Finances: A Common Cause for Misunderstanding in a Marriage

Do you know that finances is one of the top causes of conflict in a marriage? One reason why we find it hard to agree about how we use money is our different upbringing.

For example, Dylan and Eliza* (names changed to protect privacy) struggle with how they manage their finances: Dylan grew up not having enough, so now that they are relatively well-to-do, he likes spending on things like a good car. Eliza, on the other hand, grew up well-trained to save and invest money, so she needs to make an effort to understand how her husband spends money.

Dylan and Eliza can be any one of us. The important thing to remember is that there is no single right or wrong way, but that our goal is to bring finances into the table for conversation and connection. Sometimes we think that only the person who saves money is the one in the right, where all spending is frowned upon. But do you know you can be a good spender, too?

I believe I’m a saver, but I spend to create memories. To me that’s not spending, that’s an investment. That could look like holidays to exotic places, which can be quite costly; it could look like going to a famous restaurant. Some of our friends think that’s a waste of money. For me, it’s an experience and it’s worth spending money on. For example, once, we emptied our bank account to bring the kids to Disneyland. They’re only young once.

 Find things to appreciate about how each of you uses money. If one of you saves a lot, you can affirm this. If one of you spends—yes, maybe too much, in your opinion—take a look at how that spending has benefited your marriage or family, and acknowledge that. Doing this can help form an atmosphere of mutual respect,
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Are you a good saver or a good spender?

What do we mean by someone who is a good spender? Think about it this way: when you buy something, do you buy on impulse, or do you take time to check prices, look into the features, and then make an informed decision? A good spender is someone who knows how to spend money wisely. Just because you are a good saver doesn’t automatically translate into knowing how to spend well.

Two more of our friends, Mike and Hannah, are a spender and saver respectively. Hannah used to be annoyed at how much Mike seemed to be spending, while she was trying to scrimp on everything to save money. But when they learned the idea that one of them was a good saver but the other was a good spender, Hannah started observing how that worked: whenever they needed to buy anything in the family, Mike always seemed to know where to find a good deal, and he bought items that actually worked well—even when he bought them online.

When Hannah tried online shopping, three out of five, she bought the wrong size, or something flimsy, or basically something that falls under the “expectation versus reality” posts so common in social media! That gave her a new appreciation for Mike’s spending “skills,” and since then they’ve learned to leverage on each other’s strengths for the benefit of their marriage and their family.


How to Bring Finances into Dialogue

So our goal is not to decide who is right or wrong, but to create a safe place for conversation and connection over the area of finances. Here are some steps to get moving in that direction: 

1. Seek the meaning behind your spouse’s spending without labeling or judgment.

Refrain from labeling your spouse based on their spending preference. For example, Joy likes buying things from the mall where she can get reward points. To me, it’s minimal but she likes the thrill of collecting the points and getting the reward. If I label her, I can call her a cheapskate. For me, the savings to me may not be worth it, but she likes a good deal.

The first step is to learn to accept each other’s spending habits without passing judgment. This is not to say we will not work towards change, but this is an important first step. If you have always been fighting over how one of you spends money, chances are, defenses will come up. We want to build a safe place, and it will take time to disarm the fight, flight, freeze response in you or in your spouse.

One way of doing this is by finding things to appreciate about how each of you uses money. If one of you saves a lot, you can affirm this. If one of you spends—yes, maybe too much, in your opinion—take a look at how that spending has benefited your marriage or family, and acknowledge that. Doing this can help form an atmosphere of mutual respect, paving the way for Step 2.

2. Commit to mutual transparency with your spending.

Committing to be open about your individual spending helps to build trust. Sometimes we assume that we are entitled to our privacy, but from my perspective, when we hide what we spend money on, it can sow suspicion and discord.

For example, an elderly couple we know struggles with this: because they went through a rocky time many years back, Auntie is still very suspicious of her husband having affairs. Whenever she finds something that is new for Uncle, she would almost always jump to conclusion that it’s always given to him by the mistress.

Especially in places where trust has been broken before, it’s important to practice transparency.

3. Use finances as a way to build shared dreams.

Have you seen the Pixar animated movie “Up”? The story opens with two childhood playmates who marry each other. Upon losing their first pregnancy, Carl reminds his wife Ellie of her childhood dream of visiting Paradise Falls. They start saving up for it in a large jar, and we watch as the jar fills up, only to be broken open for one emergency after another—a broken car, a leaky roof, just about anything. Sadly, in the story, Ellie dies before they get the chance to fulfill that dream, but Carl, now a gray-haired, arthritis-ridden man needing a walking stick, decides to fulfill that dream in memory of his wife.

One of the most important principles for building a strong marriage is to create shared meaning. You can use finances towards this end by sharing our dreams with each other and then working together to reach that goal. You can start by sharing why something is important to you and your spouse. For example, I consider books important, and include it in a monthly budget. I share with Joy what books mean to me—about how knowledge is important to me—and then she can help pursue that dream in our marriage.

4. Work with a family budget.

In connection with creating shared meaning through our money, we can start working with a family budget. Remember, this can work best when you both have an understanding of the things that are important to you. If you don’t, one of you may end up feeling overlooked or unnecessarily controlled by the other party. The goal, again, is to dialogue about your needs and dreams as individuals and as a couple, and then the budget will help work towards meeting those needs and dreams.

Dialoguing About Finances

Let’s be realistic: we probably won’t be able to resolve our money differences overnight. But being able to bring it to the table for dialogue is already a great first step. You can learn more about how to communicate in a healthy way through our other resources, and we believe that will make a difference in how you manage your finances in the long run. 

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