How to Stop Fighting Over Money

How to Stop Fighting Over Moneyfrom_our_columnists

By Katie Sweeney

For the first six years of their marriage, Denise and her husband rarely fought about money. But last year, after their first child was born, and Denise cut back to part-time work, the squabbles started.

Her husband “wants to save every penny,” Denise says. She wants to save for tomorrow, too, but not so much that she can’t enjoy today. In their pre-baby life, they could sock away cash and still have plenty of fun money left. “We each got what we wanted,” she says. “Now I make less and we cost more. Now it’s save or have fun, so we’re butting heads.”

Dueling over dollars is a common problem in marriages–and a common cause of divorce, says Ruth L. Hayden, a financial educator and author of For Richer, Not Poorer: The Money Book for Couples. There’s endless room for conflict: How much should we spend on a car, house or haircut? Should we invest in stocks or stash cash in savings accounts? How much debt is OK? And who decides?

But financial feuds don’t have to be the norm. There’s no quick fix for fighting, but experts suggest taking the following steps:

  • Understand your money beliefs. Your attitudes toward money, usually formed in childhood, control how you act with money, Hayden says. For example, you may feel, “There’s never enough money” or “If I want something, I deserve to get it.” Once you identify those beliefs and how you got them, you can better understand each other. “This is about learned differences,” she says. “You’re arguing because you approach things differently.”
  • Stop blaming. If you don’t stop blaming, you won’t stop fighting, Hayden warns. “You each have to take equal responsibility for your financial situation and for fighting,” she says. But what if it’s your husband who ran up the credit card bills? It doesn’t matter–stop pointing fingers. When couples stop blaming, “it changes everything,” she says. “Otherwise, you can’t get out of the past.”
  • Call a money meeting. Steven Pybrum, a CPA, couples therapist, and author of Money and Marriage: Making It Work Together, suggests holding weekly meetings and starting with a 10-minute time limit. Set an agenda and stick to it, and stop when the time is up, he recommends. And remember: no blaming.
  • Put it in writing. At your meetings, draft a budget and cash flow statement. “It’s like going on a diet,” says Victoria Collins, a financial planner, psychologist, and author of Couples and Money. “You hate to step on the scale, but if you come up with a concrete action plan, it’s easier to follow through.” Creating a budget helped Denise and her husband cool their money clashes. But it wasn’t easy. First, they drafted a budget of what they should be spending, and then later compared what they’d actually spent. “We’d spent way more,” Denise says. “It was really depressing. I said, ‘I can’t live like this!'” Still, they sat down and worked out a new budget. “Put it on paper,” she advises. “Just having an agreement helps.”
  • Dig deeper than your wallet. Are you really fighting about money? One of Collins’ clients constantly fought with her husband over the money he paid to his ex-wife and kids. In truth, she was hurt he wasn’t paying much attention to her children. “It looked like a money issue,” Collins says, “but underlying the problem was a much deeper one.”
  • Seek help. Sometimes you need a neutral third party, Collins says. Consider seeing a financial planner trained in mediation, a psychologist, or marriage therapist.

Money doesn’t have to ruin your marriage; instead, it can strengthen the bond by teaching you how to work as partners, Hayden says. “The thing that has torn people apart,” she says, “can actually bring them together.”