Last Updated Jan 31, 2011 4:37 PM EST
Fireworks are an enduring metaphor for one of the better aspects of a healthy marriage. But when it comes to matters financial, the pyrotechnics can get ugly. And even though the conventional wisdom is wrong — conflicts over money are probably not the No. 1 cause of divorce — finances were a huge source of friction among couples even before the Great Recession came along.
We consulted financial pros and marriage counselors to get their best advice for overcoming money woes and ensuring a friction-free financial relationship.
1. Pay Your Bills Together
“Traditionally one spouse handles all the money and investing; it’s very rare for couples to physically sit down with all their bills and statements and write the checks together,” says CFP and radio host Louis Scatigna, author of The Financial Physician. But, he stresses, “you and your honey should manage the money.” These joint sessions — ideally held once a month, he says — prevent the less savvy partner from becoming financially oblivious.
Obviously, the more you both know, the better: It’s one thing to wonder in an abstract way if you can afford a cashmere overcoat, and quite another to know that your mortgage payment will bounce if you buy it. Sharing the check-reckoning burden also helps couples shift from adversaries to teammates, who can strategize, motivate, and hold each other accountable for whittled spending.
2. Set (Realistic) Goals
“You’re just not going to attain goals that are beyond your reach,” says Scatigna: Unrealistic expectations don’t just fail to incentivize you, they fuel conflict and stress and actually set you up for savings sabotage. (“What’s the point?” has a way of drowning out the voice in your head that says, “Let’s get as close as we can.”)
A corollary to this idea is that the more ambitious the goal, the more important it is for both parties to be motivated by it. The time to start thinking about education is when your child is a toddler, if not before.
3. Avoid a Parent-Child Dynamic
When one of you dictates where the money goes while the other shows independence — or rebellion — by breaking those rules, you’re creating a parent-child dynamic within the marriage. And, yes, that’s as unhealthy as it sounds. “It’s also really hard for couples to recognize that pattern on their own,” says Kristy Archuleta, a professor at Kansas State University’s Institute of Personal Financial Planning, as well as a marriage counselor. To rebalance, the “parent” character has to cede an equal amount of power and responsibility to the “child” in the relationship, says Archuleta, “so that they’re both acting more like adults together.” If establishing equality is the goal, curbing your use of terms like “longer leash” and “allowance” also helps.
4. Consider Your Partner’s Happiness
“People put their money where their values are,” says Dr. Scott Haltzman, the author of The Secrets of Happy Families, so try “taking a step back and defining what each of your top three core values are.” One of you might put a premium on saving for the future, whereas the other might be inspired by the promise of a nice vacation or donating to charity. The fact is, you can’t judge another person’s core values. But an increased awareness of them “gives you the opportunity to have a real, honest discussion when you are about to spend money,” Haltzman says. “You can say, ‘Well, let’s take a look at your list to decide if this meets with your needs.’”
This way, you’re basing your endorsement on their criteria, not yours. And if your partner wants something, Haltzman adds, “You have to consider how happy it will make them.”
5. Create ‘Preset Spending Limits’
MasterCard may be cool with a $300 charge at REI, but your spouse may see things differently. “A couple should decide in advance at what price point you have to have a family meeting to discuss a purchase,” says Haltzman. “Successful relationships are based on the establishment of trust,” and a spend-first/apologize-later strategy “feels like a betrayal.”
In other words, Haltzman says: “If I’m going out and buying a 12-foot sailboat, my wife oughta know.”
6. Schedule Skirmishes
It may sound counterintuitive to carve out time for a hot-topic discussion, but at least you’ll know in advance how long the pain’s going to last. Like any other meeting, this strategy also enables you to outline an agenda, says Archuleta, who advises stating at the outset: “We’re only going to talk for 30 minutes, we’re going to be very focused, this is the topic, and when that time’s up, we’re done talking about it for the day.”
These boundaries, she says, also contain the conflict. Long term, that makes it less likely to bleed into other areas of your relationship; in the short term, such guidelines can keep the conversation from ruining your weekend.
7. Switch Sides
The problem with having the same argument over and over again is that you each become more and more entrenched in your positions — like a marital version of Hardball. To build a bridge between disparate spending and saving positions, says psychotherapist and Overcoming Overspending author Olivia Mellan, “you need to learn empathetic communication techniques, where each person listens to the other and plays back exactly what they said from the speaker’s perspective. And if they do that regularly, they might get closer.”
It’s not easy. Especially because this requires fully inhabiting your partner’s point of view, “and saying what makes sense about their perspective in a compassionate way,” says Mellan. No eye-rolling or passive-aggression allowed.
8. Lay on the Compliments
I ask couples to “acknowledge their secret envy and appreciation for their partner’s style,” says Mellan. “Spenders often admire their partner’s ability to budget, prioritize, and save, but they don’t tell them that because they’re afraid their spouse will rein them in more tightly. Likewise, hoarders secretly admire the spender’s ability to enjoy life, not worry, and be generous, but they don’t tell them because they’re afraid it will give them the license to spend more wildly.”
In any case, a profusion of goodwill statements allows each person to feel safe enough to respond graciously and admit where they’re wrong: “Well, thank you, but I don’t set enough limits,” or, “And I’m a little too tight.” It’s all about moving to the middle.
9. Automate, Automate, Automate
Want less conflict? Make fewer decisions. A set-it-and-forget-it approach to saving isn’t about avoiding tough decisions, it’s about not having to revisit them every single week. Just imagine what your 401(k) would look like if you had to decide — on every payday — how much of your paycheck to forgo.
“Forced savings is painless because you don’t have any thought processes involved, so you’re less likely to override an automated deposit,” Scatigna says. Once automation takes over, “if the money’s not available, you’ll make it work with what is available.”
10. Admit When You’re Stalled
If your arguments start to spin out of control or, worse, never go anywhere, “you might need to pull in a third person.” Underlying relationship issues — respect, trust, security, power, control — often get triggered by (and lumped in with) conflicts over money, says Archuleta, who helped establish the newly minted Financial Therapy Association. “There are people around the country like me who specialize in couples who are experiencing financial issues.”
Just bear in mind that “you cannot change another person — your partner has to decide to do something different and, in turn, you have to do something different, too,” she says.
Assuming, that is, that you’re ready and willing to move forward. Because, she notes, “if you’re a financial planner, you can make the greatest plan in the world, but that doesn’t mean that your clients will agree to follow it.”
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