4 Ways to Stop Fighting About Money
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4 Ways to Stop Fighting About Money

Finances can be a relationship minefield—but they don't have to be.

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By Deborah Wilburn

Money is a sticky subject for even the strongest of marriages. According to a 2014 American Psychological Association (APA) Stress in America study, 31 percent of adults with partners said that money caused the greatest conflict in their relationships. Little wonder that many couples would rather avoid the subject altogether.

“It’s not the most romantic thing to talk about,” says Ramani Durvasula, PhD, psychologist and author of Should I Stay or Should I Go? Surviving a Relationship with a Narcissist. But talking about money is a necessity if you’re going to maintain a realistic spending plan, keep your finances afloat and reach mutual goals. These four truths can help you cut the bickering and have healthier, more productive money conversations.

Keep in mind: It's not about the money

2 / 5 Keep in mind: It's not about the money

Think of the paper money and coins in your wallet as a means to an end. “What counts is the family’s priorities,” says Dr. Durvasula. She says that focusing on your collective goals—saving for a trip to Rome, or adding a certain amount to your retirement fund every year—is the better way to control spending. “Post your goals on the fridge or in some other visible place so that everyone is clear about the plan,” Durvasula says. Seeing that picture or list (you might make one for short, medium and long-term goals) can help partners from getting sidetracked when they go to the store for one thing and come out with a shopping bag of something else.

Know that Your ideas about spending go way back

3 / 5 Know that Your ideas about spending go way back

Attitudes and fears about money are typically forged in childhood and can play a role in whether your partner is a spendthrift, a penny pincher or something in-between. “Everyone has an emotional financial vocabulary,” says Durvasula. “Money is always the emotional third rail. But when you understand where your partner is coming from, it’s possible to be more compassionate.” Knowing your partner is the type of saver who sees vacation as a waste of money or seems happiest when he’s buying something new can keep you from blowing a gasket when you have differing views.

If the two of you haven’t shared how money was handled in your family, it’s never too late. Doing so can help defuse the arguments and money-related stress—and increase the possibility of finding compromises to solve money problems.

Remember, It doesn't matter who did what

4 / 5 Remember, It doesn't matter who did what

While it isn’t necessary to discuss your finances every day (relief!), Durvasula recommends that you have a conversation about where things stand each month. A logical time would be when bills are paid. (And even if one spouse is responsible for the act of paying bills, the other should know the checking account balance and how much cash is going out.) This is also the time when, in looking at bills and statements, it may become clear that a partner consistently spends too much in one area, such as buying overly generous birthday and holiday gifts.

While it’s important to recognize when one of you gets off track, avoid accusations (“I can’t believe how much you spent!”) and assigning blame (“We’ll never get ahead!”). A better tack, says Durvasula, is to problem-solve ways to compensate for the overspending, putting it in the context of “we.”

“Pose it as ‘Let’s think about how we can cut back next month,’” she says. "And don't make the solution feel like a punishment. You might agree not to go to the movies the following month." Instead, make more use of your Netflix or Hulu account while enjoying a bowl of budget-friendly homemade popcorn.

Recognize the challenges of unequal incomes

5 / 5 Recognize the challenges of unequal incomes

These days some five million married women with kids under age 18 are the primary breadwinners in their households, according to a 2013 Pew Research Center analysis of statistics from the US Census Bureau—and that can cause tension for some couples.

“Men are socialized to be providers,” says Durvasula. “If men are underemployed or not working at all it has a psychological impact.” If the numbers still add up each month thanks to his partner's income, “he may be frustrated and feel he’s letting the family down,” she says. And what about Mom as the breadwinner? “She may feel a loss of maternal power, and they can end up resenting each other.”

But for a couple to successfully navigate these rocky shoals, “everything can’t be an attack or an insult,” Durvasula says. Communication is key—as well as recognizing the contributions of both spouses, whether or not they’re tied to the family’s purse strings.

Deborah Wilburn is a personal finance writer, author of For Richer, Not Poorer: The Newlywed’s Financial Survival Guide (Perigee/Penguin Publishing Group) and Senior Content Producer at MoneyFit/Sharecare.