Most of us are familiar with that old adage “Opposites attract.” Turns out it might not only be true of our personality traits, but our financial styles, too.
According to a 2009 study of married couples by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, University of Michigan and Northwestern University, when it comes to money, contrasts often prevail. In other words, tightwads and spendthrifts have the hots for each other… At least at first.
That initial attraction helps explain why money stress impacts so many relationships. Add the cost of children to the mix and it’s no surprise that financial disagreements can dampen marital happiness.
Take Jack and Ann*, for example. They’ve been together six years, work hard at their respective jobs and come home every night to a couple of great kids, ages 2 and 4. When they started dating, Jack loved Ann’s ease with money and didn’t think twice about her spending habits. “Money is energy,” she used to tell him. “If I keep it locked away, it stagnates. I need to let it flow.” At that time, Jack wanted more flow. Though she wouldn’t have admitted it then, Ann appreciated Jack’s scrimping and valued his financial discipline. She thought they complemented each other.
Like a lot of couples with contrasting money styles, getting married not only meant Jack and Ann began to share financial responsibilities, they also began to share debt. After Jack “inherited” Ann’s spending patterns, and after they had kids, he judged her to be financially foolish and a reckless shopper, especially of toys and clothes. Ann soon complained that Jack’s a control-freak, a rigid and ungenerous husband and father.
What happened next? Jack forbade Ann from buying toys. Ann then bought more.
One day, Jack got so frustrated he cut up her credit cards. She lapsed into financial secrecy: hording cash, hiding a credit card and buying stuff without telling him. Not surprisingly, Jack’s efforts to restrain Ann didn’t work, and her secretive spending further eroded marital trust.
Given that controlling our spouses or secretive spending don’t resolve financial issues, what other options do those of us with contrasting money styles have? We could tackle debt. Research shows that debt’s a major source of marital conflict so reducing it should help us resolve our money issues, right?
Except managing debt — or at least starting there — focuses us so fully on the bottom-line that we inadvertently make Jack’s approach more right. The truth is less about who’s right — in relationships, most, if not all, perspectives are right, at least partially — and more about figuring out how to better navigate our financial and other differences.
Before turning our attention to debt, I suggest spending time better understanding each other. Doing so creates a foundation from which team strategies can emerge.
Our attitudes and behaviors around money often reflect our values and priorities in life. If we discover, and share with our spouses, what drives our attitudes and behaviors we can find ways to appreciate differences and collaborate.
Ask a few key questions:
- What’s important to you about your approach to money?
- How does your approach support your sense of fulfillment?
- How do you think it serves our family?
Now, acknowledge at least one element of your spouse’s money attitude you genuinely think has merit (and, no, I don’t believe you can’t find one). Finally, brainstorm about how to honor both of your money attitudes, even if only partially and unevenly.
When we’re part of a team, the goal isn’t to get our own way (unless it is, in which case go for it, but don’t blame me if you keep locking horns). A more productive relationship goal is to hear each other out, validate our different approaches to money, and negotiate a new strategy together.
Who knows? We might discover that us tightwads and spendthrifts still have the hots for each other even after we get married, even after we have kids.
*Names and details have been changed to protect clients’ privacy.
Rhona Berens, PhD, CPCC is a mom and an Individual and Relationship Systems Coach who is passionate about giving parents fun and easy tools to achieve and maintain personal and relationship happiness. She’s the Founder of Parent Alliance® (parentalliance.com), a great resource for parents and expecting couples. With more than 20 years’ experience as an educator and mentor, Berens delivers dynamic talks, workshops and webinars to parents, teachers, expecting couples and doulas. Berens coaches individuals and couples across North America via phone and online video, or in person in Los Angeles. She serves on the Advisory Board of The Children’s Project, a nonprofit devoted to helping parents and teachers raise emotionally healthy children. For more information, email Rhona.