge their thinking as it pertains to your life today.
Avoid blindsiding your partner with this discussion. Instead, tell them you would like to understand the financial circumstances they experienced and how that affects them so you can be a more supportive partner. Then, ask what their life was like growing up with questions like the following:
- Did your family talk about money openly?
- How did you feel about money when you were a child based on the implicit and explicit messaging you received?
- Did you ever feel vulnerable or powerful due to your financial situation?
- What was your financial life like when you were a young adult? For instance, did your parents pay for college, or did you work your way through?
2. Discuss Your Life Goals
Talk about your hopes and dreams for the future to identify and address any disconnects. You would be surprised how many couples fail to do this when a lack of shared long-term goals can lead to disagreements.
Discuss what you want in 5, 15, or 30 years. Where would you like to live, and are kids in the picture? Do you want to travel or stay close to home? Are you hoping to retire, and how do you want to spend your retirement?
These discussions are critical because they help you establish shared values and priorities, making the intangible tangible. For example, remember the couple I mentioned where one was a planner while the other lived for the moment? If they were to have an honest discussion about what they each want from life, it might make the necessity of saving for the future easier to grasp.
3. Translate Your Life Goals into Financial Priorities
After clarifying your life goals, explore what you need to do financially to achieve them. The emphasis of these discussions will depend on your timeframe.
For example, if you are 30 and want to buy a house, you might decide to improve your credit by buying down your student loans or paying off high-interest credit cards. The tricky part will be balancing these immediate goals with saving for retirement, to invest in happiness and your future simultaneously.
If you are 50, however, the conversation will be different. You might start to wonder when you will have enough savings to stop working. Unfortunately, many crave yet fear this idea, citing concerns of becoming homeless or a “bag lady.” This worry can become a source of financial stress and friction, especially when one person is eager to retire and the other is not.
4. Create a Financial Plan
Of course, it’s not enough to talk about things, then slip back into your old habits. Instead, document your life goals and how you plan to adjust your finances so you can make your dreams a reality.
You can do it yourself (using a spreadsheet or whatever works for you) or hire a holistic financial planner. A financial planner will ask many of the same questions I suggested you discuss with your partner. Then they will use specialized software to forecast your financial future before making recommendations.
Involving a professional will help you spot holes in your thinking and anticipate obstacles. And some people find that an objective third party can make their conversations more productive and less likely to become arguments.
5. Track Your Progress and Conduct Regular Check-In Meetings
Once you have a plan, adopt a personal finance solution where you can track your assets and liabilities in one place. Be sure to capture everything that contributes to your financial profile. That includes your retirement, investment, and bank accounts, as well as your credit cards, loans, and any assets. Such solutions allow you to build a personal balance sheet so you always know where things stand.
Both you and your partner should have access to this solution and keep it updated. Then, schedule a time to check in periodically to review your spending habits compared to your financial plan. Such transparency can build trust and accountability while allowing you to fix problems before they get out of control. It is also an opportunity to have a little fun revisiting your dreams and noticing how far you have come.
The Bottom Line
Learning how to stop fighting about money is not easy, but if you want a lasting relationship, it’s worth it. And I’m not suggesting that you have these conversations all at once. Instead, take your time and use them as an opportunity to learn more about each other.
If you are wondering why your partner spends $30 on coffee every week, take it as an opportunity to ask how they feel. You may discover they are sleep deprived, stressed, and self-medicating with a daily dose of caffeine that somehow tastes better when someone else makes it. So be the hero – prepare coffee before they wake up each morning to save money and make them feel loved with one tiny gesture. Over time, these types of loving acts can protect your relationship and financial position.
If you haven’t talked about money with your partner and want help creating a path to financial peace, I encourage you to start by exploring our services.