Although Catherine Loehr, 35, an art teacher in Tomball, Texas, paid her way through college and prides herself on her frugality, she was happy to find a partner who was smart with money.
“I trusted him to do it, let him do it all,” she said of her then husband. Not long after her wedding, however, when the couple’s financial concerns began to mount, she found herself doubting her earlier approach.
“He wasn’t communicating to me that he was juggling things a little bit,” she said. “If you have money problems it can mess up your communication. It starts arguments and fights.” Ultimately, the two decided to part ways, divorcing after 12 years together, including four as a married couple.
Money — or perhaps more accurately, financial stress — has a tendency to make people behave in ways they might not otherwise. Nearly a third of couples, 31 percent, admit that financial stress is a major source of conflict, according to the American Psychological Association’s annual Stress in America report. The catalyst can be acute, like a job loss or a home foreclosure, or it can also be subtle, such as juggling monthly expenses or deciding how much to save for retirement.
“There’s so much financial uncertainty, especially in the wake of the recession,” said Lynsey Romo, an assistant professor at North Carolina State University whose research is focused on financial communication between partners. “People don’t know what they should be doing with their money. It’s such a stressful thing.”
For some lucky couples, talking about money comes naturally. But many couples face challenges as they attempt to blend financial goals and priorities. If both partners are willing to put in the effort, it’s possible to approach money management as a team and to collaborate even when difficulties arise.
“Most people who seem to have satisfied relationships rely on one another to talk about money,” Romo said. “They’re turning to one another to help manage the uncertainty.”
Determining how you’ll handle your money as a couple doesn’t happen overnight. The process can take months, even years. Here’s how you can turn discussions about your finances into an opportunity to strengthen your relationship, rather than simply adding more stress.
Open Lines of Communication
Talking about money is still taboo socially despite the fact that money plays a huge role in our daily lives. Parents rarely discuss finances with their children. Employees don’t like to negotiate their salary. Even deciding how to split the bill or how much to tip when dining out with friends can be uncomfortable.
As many couples have learned the hard way, financial discord is much more likely to arise from communication styles than limited resources. More often than not, the way couples talk about money — or don’t talk about money — is the root of the problem.
Typically, it’s the partner who enjoys talking about money who pushes financial discussions forward. If uninterested or overwhelmed, the other person either checks out or lashes out. For example, Dana Allen, a 30 year-old pharmacist based in North Carolina, loves strategizing about financial goals with her husband Cody, but he’s less enthusiastic. Now, they schedule a monthly budget meeting and divvy up monthly play money for each of them, which has helped make talking about money more manageable.
“I like talking about finances. I could probably talk about it all day, and he would go crazy,” she said. “If we’re driving somewhere and I start talking about 401(k)s, he’ll be like put it on the budget meeting.”
According to Romo’s research, couples need to find a strategy that works for them. “There’s no one-size-fits-all approach, but it’s really important to have these conversations about money,” she said. “Create a game plan and get on the same page because otherwise there can be a lot of conflict.”
Make Decisions Together
Couples who argue least about their finances seem to have one thing in common: a joint vision for the pot of money they share, whether literally or figuratively.
“When we hold our budget meetings we have an equal say in what we do and where the money goes,” Allen said. “I think once we got on the same page with our goals it made the process that much easier. We could say once we pay off our student loans, we’ll be able to take more trips, or go out to eat more, whatever we decided we wanted to do.”
Merging finances goes beyond the debate of joint accounts versus separate accounts. It’s more of a mindset rather than a logistical hurdle. The shift from ‘my money’ to ‘our money’ tends to happen organically, and the timeline varies among couples.
When Adam Connolly and Kate Blackburn started dating at 26, they paid for everything separately, and then when they first moved in together they split the bills evenly. As their relationship evolved, the boundaries between his money and her money gradually became blurred.
“There were tiny steps along the way where it became more about our money, not separate money,” Blackburn said. Connolly agreed. “I see us as a unit. It’s our money,” he said. That’s come in handy when they’ve been working through big financial decisions, like purchasing a home or a car. “A lot of times I don’t consider all the details, so it’s better to have a cooperative discussion. It is definitely nice to go back and forth.”
Read Between the Lines
Even for couples who view themselves as a financial team, striking the right balance takes work. Responsibilities have to be navigated jointly, or divided. Bills have to get paid, budgets need to be set and savings goals established. It’s easy for the louder or more confident partner to dominate the decision-making, but the most successful couples take time to listen to each other, and to read between the lines when necessary. When disagreements arise, it’s important to remember that both voices add value to the conversation.
“People tend to pick a partner who balances them out financially,” said Amanda Clayman, a Brooklyn financial therapist. “People partner for a reason.”
When financial opposites attract, finding common ground can be tough. Savers need help enjoying life in the moment while spenders benefit from taking a long-term view. But compromising is often what’s best for both partners as is taking a nonjudgmental approach when discussing preferences and options.
If arguments happen, Romo recommends taking a step back to try to understand what’s going on beneath the surface. “When people are getting heated there’s more going on than just meeting their basic needs,” she said. “It’s not just about the thing, but about the person and the value and worth that they’re getting from buying a certain item.”
Clayman says de-escalating the emotional side of financial conflict helps couples make progress when they’ve been stuck in their ways for too long. It’s a skill that can be learned surprisingly quickly, she said. “When you hear your partner talk about something that is important to them, it’s not as threatening to you. It diffuses the conflict and gives them something they can connect with.”
It helps to start by identifying and examining your own beliefs about money, and how those beliefs came to be, so you can have more productive conversations with your partner. “Money is not just money. It’s a symbol for so many other things, for success, for wealth,” Romo said. “It is going to come up regularly, so having those open lines of communication and knowing that it’s a safe thing to talk about it is really helpful.”
As for Loehr, she’s taken the lessons from her first marriage to heart. Now she realizes it’s important to discuss financial goals and priorities long before walking down the aisle. “If you get more frugal, you both get more frugal. If you get a little more adventurous with your finances, you both have to go together,” she said. “You both have to be equal.”