Money: What Successful Couples Know

A close-up of a person's hands taking cash out of a purse.With all of our tax returns due in April, the subject of money—what we make and how we spend it—has been on many of our minds. It’s never far away, of course. Managing our resources is one of the most important life skills we will ever have. And with the realities of this last recession—bank failures, job losses, upside down mortgages, and eviscerated pension plans—money and financial issues have been on our minds more than ever.

Since money is the way our society exchanges resources (that nice, new pair of sneakers for this small group of green paper bills, for example), we need money to live. It’s right up there with health, good relationships, food, and shelter. We can’t get along without it; at least, ours or someone else’s who is willing to share.

Since it’s such an important facet of our lives, money develops a huge, complex meaning in our daily thoughts and behaviors. How we make money, spend money, save money, share money, waste money, and value money are parts of who we are as families and individuals. Consider how complex meanings are, in your family, around issues of money; and now think about how that same complexity is in other families. Now consider just that one aspect of getting married—each person a product of each differently focused family. No wonder couples who come to family therapy report that money decisions and problems are among the most contentious aspects of their marriage.

If the process of making, keeping, and spending money is such a vital piece of being a family, what do we know about making that issue easier, as a family?

  • Shared values. Probably at the top of the list of skills that financially stable families report is that the adults in the family have generally talked about, negotiated, planned, and set up a financial process with shared, open values. The meaning and importance of work, child bearing and care, and the meaning of investments, property, education, vacations, entertainment, and saving have been discussed and reached a generally stable agreement.
  • Negotiated differences. Once the general values are shared, the same couple has figured out their own unique way to manage the differences they encounter. Someone who doesn’t ever balance their checkbook can marry someone who checks their bank balance every day, if each can appreciate the other’s perspective, and can land on a compromise that looks out for everyone’s essential interests.
  • Information sharing. If a family wants to function with a good degree of flexibility, accountability, and honesty, there is no room for secrecy and the hiding of assets. Happy couples don’t have secret bank accounts squirreled away, and if one spouse manages the bill paying, the other has full knowledge, or at least full access to, banking information. This leads to a “no surprises” ethic, essential to lower stress around money issues.
  • “Single source” spending. Higher-functioning couples think of their money and resources as joint assets. Whatever money comes into the family is shared, and it’s pooled into a single source. While some couples may have smaller private accounts for their own personal spending, gift giving, family-of-origin inheritance, or money in trust, the overwhelming majority of their income flows into a single joint set of accounts. Keeping one’s own salary in a separate account, and paying certain bills out of it, as your spouse does the same, may seem like thoughtful thing to do; but it doesn’t help a couple think of money as shared. It inevitably leads to money used as a weapon during conflicts.

We live in a diverse culture, with wide differences in income and spending patterns. It’s impossible not to compare ourselves with others. Happier families work against that tendency and strive to live within their means, focusing not on what’s missing, but on gratitude for what they have. With a good deal of planning, lots of discussion and negotiation, as well as unending effort, even this huge life process can be done well, with less anxiety and continuing stability.

© Copyright 2010 by Lynne Silva-Breen, MDiv, MA, LMFT, therapist in Burnsville, Minnesota. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

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

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  • Ryan


    April 20th, 2010 at 2:48 AM

    No wonder so many couples divorce over financial issues. You try not to think of money as such an intehral part of life but even just reading this article you can easily see how it is.

  • Rosalyn


    April 20th, 2010 at 4:54 AM

    As from the general trend and also with the experiences of a few of my friends who got married pretty recently, I can confidently say that money is one of the foremost reason for conflict ina marriage, and especially so for a new couple. this is because each one of them is coming from a different family where the same amount of money would be seen in completely different terms. This difference creates tension between the two partners and if not solved soon enough, can really escalate into a major issue.

  • sarah


    April 20th, 2010 at 4:08 PM

    this probelem of couples having problems regarding finances has grown so big that nowadays there is pre-marriage counselling specifically for talking and discussing about the money and finances is because one partner may be extravagent while the other would prefer the saving way…it can really ccause problems,hopefully the pre-marital counselling helps!

  • Jennifer


    May 4th, 2010 at 12:52 AM

    This blog brings me back 17+ years, when Greg and I began our marriage with heated discussions about ‘the difference between a luxury and a necessity.’ We grew up so differently. A couple, figuring their way through this and other highly emotionally reactive challenges throughout their relationship, gift themselves and one another with growth and the reaffirmission of their committment to the relationship. Nice, clear, thought provolking way to put the issue on the table!

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