Do you have a financially fit marriage? Ask yourself these questions

By asking questions and opening a dialogue, couples can change how they deal with each other — and their money — and learn to work together toward their financial goals.
Image: Lesbian couple discussing financial bills over laptop while sitting at table
What isn’t said about money can eventually dump couples into emotional hot water.Maskot / Getty Images
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By Vivian Manning-Schaffel

According to new research from a recent Pew Center study called “Marriage and Cohabitation in the U.S.,” 38% of couples say saving money is the main reason they moved in with their partner. But as many as 29% of those same couples also say money is why they aren’t ready to marry their partner. This might be because money is very often the main reason married or long-term couples argue — a 2018 study from Northwestern Mutual found that 1 out of 5 people surveyed said they have financial disagreements with their partners at least once a month.

“When you're seriously considering somebody as a potential mate, you start talking about where you want to live someday or if you’re interested in kids, but nobody ever really talks about retirement goals, what percentage of income to save, and how much debt you have,” says Brad Klontz, CFP, founder of the Financial Psychology Institute, associate professor of Practice in Financial Psychology at Creighton University Heider College of Business, and fellow of the American Psychological Association. “You take blood tests to make sure you don't have an STD, but there's no credit score check. It’s this huge heavy topic, nobody talks about it, and then you’re surprised you’re on totally different pages.”

What isn’t said about money can eventually dump couples into emotional hot water. Amanda Clayman, financial therapist and Prudential's Financial Wellness Advocate, says most couples seek financial therapy to prove their partner wrong, or because it feels too scary to advocate for their interests. She also says marital problems can stem from one partner shutting the other out, using money to try to control their partner, and keeping financial secrets. She also sees couples who have long avoided what she calls the “emotional reality” of money. “When couples are really stuck in a financial and relational rut, it's usually because there is an emotional component that they're not dealing with,” says Clayman.

You take blood tests to make sure you don't have an STD, but there's no credit score check. It’s this huge heavy topic, nobody talks about it, and then you’re surprised you’re on totally different pages.

Brad Klontz, CFP

The good news is, couples can change how they deal with each other — and their money — and learn to work together toward their financial goals. Klontz, Clayman and Moira Somers, a Canadian psychologist, professor, author and executive coach with financial expertise based in Winnipeg, shared some pointers.

1. Have an open conversation about your financial beliefs

“We have all these money scripts clanking around in our subconscious, driving all of our behaviors and when you see a couple in conflict, basically, they have conflicting money scripts,” says Klontz. “I ask couples to sit facing each other, then I have them talk about what it was like for them growing up around money. What beliefs did your parents teach you around money? What are your biggest financial fears? What is your biggest financial goal? What was your socioeconomic status in childhood and how did you feel about it? That one underlies a lot of conflict around money. If a couple does this skillfully, a couple of things happen: Number 1, you're going to understand your partner's psychology around money on a deep core level, and number 2, they're going to understand their own, because most of us don't.”

Ask yourselves these questions:

  • What did your parents teach you about money?
  • What scares you about money?
  • How did you feel about your socioeconomic status growing up?

2. Be accountable and transparent

All three of the experts consulted in this article say lying about money is the flint that ignites the most financial fights. “Financial infidelity is a thing,” says Somers. “I think 1 out of 3 Americans admit to, in some form or fashion, lying to their partner around money; it's stuff I bought; investments I made and didn't want you to know about because I lost all the money; it’s giving money to other people and not telling your spouse because you know they wouldn’t be down for it and receiving money from other people and not talking about it.”

Ask yourselves these questions:

  • What does financial infidelity look like to you?
  • Is fibbing about a new pair of shoes OK in the grand scheme of things?
  • What about a secret credit card?

3. Keep calm

If you feel festering resentment toward your partner, it’s important to consider why. “Resentment can be a sign that you've been putting things on hold for too long in terms of being able to make forward progress on what matters to you, even about things like retirement planning or 401k contributions,” says Somers. “The evidence is that marital fights about money are associated with nastier fighting techniques and poor relational outcomes, and so it's important to downshift your emotions. Keep reminding yourself that this is the person that you've yoked yourself to for life — this is not the enemy, this is your beloved. Recognize that part of caring is financial caring, and figure out how to get back on the same page.” And most importantly, don’t lose sight of the fact that you’re supposed to be on the same team. “Stay focused on what's important to you instead of who's right,” says Clayman.

We have all these money scripts clanking around in our subconscious, driving all of our behaviors and when you see a couple in conflict, basically, they have conflicting money scripts.

Brad Klontz

4. Form a “core agreement”

Before getting into the nitty gritty, Clayman has her clients form a “core agreement” addressing:

  • Equality: Both partners have equal power over their money. “The spouse with a higher income or the one who gets more financially anxious doesn't just get to call the shots,” she says.
  • Inclusivity: Both partners participate in dealing with their money — no opting out or excluding.
  • Transparency: Both partners have access to all information. “No secrets, but there can be negotiated areas of privacy with boundaries,” Clayman says.
  • Sustainability: Decisions made by the couple are not unduly or unfairly burdensome to one partner.
  • Flexibility: As situations change or needs arise, each partner has the right to say when something's not working, and the couple can revise their approach.

5. Align your goals and do the math

“In the happiest marriages, people move mountains to make sure each partner reaches their goals,” says Somers. “A lot of times what we want to experience or achieve in life has some sort of financial price tag attached to it.” Get on the same page by discussing your goals — Clayman says it’s important to make the distinction between "we goals" and "me goals." "It's okay for these to not be 100 percent the same. Remember, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and your partner often brings something great (if annoying) to the table when they differ from you," she says.

Deal with the numbers by laying everything out on the table — literally — and strategizing on where to save and where to cut corners in order to save more for retirement or pay off credit card debt, for example. “If you have a real hot button issue, save that for last. Look for the areas you can agree on, work together on, and get some success going,” says Klontz. “The temptation is to go after that sore spot, but it helps to build some momentum first.”

Ask yourselves these questions:

  • What is your biggest financial goal?
  • How would you prioritize your financial goals?
  • What percentage of our income should we invest in retirement?
  • What percentage of our income should we use to pay down debt?
  • What percentage of income would you like to keep in savings?

6. Divide expenses equally

Both Klontz and Somers say a common hot button issue among couples is when they earn at different income levels, but still divide household expenses evenly. “If you’re building a life together, at some point you need to be looking at ways of equalizing opportunities and experiences,” says Somers. The solution they propose? Each partner contributes an equal percentage of their earnings toward household expenses. “What works is not looking at (contributions) from a dollar amount, but from a percentage amount,” says Klontz.

Ask yourselves this question:

  • What do you feel is a fair division of household expenses?

7. Be prepared to compromise

“A workaholic who comes from poverty might want to save 50 percent of their income, but their partner might not want to live in squalor,” says Klontz. “You might want to save 30 percent or meet in the middle and give up some ground. If your partner is more into living for the moment, they might have to give up some ground too. It’s important to find a percentage you both can agree on.” All three experts also say it’s important that once you’ve deployed your initial strategies, you check-in on your finances together regularly and tweak your plan, enlisting outside help in the form of debt counseling or a financial planner, if necessary.

Just remember, the ultimate goal is for money to strengthen your bond instead of coming between you, says Clayman. “It's (money) not just a problem to be solved and checked off the list. These are your needs and your dreams! This is the very stuff of intimacy, and even though it can make us feel vulnerable and upset, it's also where there's tremendous opportunity to grow together.”

Who says an evening with spreadsheets can’t be romantic?

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