Love and Money: He Spends, She Saves, They Fight

Last Updated Feb 16, 2010 12:50 PM EST

A different woman might have been thrilled to receive a gift-wrapped $2,000 designer handbag from her spouse. But not Cicely Wedgeworth. That kind of lavish gesture "would be great if he were my boyfriend," she says, "instead of my husband." An inveterate saver, Cicely would rather make do with her canvas tote, funneling that money toward their son's college fund or their mortgage instead. Meanwhile, Cicely's husband, Wesley Yun, feels like when it comes to being generous with his wife, no good deed goes unpunished.

Even in flush times, money is one of the biggest sources of arguments among couples, and when finances are tight, it takes more than a box of chocolates to sugarcoat the clashes that occur over different spending styles. Oddly enough, your mate’s approach to money may have stoked your fire in a different way at one point: In a recent study, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Michigan and Northwestern showed that “tightwads” tend to be attracted to (and marry) “spendthrifts.” (And you thought it was her button nose). Wes, indeed, is a prodigious spender — on everything from tailored Alexander McQueen suits to group dinners to motorcycles, much to his wife’s dismay. “I can’t control him,” she says, “and direct confrontation is not helpful because he gets so defensive.”

What makes these financial fights so painful? “Our emotions and attitudes about money have been deeply embedded by our families, so we tend to hold on to these beliefs and attitudes and have difficulty letting them go,” says marriage therapist and Kansas State University Professor Kristy Archuleta. She points to another study that determined that money wasn’t necessarily the most frequently argued-about topic, but that it did cause the most intense debates.

What we choose to save or spend our money on aren’t mere preferences so much as the defining principles of who we are, so when we “collide with our partner, then part of our core feels attacked,” explains Archuleta.

Family Values

Cicely, for example, comes from a family of savers. As a newlywed, Cicely’s mother set aside money each week until she could afford to buy the muffin tin she wanted for baking. And on one modest salary — Cicely’s mother stopped working when her daughter was born — Cicely’s parents put her through a prestigious boarding school in New Hampshire, then four years at Harvard.

“They made it happen by being frugal,” Cicely says.

Wes, on the other hand, has a more traumatic history with money. Both his parents were immigrants who made a fortune — and then lost it in the ’80s real estate meltdown. Scarred by feast or famine, he admits, his approach towards money throughout his 20s was “to get rid of it as quickly as possible.” And now, he says, “every once in a while, I’ll have a meltdown when I’m stressed out or feeling crappy about something, and I’ll just want to get my spendorphins on.”

These days, Cicely and Wes feel like their financial fights have all the variety of a Seinfeld rerun. As someone who put himself through college, Wes says his wife still hasn’t made the practical connection between financial incentives and career goals — so she focuses on, say, her dream of writing of cookbook instead of on the most efficient way to bank $100,000. “I love my wife, and I want to support her dreams, but the purpose of a job is earning money,” he says. “It’s one thing to love something like cooking, but maybe it could be a hobby?”

Whereas Cicely, who works part-time as a web producer, doesn’t feel like she can earn significantly more money without sacrificing significant time with Parker, their 10-month-old son. The couple didn’t map out a child care plan for Parker before he was born, and Wes suspects that his wife’s ideas about bread-winning are influenced by the model of her own mother.

Bigger Fights, Revenge Spending

And now, their different expectations are causing trouble. “I make like three times as much as she does, and I think she just expects me to provide, but what I need her to understand is that I can’t do it on my own,” says Wes. “She’s picked up the frugal thing, sure, but not the earning and saving model.”

They both want to be able to send their son to private school, but Wes feels as if his wife is oblivious to how many hundreds of dollars they’d have to save each month to do so. And the situation isn’t getting any better. “I do a little bit of revenge spending,” Wes admits. “I know it’s a horrible, horrible thing to say when you’re married, but sometimes, when I feel like she’s not contributing, I’ll splurge on a motorcycle here and there.”

Their default dynamic always boils down to her position — we should save more money — versus his position that Cicely should stop scrutinizing every dollar going out and just make more. “And this is where it ends,” says Cicely — “because I can’t just go out and get a really high-paying job that second in order to end the argument.”

So who is going to win this debate? Wrong question. Resolving any kind of money issue in a marriage isn’t based on being right; it’s about making compromises you can both live with.

How to Stop Fighting

You have to do something different, too, to allow your spouse the desire to change,” says Archuleta. “If I wanted my husband to do more housework, for example, I’d have to start by being less critical of the way he loads the dishwasher.”

Cicely and Wes would do well to try the same thing: She should search for a higher-paying job. She doesn’t have to take something that’s a bad fit for her or their family, but it would probably mean a lot to her husband if she at least got out there and looked around.

And Wes should respect his wife’s role as a mother. He also needs to sit down with his wife and crunch the numbers to figure out how much money they have to save for their son’s education every month — and then set it up so the savings occur automatically. The good news: “They’re both in favor of private education — which means they have shared goals,” says Archuleta — which is a huge plus, “they just have very different ways of getting there.”

For advice on how to resolve clashes over money with your mate, check out “10 Ways to Stop Fighting About Money.”

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