When You Argue about Money, What Are You Really Fighting About?

When couples come to me because they are feeling financial stress or finances are stressing their relationship, I generally can put their tensions into one of 3 categories:

  1. Lifestyle: taste, upbringing, values: “you spend too much,” “you do not save enough”
  2. Worth: “I work more than you and you spend more than I do,” “why are we always struggling”
  3. Power: “Everything is fine and I will handle it,” “I do not know what’s going on in our finances”

None of the issues above are actually about money. Generally, only people on the bleeding edge of financial ruin (not enough food, worried about being homeless, etc.) actually have arguments ABOUT MONEY. Money is usually used as a proxy for an underlying issue. Here’s how:

Lifestyle: one of the couple thinks it is “unbecoming” to spend so much or save so little or the opposite: they should be driving better cars or living in a bigger house. It’s a mismatch of values, taste and aesthetics. Instead of arguing about money, a couple should consider having a discussion about expectations for their lives.

How to make it better from a financial standpoint: Agree an amount each month to be saved by auto-transfer and an amount each month to be spent on full discretionary items for EACH partner. Neither can ask about what the other spends their full discretionary money on. The key is AGREEING both savings and spending amounts before the fights start.

Worth: One or the other spouse thinks, “You aren’t where I thought you’d be in your career.” This can either be someone who decided to stay home and raise kids, or change careers, or simply has not had the success either spouse expected. In any case, one partner is not where the other thought they would be.

How to make it better from a financial standpoint: I like to take the couples through a valuation like a venture capital investor in their household to show how much value each person brings even if it is not monetary. We’re too used to valuing everything ONLY by the direct dollars brought in and that’s not true nor is it how an investor would value a company. You have to be careful to navigate SHAME here.

Taking care of children or having a career that allows you to be home sometimes or not work as many hours has a direct value to your family whether it is the value of not paying a babysitter or nanny, not paying tutors, or housekeepers or whatever. Instead of considering only income, you have ADD expenses saved. That’s how investors see it.

Power: One or the other spouse is using money as a source of power and control vis a vis the other spouse. Usually, that is either by keeping the other spouse in the dark, or keeping things separate. This can start out as convenience issue and quickly become a bad situation especially if something is lurking in your household finances that could cause you financial ruin.

How to make it better from a financial standpoint: Both parties in the relationship MUST know everything about the household finances. Specifically, both must know how much they are saving and how much they need to save to achieve goals. Each person must know how much they can spend each month and still save enough to achieve the aforementioned goals.

You have to ask for the information. Know where all the accounts are and how much is in each. Know how much debt and savings you have. If you do not have a plan to pay off debt or save enough, get help and get a plan. Sometimes the other person wants to know that you are going to be a partner in both the upside and challenges of your household finances. Take on responsibilities that suit your personality, maybe paying bills, or monitoring savings. Even if you “hate math” it is your responsibility to know your financial situation in the broad sense even if you do not monitor investments or pay bills.

My financial “fixes” are not substitutes for what may be a need for more intensive relationship help. Get some, if you need it. Solving the “money” issues will not solve the underlying issues that created them in the first place, it will only help with the actual finances. Remember, one of the biggest causes of bankruptcy in America is divorce.