A Trusted Friend in a Complicated World

Don’t Want to Fight Over Money? Stop Doing These 12 Things

Squabbles over finances are one of the top reasons for divorce. Try these tips—they just might save your relationship.

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Avoiding the ‘money talk’

According to a Money Magazine poll of married adults over age 25 with household incomes above $50,000, 70 percent of couples argued about money more than household chores, time spent together, sex, snoring, and what’s for dinner. What gives? Most likely, they, like many other couples around the world, are avoiding the dreaded ‘money talk.’ “Most couples aren’t on the same page when it comes to money,” says Kitty Bressington, CFP, a financial advisor for Linden Financial Consultants in New York. She recommends setting aside time each week to have a conversation about finances—and putting absolutely everything on the table. “People often split the money conversation between household budgets/spending and investing,” she says. “Money conversations should be about all things money,” including topics like spending habits, budgets, investments, and family spending history.

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Jumping right to the big topics

Although it’s important to talk about money, jumping straight to the million-dollar question (which differs depending on the couple) is a huge hurdle to leap right away. Instead, Bressington recommends keeping the conversation light and short for the first couple of weeks. Focus on what the upcoming expenses are for the next week, and how well you both stuck to the previous week’s plan. Once you get comfortable with that, start discussing more long-term goals, or why you each have the spending habits you do. “Then you can start to build a solid money future,” Bressington says. And rest assured, money is one of those normal fights that even happy couples have.

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Sharing every penny

Most financial advisors give joint bank accounts a big thumbs up. After all, “it fosters openness and teamwork” when couples share responsibility for the household income, says Matt Bell, blogger and author of Money & Marriage: A Complete Guide For Engaged and Newly Married Couples. But sharing every penny can also lead to secrets, distrust, and blame between partners, especially if they have different spending habits and personalities. To avoid those fights, Bressington recommends setting aside a certain amount of money for each partner to spend on whatever they want—no questions asked. This gives the couple some freedom to spend on themselves, sans guilt (and fights!). Here are even more surprising secrets of the most happily married couples.

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Letting one person handle the budget

Whether you have a one-income household or both are wage-earners, having just one partner manage the household budget is a big no-no. Not only can it leave one-half of the relationship in the dark when it comes to expenses, but it can also lead to misunderstanding and distrust between the couple. “Many fights are based on at least one party simply not knowing or not understanding—sometimes it’s both parties,” Bressington says. “Establish a base level of understanding, and the fights subside.” Still, “it can be helpful to divvy up the financial responsibilities,” Bell says. Understanding each other’s strengths and weaknesses (like ability to stick to a budget or make acute financial decisions) can help you decide which partner should be in charge of each aspect of the budget. “Both spouses should be in on the overall decisions, but play to each other’s strengths when it comes to who’s going to be responsible for what,” Bell says.

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Not hiring a financial advisor

Too stingy to hire a financial advisor? It may cost you more money in the long run. When a couple pays for a financial coach, they could actually save more than their fee down the road. After all, it’s often easier to talk about some of the icky, emotional subjects with a third party, who can help diffuse the more uncomfortable and tense conversations if need be. “If you aren’t having a successful money relationship without a coach, paying for a couple hours of our time can pay for itself in dividends for many years to come,” Bressington says.

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Resisting instead of recognizing your differences

Whether it’s personalities, spending habits, or just growing up in separate households, the differences between you and your partner could be the reason behind your fights about money. “Two people coming together having been raised in different ways, having had different experiences with money, having different assumptions and goals around money, having different temperaments—those are a lot of differences to try to reconcile,” Bell says. “It takes time to get on the same page.” But patience with and understanding of each other’s financial differences is key, and could end up saving your relationship. “If you have really different tastes, go slow,” Bell says.

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Ignoring the positive

In many disagreements about money, emotions often flare when there’s a problem, and few people focus on the positives. “Often, money comes up as a topic of conversation only when there’s an issue,” says Bell. “But when you regularly affirm what you see your spouse doing well with money, that makes them much more open to talking about their uses of money that you’re not so crazy about.” He advises couples to find ways to compliment and encourage their partner regarding how they use and spend money, whether that’s congratulating them on a wise financial decision or thanking them for working hard at their jobs. That way, when a squabble does come up, they’re already starting on a more positive footing.

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Keeping secrets

The number one piece of advice any new couple receives: Don’t keep secrets from your partner. But few rarely follow it when it comes down to money; in fact, several surveys have found that nearly one-third of couples aren’t entirely forthright about their finances with their significant others. Even more, one in five Americans in a relationship say they have spent $500 or more and not told their partner, and six percent maintain secret accounts or credit cards, according to a poll conducted by creditcards.com. “I always encourage engaged couples to have full financial disclosure before marriage and complete ongoing financial transparency after marriage,” Bell says. From signing pre-nups to paying off debts, every couple has different monetary needs and preferences, depending on their position in life and financial situation. But in the end, laying it all on the table money-wise will keep your relationship healthy—in more ways than one.

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Emotional spending

Some go shopping in the evenings because they don’t want to go home to an empty house, while others buy presents for their children to compensate for their feelings of inadequacy as parents. No matter the case, lots of people are emotional spenders. Identifying and minimizing the trigger to a partner’s emotional spending is key to building a budget-conscious relationship, according to Bressington. “We need to identify those triggers and put up little hurdles to help avoid the spending,” she says. For example, if you are avoiding an empty house, try turning on a radio or TV or cooking your dinner in a slow-cooker so it’s waiting for you to get home. Even little changes in habit can go a long way to avoiding fights about money.

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Not budgeting

In Bressington’s words, “Budgets are the foundation of everything.” They keep couples on the same financial page, foster teamwork, and provide “an objective source of financial truth” if disagreements arise, Bell says. He and his wife use the online budget tool mint.com, which allows them to access their complete financial picture—from entertainment to groceries to retirement savings—any time and anywhere.

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Blaming your partner (especially for past purchases)

Leave the past where it belongs—in the past. “Blame doesn’t do anyone any good,” Bressington says. “Looking backwards doesn’t help, either.” While it might be easy to immediately jump down each others’ throats when someone even mentions money, approaching the topic with a little patience and kindness can go a long way to building a better, more trusting relationship. When discussing finances, avoid bringing up past expenses or disputes; it will only hurt, rather than help, your conversation about money. Plus, these phrases are guaranteed to make any argument worse.

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Falling into debt

Living within your means could do wonders for the financial health and longevity of your relationship. In fact, being in debt has been shown to create irreconcilable problems for couples. A 2005 study of over 1,000 randomly-selected newlywed couples found that those with the “highest amounts of debt (e.g., $20,000 to $50,000) had the lowest marital satisfaction and adjustment scores of all participants.” The long and short of it is: “Debt is like a cancer on a marriage,” Bell says. “Living without debt removes a huge source of stress, which is really helpful for the quality of the marriage.” Every couple could use this happy marriage advice.

Brooke Nelson Alexander
Brooke is a tech and consumer products writer covering the latest in digital trends, product reviews, security and privacy, and other news and features for Reader's Digest. She's a two-time Emmy-nominated reporter with nearly 10 years of publishing experience, and her work has been recognized by the Columbia Scholastic Press Association.