Steering Clear of the Marital Money Pit

Couple on stacks of coins doing tug of warIt’s nearly impossible these days to pick up the paper or turn on the news without learning of yet another study or statistic indicating a weak recovery or a chronic recession. While it has taken its toll on families and communities in the way of foreclosures and bankruptcy, the recession has struck at marriages too by introducing many money and financial issues. Many couples would admit that it has increased tension and even conflict in their relationship.

An article by Ron Lieber appearing in the New York Times in 2010 highlighted the importance of fleshing out a couple’s relationship to money by explicitly discussing the issue. While doing so prior to tying the knot is preferable, it’s never too late to identify and discuss your relationship to money, provided you do so in a mutually respectful manner and agree to disagree on some matters.

One couple I know, call them Fannie and Freddy, provide a wonderful example of the capacity to joke about their different approaches to spending. They’ve coined their different styles as “the rounding problem.” Whenever Fannie purchases an item, she is precise about it’s cost. If she has budgeted $300 for a new suit and finds one that costs $329, she will forego it. Freddy on the other hand, always rounds down. If the auto mechanic quotes him a price of $680 on a repair job, he’ll report back to Fannie that the work will run them around $600. “He must have been home sick with the flu when they taught the principles of rounding at school,” jokes Fannie. “It used to drive me crazy when we would budget for something and then Freddy would go over our limit by $50 or more.” Now she playfully calls Freddy mathematically challenged and they both have a good laugh. “By the way,” Freddy adds, “I’m not so sure Fannie would be that generous in spirit if we were struggling financially.”  Annie nods her head and quips, “we’ve agreed that when we both hit retirement, Freddy will have plenty of time for lessons in rounding down!”

Questions to Guide Money Conversations
Before you can become playful or embattled around money issues, you both need to know where you stand. In his article, Ron Leiber identifies four areas for exploration:

Questions about Ancestry

  • How were your parents with money? Who controlled the purse strings?
  • Were they wealthy? Comfortable? Struggling? Destitute?
  • What about your grandparents?
  • Did they talk about finances openly or was it a taboo subject?
  • How did they manage the spending/saving/charitable giving balance?
  • How did you finance your education?

Questions about Habits

  • Do you consider yourself a spender or a saver?
  • What would your credit report look like?
  • Are you an impulse shopper?
  • Do you balance your checkbook?  How often?

Questions about Control

  • Do you like to manage your finances?
  • Do you prefer to manage your own investments?
  • How do you feel about having separate versus joint bank accounts?
  • Do you believe in full financial disclosure within a marriage?

Questions about Financial Dreams

  • What kind of lifestyle do you picture in 10 years? 20 years?
  • What does money mean to you?
  • What is your idea of financial success and how important is it to you?
  • What are you willing to sacrifice to achieve financial success?
  • What would you do with a million dollars?

These discussions need not be heavy or confrontational. Maybe you explored this topic at length in the early days of your relationship. Don’t assume, however, that your partner’s attitudes and actions in connection to money have remained static; circumstances and life experience have a way of altering expectations and beliefs. So, as with other key aspects of your relationship, take the time periodically to check in with each other. If you never explored this territory with each other, by all means take the time to do so. Rather than jumping into arguments about nickels and dimes, first get the lay of the land.

© Copyright 2011 by Suzanne Burger, Psy.D.. 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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  • hmd

    August 19th, 2011 at 5:10 PM

    Good post. The biggest mistake I ever made was not discussing this with my first husband before I married him. I was always very methodical with my money, allocating it here and there and ensuring all my bills were paid on time. He was of the “throw it in a drawer and pay it when they start calling” mentality. His twisted logic was that the money was better in his bank earning interest than in theirs, which would be fine if you didn’t care about how your credit report looked.

    I couldn’t tolerate it and eventually we split up over our financial differences. When he wanted to start applying his cavalier approach to money to my hard earned personal savings I’d brought into the marriage with risky investments and get-rich-quick schemes, I knew it was time to leave while I was still solvent. We had other issues but that was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

  • bliss

    August 19th, 2011 at 10:27 PM

    Too many couples who rush to get married sadly find out after a bit of time together that their ideas about money and spending and saving do not match at all. This does not have to mean marital ruin, but without some deep conversation about it, it certainly can mean that.

  • neil martin

    August 20th, 2011 at 12:46 AM

    I enjoyed your article Suzanne and agree wholeheartedly. Gee, Freddie and Fannie being huge financial screwups, where have I heard that before? :) I love it when article contributors make subtle jabs like that. It’s how you know they’re on top of their game.

  • Marty White

    August 20th, 2011 at 1:45 AM

    You really should be rounding up when it comes to money and your outgoings particularly. That way, you always spend less than you expect and it lets you have a cushion if you fail to factor in things you might miss, such as unexpected tax increases.

    Sticking to the planned expenditure is the best way of all of course! Each spouse needs to treat it as a rule, not a guideline, and agree not to exceed the budgeted amount.

  • L. Goldberg

    August 20th, 2011 at 2:04 AM

    I’m very fortunate in that neither my wife nor I are spendthrifts and think the same about money. Our goal is to retire at 50, sell the house which will be mortgage free by then and embark on a world tour. To do that we need to have enough money to support us both for the trips and hopefully the following three or four decades.

    We have little in the way of material belongings. Everything is functional and cheap. Our credit cards are for emergencies and we make most large purchases in cash as we can negotiate a deep discount. We both have well paid jobs and our friends can’t understand why we live so frugally when we have no money worries. We have made low risk investments and monitor our financial portfolio’s progress regularly. We intend to leave little to chance.

    We’re looking ahead with purpose: that’s the difference. And if the next fifteen years fly by as fast as the last fifteen did, we’ll be packing those suitcases without a care in the world before we know it. :)

  • Susannah Brown

    August 20th, 2011 at 2:29 AM

    Your individual financial approaches need to be discussed before you agree to live under the same roof. There is no shame in getting everything sorted out before you get married or move in together. Marriage is simply a contract at its core, and what happens before any contract is signed? Negotiation.


    August 20th, 2011 at 9:46 AM

    Very good points discussed is often our earlier life that dictates how we manage money and how we spend it too.getting to know this about each other before tying the know would be mightily helpful in planning the budget later on.Also,it lets you know your partner better and will prevent a shock like your partner going out and splurging money on a new card when you need to have money for that all-important home repair…trust me,such things happen!

  • Angela Pitts

    August 20th, 2011 at 6:44 PM

    No matter how many times we hear it we all know that money issues are such a huge source of concern in most of our marriages. I really do not know how you can not see eye to eye on this money issue and be able to make a successful marriage. Even the homes where there is plenty of money to go around have to have disagreements about where it all goes sometimes. There is nothing wrong with having those honest discussions about money and how it will be spent, but please just make sure to have that talk before you say those I do’s.

  • t.f.

    August 20th, 2011 at 7:16 PM

    Everyone just wants to rush into marriage these days, and the ones that rush are inevitably end up in a disaster of a marriage. In India, marriages are usually arranged and are planned between entire families instead of two individuals. Many arranged marriages are much more successful than our Western ones because of such preparedness.

  • Ashley Bresnan

    August 22nd, 2011 at 4:13 AM

    This is why teaching your kids about the value of money and financing early on is so important. Make them work for the money that you give them, get them a bank account, teach them how difficult it is to earn money and to respect and value money.

    They will never end up in marital issues like these if you do this. That is assuming their partner is educated money-wise too.

  • RICK

    August 22nd, 2011 at 1:09 PM

    I’ve seen and heard too many young couples falling apart due to financial issues.It could be a hidden transaction or the basic way of dealing with financial responsibilities and activities! It’s almost become a necessary topic to speak about pre-marriage!

  • Grace

    August 22nd, 2011 at 4:02 PM

    I have never really understood the whole money becoming such a big issue in marriage. Don’t these people date before they get married and pay any little bit of attention to their partner’s spending habits? I mean, this is generally not going to be something that comes out of nowhere. Most of us have a pattern of saving and spending that has been developed and cultivated over a number of years and sometimes the spouse acts so shocked that this is the person that they married. Shame on them for being so naive and not addressing some of this prior to the explosion.

  • Jasmine P.

    August 22nd, 2011 at 10:35 PM

    I don’t know a single couple that don’t have arguments over money. One of them always spends too much or too little, depending on their partner’s perspective. My ex and I argued more about him being a tightwad than we did about sex, and trust me, we argued over that plenty!

    Thank goodness I have a man now that appreciates me and how much little gifts mean to me. I was lucky to get a smile from that other old misery.

  • Cassandra Noone

    August 22nd, 2011 at 11:19 PM

    “Don’t these people date before they get married and pay any little bit of attention to their partner’s spending habits? I mean, this is generally not going to be something that comes out of nowhere. ”

    Oh yes it does Grace! My husband was a real Scrooge once we married. Before that he would lavish gifts on me and take me away on surprise vacations. It was wonderful! Fast forward to three years later and buying me a birthday card, never mind a gift, is apparently too much to ask since he ignored it this year.

    He’s totally lost interest in our relationship and it’s not as if he didn’t have the money to do it. We’re not hurting for money at all and never have been.

    Talk about hurt! I didn’t bring it up because I’m not going to lower myself to begging for a birthday gift or have him run out and buy a card because he feels obligated to.

    Having money can cause problems as much as not having it.

  • Monique Allan

    August 23rd, 2011 at 12:28 AM

    @Cassandra Noone – “Having money can cause problems as much as not having it.”

    Excuse me? What planet are you living on? That’s so not true. When you have money your bills are paid, there’s food in the house and there’s a roof over your head. Those without money don’t always have all that. That comment is so typically what a rich person would say it makes my blood boil. NO, your money problems Cassandra-and it’s not a problem, more of a huff you’re having-don’t even come close to that of a near penniless couple struggling to keep out of bankruptcy.

    Go donate some cash to a charity in your name and call that your birthday gift, the gift of giving. It will do your heart good.

  • emma v

    August 23rd, 2011 at 4:06 AM

    no couple will find that their sense of money is the same as that of their partner’s…Everybody is different and the sense of money could even be completely opposite. But what’s to be done is to talk about it and see what your partner’s sense of money is.

  • Brandon

    September 19th, 2011 at 5:05 PM

    Fanny and Freddie have a very healthy and creative way to communicate to each other about about money. They have been able to communicate money problems through teasing and humor, something that not many couples can do. This is the best approach because they are able to openly communicate without allowing emotions to get in the way. As long as Fannie and Freddie don’t make light of financial problems this approach will work well for their entire life.

    To add to your list of financial questions, I would include asking about “What is most important part of a career?”. With a question like this you can see wether they are money centric, value or value freedom. None of these things are necessarily bad it is all about what you are looking for.

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