Who better to comment on the money problems married couples deal with than someone who has interacted with millions of divorced people?
As founder of the media platform WealthySingleMommy.com, I have connected with, heard stories from, and been asked for advice by countless people who used to be in committed relationships, but are no longer. I am divorced, and am in a long-term co-habiting relationship with a divorced man. And I can confirm the countless surveys and comments from marriage therapists: Money is the most common straw to break a relationship’s back.
In this article, I’ve gathered the most common money disagreements that couples face, as well as some learned advice on how to frame them in meaningful ways that can shepherd long-term relationship harmony.
But first, here are some truths that you must accept before you can resolve any money conflicts in your relationship:
Money matters. It is the thinking of a child that it doesn’t matter how much money you have, who earns it, whether you save or spend. While more money does not mean more happiness, studies find, having your basic needs met, some savings and a modest spending budget do contribute to overall well-being.
It does matter who earns more. Money is power, and while many couples successfully co-mingle their money, and resolve income imbalances, whoever takes home a bigger paycheck, has family money or brought more assets to the relationship does have a power the other partner does not. That is not to say there are not other sources of power in relationships, such as health, emotional and spiritual well-being, or rich social and family resources, but money is certainly a big one.
Money disagreements will happen. Discord over finances does not signal that a relationship is irrevocably flawed, or fundamentally doomed. Money is just a critical, yet mundane part of partnership that you must manage.
Money is a long game. Relationships of all kinds are an exercise in rolling with change and turbulence. Your individual and family fortunes will ebb and flow. Attitudes and needs related to finances will evolve and devolve.
Now that we’ve acknowledged those unavoidable truths, let’s get to the three most common sources of financial squabbles between couples and some potential remedies.
1. Disagreements Over How Much to Save and Spend
Money is an energy force, and some people are more inclined to let it flow through their accounts and into the world as soon as it hits the bank, enjoying the material pleasures it brings, as well as a sense of generosity by sharing or giving to others. Other partners thrive when they have security of a healthy savings and investment portfolio. Ideally, every one of us enjoys both sides of this dichotomy in equal balance. However, striking that balance within a partnership can be a struggle. Here’s how to get there:
- Each of you needs your own money to spend without discussion. Separate bank and/or credit card accounts, with a sum that you can afford to spend without any reporting to your spouse, lends freedom, privacy and adulthood to the relationship.
- Set common financial goals, and make it a fun bonding experience that highlights what you have in common. These goals might include paying off debt, the mortgage, saving for the kids’ college, a boat, home renovation or vacation. Plan a way to celebrate once the goal is met.
- Dig into your money stories. I tend to overly err on the side of saving, as big balances give me a sense of calm that was missing during my childhood, during which money was a deep source of stress. Some close friends’ insecurity about their social class leads them to live on a financial precipice thanks to spending the balance of their high income on luxury cars and the latest electronics. Simply recognizing these traumas and quirks can lead to individual financial balance, as well as a connection in your relationship.
2. Resentment Over Sacrificing a Career
Raising children and caring for aging loved ones while also finding a way to pay the mortgage is the practical and existential question of our time.
In families where one spouse has quit or downshifted his or her career, chosen a low-paying path or is otherwise more family-focused than career-focused, that pressure can quickly turn to bitter resentment. But it can be navigated:
- Acknowledge the social and economic pressures for parents to stay home full time—especially women. Those pressures are real! Pew Research Center found that 60% of Americans believe it is best for kids when a parent is home full time. A full 35% of us believe that school-aged children are harmed when mothers work outside the home, found University of California researchers (who didn’t ask about the impact of fathers’ work). These are simply stereotypes, and they haunt the fabric of our decisions about home, career, family and money.
- Make a plan for the at-home parent to return to work. A growing body of research points to all the benefits of both moms and dads working outside the home for pay. Children benefit when their mothers are employed, mothers’mental and emotional health fare better when they are employed, families are less prone to poverty, and divorce rates are lower for couples who earn the same. Listen to the science and your feelings.
- Child care costs are an investment in both careers. Often, couples conceptualize the forbidding costs of child care as mitigated by the lower-earning husband or wife staying home to care for the kids. But that monthly day care check supports two parents’ abilities to work, earn, grow careers, thrive personally and socially, and benefit the whole family. Plus, quality child care has been shown to benefit children.
3. Primary Breadwinner Resentment
While there is an incredible body of journalism and academic research exploring the struggles for parents to balance family care with work, not much has been written about the pressures on breadwinners to carry the financial weight of a family single-handedly. Despite all the advances in policy and general acceptance of women as professional equals in the world, the majority of us still believe that it is a man’s job to bring home the bacon. This takes its toll. One recent study of married couples ages 18 to 32 found that men were most stressed out and struggled with mental health when they were the sole breadwinner. There are some things you can try:
- Both partners in the relationship can have candid talks about the division of household work, hours spent at a career and who does what. Be honest about how those tasks fall along gender lines: Does the woman tend to spend more time caring for the children and housekeeping? Does the man take on more yardwork (along the lines that studies find heterosexual partners tend to do)? Explore, perhaps with a therapist, where those assumed roles come from.
- Hire out household tasks. Employ a housekeeper, order in meals, call the landscaper. Just like child care, outsourcing housekeeping tasks supports both spouses’ careers and alleviates stress levels. It also increases the chances that gutters will be cleaned, the TV dusted, and you and your spouse will not argue over either.
This article originally appeared in the September/October 2021 issue of SUCCESS magazine. Photo by Karol Moraes/Shutterstock