When it comes to counseling couples about money disagreements, there’s no lack of research to draw on. Plenty of studies and surveys point to the undeniable truth that money differences are a leading cause of strife in marriages.
There’s a study I’ve not yet seen but would like to: what money issues do couples fight about at different stages of their marriage? We can probably safely assume engaged couples tango over wedding expenses, while newlyweds struggle to merge their finances along with their households and lives. But what do couples who’ve been married for a decade or three argue about? What are sources of money strife in established marriages?
One Money magazine poll sheds some insight into which money issues generally cause the most conflict, regardless of the vintage of a couple’s marriage:
- Frivolous spending tops their list, with 55% of respondents saying it is the money issue they fought over most. Interestingly, both sexes think their partner is more likely to make a wasteful purchase.
- Saving is a point of contention for 37% of couples. Twenty-one percent cite deceit as a problem, while 22% admit to hiding expenditures from their spouses, mainly because they don’t want to hear a lecture over the purchase. In the planning world, we call this “financial infidelity.”
Married life can be quite complex, and couples in the “middle years” of marriage can have no lack of money concerns to squabble over. Each partner may have a career that requires an investment of time and money to continue developing.
If they have children, add in all the financial demands associated with parenthood, including teaching their kids financial literacy and saving for college. Established couples may also be taking care of aging parents; the financial burdens on members of the sandwich generation are well-documented and highly stress-inducing.
On top of all that, established couples have the daily challenge of running and funding a household, and the long-term goal of saving for retirement. What keeps their financial partnership strong?
Money tips for established couples
My job as a financial planner is often part financial advisor, part relationship counselor. While I wouldn’t be comfortable advising clients on how to resolve marital issues, I can offer surprisingly simple yet effective insights into financial management strategies that I’ve seen work for couples who were experiencing conflict in their money management roles.
Here’s 4 money conflict resolution tips for established couples based on my experience.
1. Reassess and realign.
No financial plan should ever be a static thing. Life happens. That’s just what it does. Situations, needs, and objectives change, and your financial plan needs to adapt as well. There are transitions on the horizon—near and far—which have financial tethers. Couples who find themselves mired in conflict can often break out of their rut by sitting down and reassessing where they are financially. List your earnings and assets, expenditures and obligations, and compare how they measure up to your long-term goals. While you’re at it, talk about your goals to ensure they’re still the same, or to decide if they need to change.
Need a starting point?
Download this two-page “life transitions” survey. Each partner can fill it out separately, then come together to go over results.
2. Start talking.
Talk about the things you haven’t wanted to talk about so far. Remember that stat about how many people hide spending from their spouses? Start the money talk, and keep it up. Virtually every marriage has at least one partner that has an issue they don’t know how to talk about. Perhaps your partner has a different style than you do—which by the way is very common—and this impacts their approach to personal finance. Try not to focus on contention or avoidance, and try to make sure you’re both calm and comfortable.
Make time for a mid-marriage check-up
Sit down with a financial advisor who can help you create a financial plan that balances both party’s styles and concerns in a way that will still allow you to achieve your investment goals. For example, Mosaic offers a 90-minute “mid-marriage check-up” to clients who aren’t already walking together down this path.
3. Don’t relax over debt.
If you’re both established in your careers and earning good money, you may think you can afford to carry a bit more consumer debt. Be smart about the type of debt you accrue and how you use credit.
Understanding your joint philosophy on debt is important. While it’s critical to be able to run the numbers before taking on additional debt (calculations that factor how much interest will it cost, is it tax deductible, is it more beneficial to finance the debt or use cash reserves, and the like), many times decisions about debt are more of an art than a science: people often bring their own biases about whether to use debt or not, and when.
Together, you can work on creating personal financial planning policies for each debt area (home, education, consumer, auto, and other debt).
4. Find balance over investing styles.
Most couples know saving for retirement is a priority; if you want to enjoy your golden years together, you will need plenty of money. However, multiple studies indicate men and women can have very different investment approaches.
In a partnership, often one individual is risk seeking and the other conservative. If one partner dominates the investing conversation, and one style is allowed to rule over the other partner’s discomfort, conflict can occur. Understanding your joint financial risk capacity (how much risk you can afford to take on, or conversely, how much risk you don’t need to take on) as well as each of your emotional risk tolerances (the “sleep at night” factor) will enable you to put in place a portfolio structure that both gets you where you want to go and allows you to sleep at night along the way.
That magazine survey did offer one very encouraging insight for married couples: The older you get, the less likely you are to argue over money. The survey found that money disagreements peak between ages 35-44, when 80% of couples disagree over money. Money conflicts decline as couples get older, and by age 65-plus, less than 60% fight over money.
Following these suggestions can lead you to develop a plan that speaks to both of you, giving you confidence that you’re moving together in the right direction. Regularly revisiting that plan can put your partnership on the path to healthy financial dialog in your later years.
What's next on the horizon for your relationship as it matures?
This article is part of a series by our COO, Sabrina Lowell, on financial health for every stage of your relationship.
WHILE YOU’RE AT IT
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