7 Tips to Resolve Conflicts About Cash

A Young couple calculates their finances togetherUnresolved conflict about money can be a major factor in a couple’s decision to get a divorce. Learning to communicate effectively about money may be the best solution.

The ability to face, handle, and resolve conflict is a skill. Unfortunately it is usually not a skill we are taught in school. What we do learn about conflict, for better or worse, comes from observing how conflict was handled in our families growing up.

Some people may have grown up in homes where conflict was hidden; peace at all costs. No one dared take it on or discuss it. Differences lay silent for years. Conflict was swept under the rug and its existence denied. It may have been a quiet home, but there wasn’t deep and genuine closeness. Others may have experienced the opposite—a home where conflict reigned as king. Chronic conflict may have been driven by one or both parents. Maybe there were episodes of yelling, fighting, or sarcasm in which nothing was ever resolved and tension filled the air. Somewhere in between, there may have been homes where occasional fights occurred with raised voices, but parents made a consistent effort to come back and talk calmly about issues so they could come to a resolution, apologize, and make up.

What Did You Learn About Managing Conflict?

Education about financial matters can be scant or non-existent. I recall learning how to write checks and balance a checkbook in high school; but learning about income, debt, what it costs to buy a home or raise children, how to budget, why saving is so important, how a 401K or a Roth IRA works, the difference between a bond and a mutual fund, how to diversify a portfolio, or how to make financial decisions were all gaps in my education. Now combine two people—who were raised with different money values and experiences—into a marriage. Can you see why trying to communicate about and handle money differences can wreak havoc on a marriage?

What emotions do you feel about money?
What did you learn about handling finances?
How about your partner?

Our seven tips to resolving money conflict is a method we have used ourselves and with couples in Couple to Couple Coaching©. Conflict resolution is a skill anyone can learn. You and your partner can practice this, and then teach it to your kids.

1. Take it on together – Face and embrace conflict around money; do not avoid it or endlessly argue and fight about it. Carve out some quiet time for the two of you to talk without interruption, even if you have to hire a babysitter. Agree that during the discussion you will remember that this is not about who is right and who is wrong, but about two people with different points of view coming to a consensus.

Don’t put a conflict between the two of you; put the problem on the chalkboard and solve it as a team.

2. Check your emotions – Money can be a highly charged issue. Agree that one of you will speak at a time. Use “I” statements so you own your point of view. While one person is speaking, the other person must listen for understanding, not for developing their response back. Listen deeply until you understand your partner’s point of view so well that you could defend them in court, even if you don’t agree with it. If the conversation heats up even a little, agree that you will stop talking for the moment.

If you get emotionally hijacked during conflict, separate to soothe your own emotions; then come back to continue the discussion.

3. Get the facts – When couples come in with money conflicts, we often find that only one of them really knows what is going on financially, or that the two of them have never sat down together and looked at the numbers. How much income comes in? What are the fixed and variable expenses? Get your financial facts in order. If you don’t know how, agree to go to a financial adviser or your accountant to get this information.

Part of the solution to money conflict may lie with the numbers; imagine your home is a family business and do a Profit & Loss statement.

4. Explore “who owns the money” – Most couples we have seen don’t have equal income. Maybe one partner is staying home with the kids and earns no income, or two partners earn substantially different amounts of income. What we see in practice is the one who earns the greater income or the sole income feels entitled to decide how the money is spent. Often, the one who earns less or no money feels deterred from spending the partner’s money. Here is how we look at it:

If you truly believe that the investment and synthesis of innumerable tasks is what creates a family—child care, shopping, doing laundry, cleaning, paying bills, managing finances, scheduling doctors appointments, making money—then it follows that return on investment, including income, belongs to the couple as equal partners.

5. Look for deeper meaning – Often, disagreements about money are not really what they seem. Each of us have very different feelings about money. Have a conversation with your partner about what positive and/or negative feelings money brings up for you. Here is a list to get you started:

Conflict over money can be a metaphor for a deeper struggle. Talk with your partner about what money may represent to each of you based on your experience with money in the past. Here are some possibilities:

It is easier to have understanding and empathy for our partner’s point of view if we understand what money represents to our partner.

Our feelings about money can be understood if we look at our money history. Don’t make your partner wrong for having his or her feelings.

6. Create consensus – Couples will never agree on all money expenditures or savings, so there is a need to compromise and come to consensus. Neither person may get it all their way, but both can live with the decision.

Money is just a means of exchange for what we value. Since value is in the eye of the beholder, there is no right or wrong purchase.

7. Agree to ongoing dialogue periodically – We live in a world where we can’t avoid dealing with money, so it is vital that couples embrace this as an ongoing issue that they need to discuss from time to time. We suggest you review your finances together at least quarterly so you learn to approach the issues of saving, spending, and investing as a team.

The way a couple handles financial conflict is a portal into the strength of their relationship. Learning to effectively communicate about money builds a couple’s “relationship muscles.”

© Copyright 2011 by By Lori Hollander, LCSW-C, BCD, therapist in Owings Mills, Maryland. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • 31 comments
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  • Ron.Z

    June 15th, 2011 at 5:23 PM

    Maybe I’m too young to speak on this but when I do have a wife I would like to talk about how much each of us would contribute to the house and how that money is spent.The remaining from our incomes could be spent by each of us in any manner that she or I would like to.No questions asked.

    This not only creates a common account for the household but also gives freedom to spend the money you worked hard for.And I believe this would work without any major hiccups.

  • L.L.

    June 16th, 2011 at 12:32 AM

    What a great article, Lori! Thank you. It’s so helpful when we are given concrete steps like that to follow. My wife and I are often at odds over money. She grew up in a family where money was never an issue and mine was the opposite. Although I am successful now I remain cautious with spending because I know what it’s like to be poor. My wife thinks I’m being an old miser and keeps telling me “we can’t take it with us.” It’s hard to explain to her what it’s like to live in poverty because she has never experienced it. I would like to keep it that way.

  • sally M

    June 16th, 2011 at 4:15 AM

    I’m pretty sure the words you have mentioned would most often describe the feelings of individuals in relationships where there are financial disagreements. But what’s important in such a situation is the need to understand that you have different responsibilities in a relationship. That you just cannot behave as a single person and go about things. That you are in this relationship fully knowing about your responsibilities,including the financial ones!

  • Johnson

    June 16th, 2011 at 4:32 AM

    When I was growing up my parents were constantly fighting about money. I grew up with the sounds of arguing about the family finances ringing in my head. So I vowed to never argue about that with my spouse. Oh well. That resolve goes out the window when you get married and combine incomes. But these tips are pretty helpful. I even had my wife look through them with me and she agrees. We both think that changes are not going to come overnight because the problems were not created overnight but that this could go a long way toward helping resove some issues that we have been trying to avoid for a long time now.

  • gerrald

    June 16th, 2011 at 1:40 PM

    if money is so important to you then better not get married or live in with a partner.I’m not saying you don’t deserve one or that you need to hand over all your money to your partner or spouse but it is only imperative that when you run a household together there will be issues that will need to be resolved rationally and that you can’t just behave like you would if you were alone!

  • GraceDrake

    June 16th, 2011 at 6:58 PM

    From when we got engaged, we discussed money openly and how we’d manage it. We have a central account we both put money into each month that covers all the bills and necessities, plus a savings account we both contribute to.

    What’s left we’re both free to do with as we please. If we plan a vacation, we up the amount we put into the savings account to cover that.

    There’s been times when I earned more and times when he’s earned more. We just split how much we both contributed by percentages of our incomes, rather than x amount each, to keep it fair. Obviously it’s needed tweaked over the years as we’ve made new purchases, moved house, etc. but so far so good.

    It’s really important to feel that independence of having the freedom to spend if you want to. Even if you’re not drawing a salary and are a stay-at-home parent, you need to have a little cash of your own in your pocket.

  • V.S. Rodriguez

    June 18th, 2011 at 12:46 AM

    I think the money should be only be divided after all the bills have been paid. As long as there are debts and bills to pay, nobody in the house owns the money!It belongs to whoever the bill payments need to go to.

    So few couples realize that and keep paying by credit card, putting off the day they have to actually PAY debts. A credit card’s only adding to your financial problems, not solving them.

  • Lori Hollander

    June 18th, 2011 at 10:04 AM

    Ron,
    What you are describing sounds great AND you may have some hiccups but with your attitude I believe you and your partner will work them through! Thanks for sharing.
    Lori

  • Lori Hollander

    Lori Hollander

    June 18th, 2011 at 10:10 AM

    L.L. – Thanks for your kind words. You and your wife can help each other if she can help you enjoy and spend a little more and you can help her save a little more. Communication is the key.
    Thanks for your comments.
    Lori

  • Lori Hollander

    Lori Hollander

    June 18th, 2011 at 10:12 AM

    Sally,
    You got it! I love what you said about remembering you can’t behave as if you are single. Some people don’t understand that. Marriage involves many compromises.
    Appreciate your input.
    Lori

  • Lori Hollander

    Lori Hollander

    June 18th, 2011 at 10:16 AM

    Johnson,
    Wonderful!! So glad the tips were helpful. If you have any questions feel free to email. Lori

  • Lori Hollander

    Lori Hollander

    June 18th, 2011 at 10:17 AM

    Gerrald,
    Very true!! Thanks for your comments.
    Lori

  • Lori Hollander

    Lori Hollander

    June 18th, 2011 at 10:19 AM

    GraceDrake,
    I love what you two have done. Sounds like you have done a lot of communicating. That’s what it takes. Thanks for sharing your methods.
    Lori

  • Lori Hollander

    Lori Hollander

    June 18th, 2011 at 10:23 AM

    V.S. – Yes many couples do use credit cards as if they were cash. I totally agree, debt needs to be paid first by couples and then work out what happens with the rest.

    It’s easy to fall into the habit of charging. And it can be a dangerous habit.

    Appreciate your thoughts!
    Lori

  • Temperance J.

    June 18th, 2011 at 8:44 PM

    It’s imperative that you agree to divide the total joint income in a family into three categories: my money, his money, our money. What you do with your own money is your business, but nobody is allowed to touch the Our Money without permission.

  • R.S.P.

    June 18th, 2011 at 8:58 PM

    @Temperance J. — That’s all good in theory but how do you enforce that? Give one person the bank card and one person the PIN code? That comes with its own issues and whoever has the PIN can steal the card and take the money. Yes, I said steal. Had an ex gf do that very thing to a joint savings account because I stupidly never ever checked what was in it.

    She told me she’d handle all the money and she sure did. Right into her pocket. Emptied the account apart from a couple of dollars one day and left the next while I was at work. It was too late by the time I found out. She had skipped town.

  • L.S. Robbin

    June 19th, 2011 at 10:08 PM

    Relationships are about trust. However, the unsavory types are becoming better at concealing their motives. You can’t seem to trust anybody these days to be who they present themselves to be.

    I’ve vowed to never get married because of how many women are gold diggers. You can hardly get past a first date without them fishing for information on what you earn.

    What you see is not what you get as R.S.P proved there. Seperate bank accounts all the way!

  • fern bailey

    June 19th, 2011 at 11:07 PM

    @L.S Robbins– I agree that’s the world we live in today by all appearances. Why can’t we trust people anymore? You have to watch your back 24/7.

    And don’t jump to blame women please. Men are just as guilty of manipulation as women are, especially if you’re widowed. It used to be you could take a man at his word and it would be as good as a written contract. What happened to that standard I doubt we’ll ever know.

  • Gabe Coleman

    June 19th, 2011 at 11:45 PM

    @fernbailey — Money happened. Greed happened. A decline in common decency happened.

    As a society we are extremely uptight about money no matter what. Most don’t discuss it because they were brought up being told “it’s rude” to do so. Funny enough,they are completely incapable of saying why it’s taboo.

    Eventually money becomes such a big deal that it’s understandable some end up doing whatever it takes to have it when they have none of their own-and that includes pretending to be what they are not.

    Bottom line is you cannot survive without money. It’s impossible. And if you don’t have it, suddenly all those standards you may once have held dear are disregarded. It’s tough to hang onto them when you’re penniless.

  • Lori Hollander

    Lori Hollander

    June 20th, 2011 at 7:15 AM

    Temperance,
    Thanks for your ideas. That is a system that would work for many couples.
    Lori

  • Lori Hollander

    Lori Hollander

    June 20th, 2011 at 7:25 AM

    R.S.P. – So sorry to hear about your experience. The most painful lessons we learn can be most valuable.
    Lori

  • Lori Hollander

    Lori Hollander

    June 20th, 2011 at 7:47 AM

    L.S. and Fern – It is very hurtful when people you think are trustworthy let you down. It’s as if they are not who you thought they were; we then tend to doubt our judgment or generalize that “all” men/women are untrustworthy. Trust has to be earned over time.

    Giving up on finding a loving partner is safe, but not the only answer. You can learn to date consciously. We have a tool that can help you do just that. Head, Heart & Hormones for Singles: What Every Single Person Should Know About Finding Lasting Love is a 16 page worksheet that guides you through a method to assess who it is that you are dating. I have used this with clients and it is amazing to see what happens when you know what to look for in a potential new partner BEFORE you get emotionally attached.
    I’d be glad to answer any questions.
    Lori

  • Lori Hollander

    Lori Hollander

    June 20th, 2011 at 8:02 AM

    Gabe, Thanks for your comments. It is amazing how taboo money is in our culture. I always say many people have sex with someone before they know how much that person earns or whether they have debt.

    I don’t think that character (honesty, trustworthiness) is correlated with how much or little money one has. Look at all the corporate scandals that go on, where millionaires/billionaires steal others’ money. And I know people with little financially who I would trust fully.

    Let me know your thoughts.
    Lori

  • jackmorrison

    June 22nd, 2011 at 3:20 PM

    I wish folks wouldn’t be so emotional about money. I agree you need it to live, but sometimes they overreact completely about it, and the funny thing is it’s not always about not having any.

    We were happier as a couple when we were poorer because we led simpler lives. Now we have spare cash we fight more about where it should be going and on what. It’s true: money can’t buy happiness.

  • C. Scott

    June 23rd, 2011 at 11:14 PM

    After reading point 3, it reminded me of my brother who was fretting over his finances while completely forgetting about the $10,000 in his old bank in his home town. I was going to remind him about it until I elected not to since it was his fault he couldn’t keep track of his own money. He clean forgot about telling me about that.

    He makes a bunch, but he spends it as fast as he gets it. Trust me, I’m looking out for him by not mentioning it right now. Can you imagine having so much money coming in that you lose track and could be so careless that you forget about $10K??? It’ll probably be all he has left one day and only because he forgot it and I didn’t.

  • Lori Hollander

    Lori Hollander

    June 24th, 2011 at 8:55 PM

    Jack, Thanks for sharing. You are absolutely right!The reason money is so tough is because it is soooo emotional. Just remember money is a means of exchange for what you value. Since we value different things, there are bound to be disagreements. If you can accept this, you might be able to reduce the conflict.
    Take care,
    Lori

  • Lori Hollander

    Lori Hollander

    June 24th, 2011 at 9:09 PM

    C. Scott,
    Thanks for sharing. Sounds like you are trying to protect your brother. And that it is hard to watch him making and spending so much.
    Lori

  • Cathy Hasty

    October 17th, 2012 at 5:51 PM

    This is a good article. One area with which I would like more development is in the fairness/unfairness of unbalanced income. Every marriage and relationship has a ledger, and the balance deserves attention. Some partners have a sense of entitlement to being financially supported while another may feel entitled to be physically supported. This contract needs to be examined and discussed. Nagy is a wonderful theories who acknowledges the ledgers and the way justice is worked out in relationship.

  • Lori Hollander

    Lori Hollander

    October 18th, 2012 at 6:38 AM

    Cathy,
    Thanks for your comment! I agree, fairness/unfairness is a big issue in relationships whether it is about income/division of labor/child care or any other issue that involves putting forth effort to create the life people live together. You have inspired me to write more about this!
    Thank you,
    Lori

  • Susangh

    February 17th, 2016 at 8:35 AM

    He claimed to not indulge in porn but wound up getting fired for doing it at work. He kept secret big life events like surviving an armed robbery at our local liquor store. He has secret buying sprees of toy soldiers and eventually strangled me when I confronted him about one. Short of murder, all he has left to control me with is money. This marriage should not be saved.

  • Lori Hollander

    Lori Hollander

    February 17th, 2016 at 10:00 AM

    Susan, I agree. It’s most important that you are safe. Please call the National Domestic Violence Hotline thehotline.org to get referred for help in your local area. Lori

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