Part I: Relationship Money Matters

Couple fighting over oversized moneyModern marriage as an institution is no longer primarily a financial arrangement agreed upon by parents, as has been the case historically in nearly all cultures. And yet money and financial issues are the third most common issue cited by couples seeking divorce, following loss of intimacy/ irreconcilable differences and infidelity. A 2006 Money Magazine poll found that 84% of couples see money as a source of tension in their marriage and 15% admit to arguing about it several times a month. Usually the arguments are about different financial priorities and debt.

Couples often fail to discuss their financial attitudes, hopes and worries prior to marriage; yet, they often have strong feelings associated with money that catch them by surprise down the road. As in many other areas, some couples use their good negotiating and communication skills to accommodate each other’s financial needs and dreams; others quickly discover that money worries lead to major blow-ups. One couple I knew had a stormy fight every payday when the husband would go out and treat his buddies to a drink and then come home to an enraged wife who presented him with a stack of unpaid bills.

If you and your partner are frequently arguing over money, consider this opportunity to step back and shift from an accusatory to an investigative stance. First, work to develop a healthy curiosity about your own particular preferences and assumptions about money. Instead of blaming your husband for irresponsible spending or your partner of 10 years for excessive frugality, explore the meaning and the history of your ties to money. Rather than shutting down every time your wife wants to discuss the budget, explore with her what her objectives are and become aware of your own anxiety around this topic.

In our society, having self-discipline about money is as much a challenge for individuals as it is for couples. If you had financial woes prior to the wedding, odds are you will carry them into your marriage. Before accusing your spouse of reckless spending or poor budgeting, start by examining your own behaviors. Many of the questions below that are intended to guide your conversations with your partner can also be used for your own self-study. Many couples find that a sudden change of fortune, for the better or the worse, profoundly changes aspects of their relationship; for some, it threatens their very foundation.

Money Types
We all carry images of money archetypes from the extravagant tycoon to the anxious miser to the spendthrift heir.  Psychologists have begun to identify broad categories into which people fall in terms of their relationship to money.  Brad Klontz, Psy.D. and his colleagues recently developed an interview that splits people into four broad groupings: money avoidant, money anxious, money preoccupied, and money vigilant.

Money Avoidant
“Raymond still acts as though we’re a couple of 20 year old kids with not a care in the world,” complains his wife Joanne. “The cost of something is always an afterthought to him.  Or some minor inconvenience.  One day he went out and bought a roadster with all the money we had put away for a down payment on a house!  In our 30s we racked up an incredible amount of debt. I was busy raising the kids and was assuming he was handling all the finances.”  It turns out nobody was and the Coopers were evicted from their apartment. Since that time Joanne has taken over their money management, cancelled all of their credit cards, and limited Raymond’s access to funds.

Like many money-avoidant types, Raymond rarely talks about money. When asked, people in this category have a number of negative ideas they attach to money. They see money as a corrupting, view wealth as a product of greed, and/or see themselves as undeserving of financial success. As a result, money-avoidant types are often more generous with their resources yet make terrible financial planners.

Money Worshippers
The vast majority of Americans fall into this category of money beliefs. The basic premise is that money will solve all problems. Even though studies have shown that a household income above $75,000 brings no additional increase in happiness, the American Dream lives on. Money worshippers are preoccupied with schemes for making and keeping money, believing that money gives life meaning and purpose.

Adrian and Jerry were a perfectly matched couple in this regard. Adrian had plotted out a financial plan when she was a college sophomore with the intent of earning her first million before turning 30. Jerry shared this dream and the two of them bonded around their frequent conversations about how to invest and spend their acquired wealth. Had Adrian married Raymond, this topic would most likely have been a constant source of friction.

Money Status
The movie, “Meet the Joneses,” does a terrific job of remaking this style into a laughable extreme. Mr. and Mrs. Jones and their two nearly perfect teenage children are constantly flashing their financial success. If they could wear neon lights saying “Envy me, I’m rich,” they probably would. Every material item they use or wear conveys a core set of beliefs that include the following: only the best will do, good people have money, poor people don’t deserve money, your self-worth is based on your net worth. In “Meeting the Joneses,” we eventually learn how tapping into a community’s status consciousness is the marketing ploy used by a consumer product firm who sends actors – in the guise of the perfect family – into bedroom communities in order to increase sales.

Martha and Graham Fenster, while not quite the Joneses, struggle as a couple in maintaining this image. They each drive imported cars, eat at the finest restaurants and wear designer clothes. Over their ten year marriage they have racked up $100,000 in debt. Their friends and acquaintances would be shocked to learn that this couple lives in a small, one bedroom apartment in an undesirable section of their city (they keep a post office box so as to avoid giving out their residential address.) While Martha and Graham share the same attitude to money, the stress and shame they experience about their finances feels so overwhelming to them both that they rarely talk about their debt and instead reinforce each other’s belief that the next purchase will make them feel better.

Money Vigilance
“Did you deposit the check?” “How much is the new boiler going to run us?” “How could you rack up a $1,200 credit card bill?”  These questions are raised in many homes on a regular basis. They are natural “business” questions that reflect a need to manage the family’s resources. But they may also be the tip of the iceberg under which financial anxiety and uncertainty occupy a huge part of a person’s emotions and thoughts. People who are financially vigilant believe in preparing for a rainy day (or every possible emergency!), often prefer saving over spending money, and, in some instances, view money as somehow shameful. They think about it a lot yet may be reluctant to discuss it.

So, the next time you get into a financial squabble with your partner, rather than reacting or retreating, take the time to ask yourself and each other, what are the big picture feelings and values at the root of your anger or distress.  Investing in more awareness and understanding is the first step toward having a more productive money talk.

© 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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  • Kyle M.

    July 13th, 2011 at 1:20 PM

    We all develop these money-related qualities fairly early in our lives.And when two people from different families come together,there is bound to be differences in their perception of money,how they view it and how they deal with everything money-related.It is best to get to know each other even in the financial sense before marriage.

  • sandra

    July 13th, 2011 at 3:49 PM

    You never think that money is going to come to define your relationship with your partner but so often if you allow it to take center stage then it very quickly can. I am a money hoarder I guess, never want to spend it. But my husband is not like that. He is always wanting to spend and spend. And the thing is is that we both have good jobs so on one level that is ok, but on another level it really is a source of friction because I am a strong believer in saving for a rainy day and he completely is not. Needless to say this is a constant argument for us. I have to say that had we really talked about this before getting married, I may have never chose him for my life aprtner. In many ways it makes us very incompatable.

  • Leona Bennett

    July 14th, 2011 at 1:18 AM

    Priorities in finances always gets the fireworks going. It’s not difficult. Here’s a list for you warring couples to start with.

    1: A roof over our heads.
    2: Food in the fridge.
    3: Clothing

    Those are your top three: food, clothing, and shelter. Everything else is a luxury. There are great men throughout history who have lived in literally nothing. Money doesn’t equate to leading a fulfilling, meaningful life.

    Several of us more ordinary folks get by just fine without gigantic credit card bills or extravagant buys. Simplify!

  • C.Franks

    July 14th, 2011 at 12:43 PM

    Yes Leona,that is true.Sometimes when there is too much available it leads to problems.We all keep wanting more and more of these things when in fact they often lead to problems in the long run.But it’s something so addictive not too many of us can get it off our mind.

  • Roseanne

    July 14th, 2011 at 3:38 PM

    So you say that money is only listed as the third reason why people get a divorce? I would say that it goes higher on the list than that. When there does not feel like there is enough money to make ends meet or the couple has a different way of managing their money issues then of course there are bound to be problems in the marriage. Money does not necessarily make the problem but not understanding how to manage it definitely can be and I know a lot of couples who argue about this all of the time.

  • J.S. Grey

    July 14th, 2011 at 6:20 PM

    The biggest cause of arguments in a family are always to do with money! If you have little, you fight over that. If you have a lot, you fight over how or whether to spend it. Not everyone cheats, but only a very lucky minority have no arguments over money.

    Money is so basic a need we can’t help but worry about it. I’m lucky to now be with a man who’s as frugal as I am and who understands my way of thinking about money. We are in that lucky minority I’m glad to say.

  • D henry

    July 15th, 2011 at 5:25 AM

    it’s never possible that a couple will agree on all things money related but it is possible to have certain rules and agreements that they can have to avoid conflicts.I’ve done that in my marriage and while it may not be perfect it sure is great :)


    July 15th, 2011 at 11:59 AM

    Money is a sensitive issue and it can e a cause if conflict in the best of relationships.Misunderstandings are very common and easy to occur when it comes to matters concerning money.

    Thus it is only wise and helpful to talk about these things beforehand an not leave things to develop over time.

  • Sadie Adams

    July 15th, 2011 at 6:00 PM

    The numbers don’t lie – 84% of couples argue about money. Isn’t this a sign that they all need to shut the Heck up and take constructive steps to ease those money problems instead of screaming and whining about it?

    Unfortunately about half of the population are below average in their financial skills and have no idea how to even balance a checkbook.

  • J.H.

    July 15th, 2011 at 6:36 PM

    I was taught that it’s the height of bad manners to talk about money. I mistakenly assumed that also included with your own partner and never asked my husband how he spent a penny. He paid an allowance to cover household expenses like food and clothes in an account of my own and I was happy with that arrangement. I didn’t work outside the home at the time. I assumed he had everything else under control. It wasn’t until the day he was ill in bed and I took a phone call from the bank that I realized how behind we were on paying the mortgage. We almost lost our home. Don’t assume everything is fine like I did – check and double check.

  • Celeste Warren

    July 17th, 2011 at 4:21 PM

    There should be absolute transparency in how your money is getting spent and how much you have when you put both your incomes together. You never know when that $500 you’re saving for a TV will need to be put towards repairs and other bills that can show up out of nowhere. Knowing there’s money in the kitty for emergencies helps keep your stress down. It’s when you don’t know or have no contingency plan up your sleeve for the unexpected that fights start. Sit down as a couple and work it out.

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