It’s common for people in relationships to have different approaches to money. One might be a spender, while the other might be a saver.
But as common as this might be, even small disagreements over how to manage money can add up over time, especially as you realize you and your partner may approach your finances in different ways that are subtle (or maybe not so subtle…) Either way, those differences will need to be addressed eventually.
So, when that moment comes for you, these tips will help you and your partner be able to effectively handle your finances when you have differing money mindsets.
Understand That Beliefs About Money Take Hold Early
How you approach your finances as an adult goes back to what you learned about money as a child, explains Jessica Small, who works as a licensed marriage and family therapist and premarital counselor with Growing Self Counseling and Coaching.
“Upbringing probably plays the biggest role in someone’s financial style,” Small said. “So much of our belief system about money is defined by the messages we received as a child and how money is talked about in our families growing up.”
Allana Pratt, an intimacy coach, relationship expert, and host of “Intimate Conversations,” also points out that early beliefs surrounding money all result in an emotional mindset that will impact how you manage money later in life. Those beliefs could stem from things like getting positive attention when you saved your allowance as a child or learning to limit your dreams because you grew up in poverty.
Action Step for Couples: Carve out time to talk about how your family of origin approached money. Spend some time exploring how your partner’s financial upbringing — as well as your own — affects how you both approach money today. It can help both of you understand the “why” behind your beliefs about money.
Realize that Finances = Feelings
It’s important to recognize that when it comes to managing money, it’s never just about the dollar signs, according to Small. How you approach money actually boils down to how you feel about money, because a lot of emotion is attached to money in our society.
“We watch how our parents or primary caregivers spend money, their emotions around money, and how they fight about money to try to make sense of the value money holds,” she said. “If we grow up in a house where anxiety is the primary emotion that is expressed around money, then we begin to associate anxiety with finances. Sometimes, we’ll replicate what we saw growing up and other times people will consciously do the direct opposite.”
Small said that because finances are so closely intertwined with feelings, whenever she sees a couple in her practice who are struggling with financial management, she always asks them one question: “What does money mean to you?”
She asks that question because what we associate money with is usually what drives our spending. For example, a person who associates money with stability and safety may be more likely to save because having money in the bank makes them feel safe. On the other hand, a person who associates money with freedom may be more inclined to spend their money on adventure and travel, to live on their own or to buy things they want.
“Once we understand a person’s values around money, it is much easier to understand and have empathy for their spending/saving habits, as well as start to find the overlap where couples can agree,” she says.
Action Step for Couples: Talk about what money means to you as an individual, and how your feelings towards money may be playing out in how you manage your finances both together and separately.
Don’t Put Off “The Talk”
It’s not uncommon for couples to be faced with the realization that they’re on different financial pages when faced with big transitions in life, such as a marriage, having a child, losing a job, buying a home, or handling elder care and preparing for retirement.
Ideally, you would be on the same page financially before facing those big-life moments in order to minimize the stress of navigating finances and the situation at once, but sometimes, that just doesn’t happen. But it’s never too late to have the financial talk.
Action Step for Couples: Small recommends asking each other the following questions:
- Do you both live and spend from a budget?
- How do you both feel about carrying credit card debts?
- How do you both feel about having debt at all?
- What you would do if you came into a lot of money (think: inheritance, lottery, etc.)?
- What do you feel is the most important thing you can spend money on? (I.e., experiences, material items, shelter, food, charitable contributions, etc.)
- Do you want to share a bank account—and if you already do or don’t, should that strategy be revisited?
- What do you believe is the best way to save for retirement?
Don’t Overlook How Finances Can Affect Everything
If you’re in a relationship, your financial strategies and mindset will affect almost every part of your lives together.
“If you don’t have conversations about money, about your relationship with money, about your saving habits, spending habits or investment habits, then first you start to subtly judge each other, then resentments can grow, then you can be literally blindsided by another’s decision and take it deeply personally, [or] reject them for it, when all that needed to happen was to have a series of conversations and create some agreements around how you choose to earn, save, spend, give, and invest money,” she said.
Small agrees, pointing out that avoiding conversations about money can turn into resentment, anger, anxiety and a lack of trust. All of those can and will erode relationships over time.
And both experts agree: Disagreements about finances will also show up in other aspects of your relationship, like the bedroom.
“When someone is feeling stressed and anxious about money or their partner’s spending, it decreases the emotional intimacy and safety that is needed for sex,” Small explains.
Action Step for Couples: If you’re finding challenges in different parts of your relationship, don’t overlook how finances could be a factor in other aspects of your partnership.
Start Small — and Seek Help When You Need It
What often happens with couples who are having disagreements over their finances, Small said, is they start to avoid even looking at — let alone discussing — their financial lives.
As you can imagine, that’s a strategy that will eventually backfire.
Getting started can be the hardest part, so she recommends some simple strategies that can help you:
- Start with a budget. “In order to gain a sense of control over something, we have to know what it looks like,” she explains. So, start by sitting down with each other and writing everything: all of your income and expenses, including your cash flow, debts and savings. After that, focus on building a budget together — one you both can live with.
- Use technology. There are many different ways to budget, so explore what works best for you both. Many tools, like the finance app Mint, can help you stay organized and in sync.
- Schedule a weekly “money meeting.” A weekly meeting ensures you are carving out time to talk about your budget, upcoming payments or income, and unforeseen expenses. The meetings will help keep communication open about spending and money, said Small.
- Consider couples’ therapy. Therapy can help walk you both through your belief systems around money and develop the tools to more effectively manage difficult conversations. “My rule of thumb is that if you think it could be helpful. than that’s reason enough to go,” Small states. “If you’re considering professional help, then seek it.”
Action Step for Couples: Schedule your first “money meeting” in the next week or so to sit down together and go over your finances together. Remember, your financial life affects everything, so it’s a crucial part of your relationship that shouldn’t be overlooked.
And don’t be afraid to seek out professional help to support your relationship — every great team needs a coach sometimes, right?
Chaunie Brusie is a contributor to Codetic.