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4 Ways to Stop Fighting About Money

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

Medically reviewed in May 2022

Updated on May 24, 2022

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Money is a sticky subject for even the strongest of relationships. According to a 2021 poll from the American Institute of CPAs, nearly three-quarters of Americans who cohabit or are married say financial issues cause relationship tension. Almost half say money has created intimacy problems. It’s little wonder, then, 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.

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Keep In Mind: It's Not Just 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—whether that’s saving up 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 can help partners from getting sidetracked when they go to the store for one thing and come out with a shopping bag filled something else. You might start creating goals by sketching out short-, medium-, and long-term priorities.

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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 you or 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 they’re buying something new—can keep you from losing your patience when you have differing views.

If the two of you haven’t shared how money was handled in your families when growing up, 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.

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Remember, It doesn't matter who did what

While it isn’t necessary to discuss your finances every day, Durvasula recommends that you have a conversation about where things stand each month. A logical time would be when bills are paid. If one partner is responsible for 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 like, “I can’t believe how much you spent!” or assigning blame: “If you keep overspending, 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.

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Recognize the challenges of unequal incomes

In about 30 percent of American heterosexual families where both partners work, women are the breadwinners, according to 2020 data from the U.S. Census Bureau. 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 can have a psychological impact.” In fact, one 2021 study published in American Sociological Review found that in countries where the “male-breadwinner” model is strongly entrenched in the culture, men’s unemployment is linked to a higher risk of couples becoming separated.

Now, more than ever, it may be valuable to appreciate all sources of income coming into a household, regardless of which partner is responsible for more, as well as all sources of work that contribute to the upkeep of the home. The COVID-19 pandemic has upended many families’ finances, particularly in lower-income households. According to a 2020 Stateline survey, mothers with children under age 12 saw about 12 percent job losses during the pandemic, whereas fathers of younger children only saw job losses of about 4 percent.   

For a couple to successfully navigate income inequality, “everything can’t be an attack or an insult,” Durvasula says. Communication is key—as well as recognizing the contributions of both partners, even ones not tied to the family’s purse strings.

Deborah Wilburn is the author of For Richer, Not Poorer: The Newlywed’s Financial Survival Guide.

Slideshow sources open slideshow sources

Relationship Intimacy Being Crushed by Financial Tension: AICPA Survey. February 4, 2021.
United States Census Bureau. Historical Income Tables: Families. Last Revised: November 8, 2021.
Gonalons-Pons P, Gangl M. Marriage and Masculinity: Male-Breadwinner Culture, Unemployment, and Separation Risk in 29 Countries. Am Sociol Rev. 2021;86(3):465-502.

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