According to the February 13 issue of Newsweek, couples fight about money more than any other subject. The magazine didn’t cite a study. I suppose it’s one of those generally agreed upon “facts.”
I don’t think K and I have ever fought about money. As far as I can tell none of the couples we know fight about finances either. When my married buddies admit to fighting at all, the causes are similar to ours. That is to say, they involve things like potato chips, toenails, and table manners.
It could be that I am naive, that every loving couple I know is punching it out over who makes how much and what to do with it. It’s possible that the only reason K and I have not duked it out over dollars is because in our relationship the person who makes the money is also the big spender.
K has always been a very shrewd shopper. And although I have spent 30 years trying to correct her of this habit, she persists. Most of our clothes are bought at Marshall’s or T.J. Maxx – chains that discount brand-name goods. Household supplies are brought at Pier I or Target. I don’t totally approve of this sort of thrifty behavior … and I don’t practice it myself. But we each let the other do what he/she wants to do, and that system has worked out fine.
The trick to avoiding financial fights, Newsweek says, is to agree on an amount of money each person can spend without consulting the other. Above that, the magazine advises, you can discuss it. This makes perfect sense to me. In fact, I think that’s what we do. It’s just that we’ve never enunciated the number.
K knows that she could never spend the number I would pick for her. And when I spend a lot of money on something, she reminds me how insane I am … and I reassure her that I am still well within any reasonable spending budget.
I think we would have a much more difficult time of it if I were a penny-pincher and she were profligate. If K spent money like … well, let’s just say certain friends I can think of … I would probably try to rein her in and that would be a big problem. (K won’t be reined in on any field.)
Olivia Mellan, a couples therapist who specializes in finance, told Newsweek that spenders often marry savers, and vice versa. She advises her clients to identify their roles and swap them. The goal, the magazine said, is to “meet in the middle.”
Mellan also advises couples to keep some of their money separate “to avoid losing their own identities.” But she admits that most couples don’t like to do that. K and I sort of do that, I guess. She pays the household bills from her own account, but it’s an account that is funded from mine. She doesn’t ask me for the money. She calls the bank and has it transferred over. The idea of separating our money doesn’t really make any sense, when you think of it. In Florida, as in most states, each person is entitled to half their combined wealth. But that is only meaningful if you plan to separate some day. K and I have no such plans.
Everything I’ve said so far would probably seem like so much foolishness to couples whose income is limited. When you are barely getting by and one partner starts gambling or goes on a spending spree … that’s a situation where a big fight is warranted. If I were advising a couple in that situation, I’d say to turn the control of the money over to the thrifty partner, regardless of who earned it. And if that doesn’t stop the fighting, the problem is deeper than money and will take more than budgeting conversations and separate bank accounts to resolve.
The best way to avoid the possibility of fighting over money is to dramatically increase your income while you convert your spending habit to an investing habit. You can find out how to do both by reading Chapters 4 and 5 of Automatic Wealth. And you can get the book at the incredibly good price of only $16.47 at Amazon.com.[Ed. Note: Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]