A few years ago, a reader pointed out to me that I didn’t write about money enough. “Seeing as money is the #1 thing that couples fight about, it’s interesting to me that you don’t write about it more often.” And they were right!
So, I decided that I am going to be talking about money and financial issues more in my writing.
Money is the number one thing that couples fight about (and divorce over) because, for most people, money is often the thing that they carry the most shame around.
Sure, openly talking about things like sex, race, and religion are big taboos in our society, but I believe that, in aggregate, the shame and fear surrounding money trumps all of those.
So today, I’m digging into the five most common money arguments I have heard couples have over my last decade of working with clients one-on-one and give you some proactive steps to work through and mitigate all of those arguments thoroughly.
Money argument #1: Judging or resenting each other’s spending habits
By far one of the most common arguments that couples have about money is regarding their partner’s spending habits. Regardless of whether or not you are married and have pooled resources, it’s understandable that people carry tension around how their partners spend their money.
If they’re a shopaholic when they’re stressed out and you want to eventually move in with them, you could worry that they’re going to spend your money just as frivolously. Or, if you see them being careless with their cash your mind might project that you’ll never have enough money to have a solid emergency fund for future expenses that surprise you.
Whatever the fear is underlying the tension, and regardless of whether or not you share a mortgage, judging or resenting each other’s spending habits is a very common source of tension between romantic partners.
Money argument #2: Arguments surrounding disparity of income
Unless both people in the relationship work the same job at the same place with the same level of seniority, some level of income disparity is inevitable. If that gap is significant, then that fact is bound to put some stress on the relationship.
Maybe you make 3-5x the income than your partner, and so money is less of a stressor for you (or vice versa). Or, perhaps the lower-income earning partner overspends their partner’s money and their partner resents it.
Whatever the nuance of the situation, a disparity of income brings up its own issues to be addressed.
Money argument #3: Fights surrounding paying off debt
If one or both of you have significant debts to be paid off (student loans, credit card debt, mortgage), this can be a major point of contention. You might argue on the way in which you plan to pay it off, who is responsible for paying it off, or on what timeline you would like to handle it.
Debt can be like a dark cloud that looms over your psyche, and it looms heavier and darker over some people more than others.
Money argument #4: Who controls the cash flow
This is a big one. In many relationships, one partner controls and manages all of the finances, and the other person buries their head in the sand (figuratively speaking).
Inevitably, this can result in an unhealthy power dynamic where one person feels disempowered, and the other feels in control, but also stressed out from the constant sense of responsibility.
Money argument #5: Decisions surrounding major purchases
Financial decisions surrounding major purchases like cars, houses, schooling, vacations, and whether or not to have children can all be major stressors in a relationship. Not only are the decisions significant because they impact the fundamental structure of your lives, but they also cause you both to absorb a financial hit in exchange.
It’s no wonder that decisions like these would cause conflict between romantic partners.
Money argument #6: Saving habits
How each person saves (or doesn’t save) their money is another common source of conflict in intimate relationships. Maybe one of you is a penny pincher who manages to save and invest over 50 percent of their monthly income, while the other one is in their late 40s and has less than $1,000 in their bank account.
The how’s, why’s, and when’s of saving money are all important, and the importance of those things is exacerbated when your financial decisions also impact your significant other’s life.
So, how do you resolve these money fights once and for all?
1. Learn how to align your spending habits.
This step all comes down to empathy, goals, and communication. First, instead of getting frustrated, judgmental, or resentful of your partner’s spending habits, get curious.
Get curious as to what their normal monthly spending looks like (how much, and on what). Get curious as to what financial habits their parents modeled to them. Get curious as to how they feel about money in general. Instead of judging or verbally attacking (or quietly resenting), talk to your partner about all of these things from a place of curiosity and a genuine desire to want to understand them better.
Then, once you both have a better understanding of how each of you tends to spend their money, it’s a good time to talk about any goals that you may have when it comes to your money. These could be goals around debts you want to pay off or big purchases (or savings goals) that you want in the future.
Once you have these goals in place, it’s easier to talk about your day-to-day spending habits from a place of unity and non-judgment. Because you won’t be cutting back on your frivolous spending just to be hard on yourself; rather, you’ll be shifting certain habits in order to serve your life and your relationship.
One more hot tip when it comes to spending habits. One high-functioning, happy married couple that I know each pay equally into a shared bank account for their shared expenses (rent/mortgage payment, food), and then they have their remaining money in their own accounts so that each person doesn’t have the right to judge or make snide comments about the other’s spending habits because their shared expenses are guaranteed to be handled.
2. Solve arguments surrounding disparity of income.
Managing arguments surrounding a disparity of income comes down to a few factors:
- How significant is the gap?
- How significant are your monthly shared expenses?
- Is one of you resentful about the current setup?
If you and your partner have a significant gap in your levels of income, and one of you largely supports the other, and neither of you is stressed out or resentful about the situation, then there’s nothing to be done. You’re all good! This point only matters if the lower-earning partner feels stressed, anxious, or disempowered, or if the higher-earning partner feels resentful or stretched thin.
In situations like these, calibration and communication are kings.
It is totally reasonable to contribute to your shared expenses in a scaled way. If one of you makes $50,000 a year and the other makes $200,000 a year (AKA, a 1:4 ratio), and your shared rent/mortgage payment is $3,000 per month, it is in the realm of possibility that the lower-earning partner contributes $750 per month and the higher-earning partner contributes $2,250 per month. This same logic applies to other shared expenses like utilities and groceries/food.
Where this model (for some couples) breaks down is when it comes to personal expenses that are not shared. In my professional experience, most couples have the most ease and flow with this calibrated approach to shared expenses, but if a lower-earning partner wants to spend $10,000 per month on clothes/personal shopping and wants to use their partner’s money to do it, that’s when the tension arises.
So, again, all of these things need to be discussed between you and your partner. When it comes to money, there is no get-out-of-jail-free card when it comes to your desire to avoid having difficult conversations.
3. Manage fights about paying off debt.
Debt can be like a hovering, third entity in a relationship. You’re both aware of it, and it takes up some of each of your mental bandwidth every day.
The two most important things you can do when it comes to debt are to agree on a shared plan of how you’re going to work on it together and to then set payoff date. In other words, it’s a team project that you’re both committed to solving together.
How are we going to tackle this? What new habits are we going to install in our lives in order to chip away at our debt? And, realistically speaking, how long do we believe it will take us to get to this point?
Whether the payoff date is six months, or it’s 20 years away, just knowing that it is a finite phase of your life that will be handled one day can give a sense of relief.
Another note on this: if the debt belongs to one of you (i.e., student loan, shopping/credit card debt), it is still advantageous to take it on as a shared project. If you’re partners in life then you should be partners all the way. Their problems are your problems. Not in a codependent way where you have no sense of separateness or autonomy, but in the way that you can help support them in achieving their goals.
Our partner’s stuff affects us. If they’re trying to cut back on spending in order to pay off their debt, then one example of how you could help is to make them their lunch so they can bring it to work and not eat out at restaurants every lunch hour.
4. Resolve arguments around who controls the cash flow.
Similar to how many couples divide up certain household chores as “my chores” and “your chores,” many couples benefit from managing different aspects of their financial lives. For instance, maybe you are responsible for making sure that your bills are all paid, and your partner is responsible for contributing to your shared retirement account.
But issues often arise when one person is responsible for everything to do with a relationship’s shared finances.
If one person is using managing money as a sneaky way to be controlling in general, then a conversation needs to be had around this. Both people in the relationship should feel empowered when it comes to their financial health and literacy. If one person consistently feels like they are too “in the dark” when it comes to their shared finances, then some light needs to be shed on the matter.
Set aside time when you both feel emotionally resourced and in a good place as a couple, and spend a few hours talking about how you both relate to the financial aspects of your relationship. If you want to be included in financial conversations more, say so. If you want to take on more responsibility when it comes to handling your shared finances, mention that.
Ideally, you want to get to a place where you both feel empowered, trusting, and capable when it comes to your financial lives.
And if the person who has largely/exclusively managed the finances is reluctant to hand over a portion of their responsibilities, then there may be some underlying fear or control issues at hand, at which point you should find a qualified counselor/therapist/money coach who can help you navigate the conversations as a team.
5. Decide how to navigate decisions about major purchases.
What you and your partner consider “major” purchases are going to vary per couple, but generally a major purchase is something that takes up a significant percentage of your financial net worth. Cars, houses, vacations, home renovations, and investment properties would all fall under the category of major purchases that couples have to consider.
The golden rule is this: wait until you both agree on the purchase. Easier said than done, but if one of you constantly acquiesces just to keep the peace, then resentment is likely to grow if one person is always leading the charge on major purchases without getting true buy-in from their significant other.
Now, a vacation or a simple home renovation project might not need to take a lot of time to consider, but decisions on buying property will likely need to be sat with for a bit longer. Remember, you’re both optimizing for what will bring both you, them, and the relationship the most joy and satisfaction in the long-term, so occasionally sitting on a major purchase for over a year is not unreasonable.
Slow and steady wins the relationship.
6. Get on the same page with saving habits.
One of the best things that you can do as a couple when it comes to your saving habits is to create shared goals. Whether those goals contribute to the same bank account or not is irrelevant, what matters is that you are working towards a shared vision and supporting each other along the way.
Maybe you’re newlyweds who want to sock away $50,000 for a down payment on a house, or a married couple looking to stash away savings for retirement. Decide on a savings target that you want to hit every month.
If you’re self-employed and/or a freelancer, you might want that goal to be saving a certain percentage of your monthly income. If you have a salary/job/more predictable monthly income, then you might consider deciding on a certain dollar amount that you want to aim to save every month.
Whatever the size or the nature of the goal, have the conversation with your partner, and start chipping away at it, one day at a time.
And, if you’re looking for an investment account to help you with your savings goals, the best all-in-one/done-for-you solution that I have found is WealthSimple. I have a good-sized chunk of cash sitting in my WealthSimple account and I have been getting 10-12 percent returns consistently over the last several years, so I am a huge fan of it.
Through the wonders of compound interest, it doesn’t take that long to make significant financial gains with your savings.
Ultimately, all of these steps come down to empathy, communication, goal-setting, and doing whatever it takes to get on the same page with your partner, surrounding a subject that is understandably wrought with tension.
Instead of living paycheque to paycheque and constantly stressing about how you’re going to make ends meet, make it a shared project to become more financially literate together and to start working towards financial goals that excite both of you.
What would it feel like to have a year’s worth of expenses in your bank account at all times? How much more spacious and free would you feel, knowing that you were that safe in the world?
Jordan Gray is a sex and relationship coach, who has been featured in Vogue, Self, Forbes, The New York Times, and more. You can see more of his writing at Jordan Gray Consulting.
This article was originally published at Jordan Gray Consulting. Reprinted with permission from the author.