When Money-Opposites Attract

when money opposites attract

When money-opposites attract: One’s a saver. One’s a spender. One would rather be at the mall. The other is into investments. While they love their differences overall, they struggle with disagreements about money.

Money is the third most frequent topic of marital arguments, after chores and children. Ironing out the wrinkles in money beliefs, behaviors and decisions can go a long way toward reaching financial goals with peace and harmony – whether those goals be at the mall, or in the savings account.

How can couples handle mixed money messages?

Try three steps.

Step 1: Money Script Awareness

Sometimes we don’t realize the underlying money beliefs that drive our own and our partner’s decisions. These are often called money “scripts.” (You can find yours using an online test developed by Dr. Brad Klontz here.) Share with each other the money messages you grew up with. Examples might include “Money doesn’t grow on trees,” or “You only live once.” The goal in sharing is to begin to reach an understanding of the other’s background.

Share who influenced you when it came to handling money. Money script influences can come from various authority figures – parents, grandparents, teachers, coaches, or spiritual leaders.

Share what you believe is the most important value that money provides to you. Values derived from money can include security, achievement, sharing, and spontaneity/having fun. Even a general rejection of money (think 1960s hippie culture) can be a money value.

Step 2: Concentrate on conversation

Now that the money differences are on the table, how do conversations about it go? It’s important to communicate about how you communicate. The goal is for each partner to feel heard and understood.

If one or both are falling short on feeling heard and understood, “active listening” is one tool to try. In an abbreviated form of active listening, each partner takes a turn being the sharer and the listener. The sharer tells their story or shares their statement about a topic. The listener then completes three steps.

  • mirror back what they thought they heard,
  • check for understanding, and
  • empathize if appropriate.

For example, say the sharer talks about feeling discounted or ignored with important money decisions. The listening partner listens without comment. The listening partner’s three steps might begin like this:

  • “So what I heard you say was…” (repeat back, even if it’s verbatim, what you heard)
  • “Did I get it all?” (If yes, go to next step. If no, listen to what was missed, and go back to mirroring what you heard.)
  • “I can see how that would be difficult/challenging/etc. for you.” Or, if it’s true, “If I were in your shoes I would feel the same.” This empathetic statement is not necessarily an agreement (although it’s nice), but at a minimum an acknowledgement of understanding.

All three of these must be completed before it’s time to switch roles.

Step 3: Respectful Negotiation

With enhanced understanding, a couple is better equipped to come to a mutually agreeable solution.

Several years ago a couple of young successful professionals debated in the financial advisor’s office whether they should be saving 10% or 20% of their income. One felt strongly that with the lower savings they could hire help at home for the house and lawn. But it was equally important to the other partner to be debt-free by age 40.

After discussion, awareness, communication, and negotiation, they compromised to agree that they would both be satisfied saving 15% of their income, hiring some house help, and keeping their debt-free status as a goal, but not a rigid expectation. 

What about you? What challenges have you encountered in a romantic partnership when it comes to money differences? How were you successful in overcoming them? Or are you still challenged by them? Share in a comment below.

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Holly Donaldson

Holly Donaldson, CFP® has an advice-only, hourly and fee-for-service financial planning practice. She is the author of The Mindful Money Mentality: How to Find Balance in Your Financial Future (Porchview Publishing, 2013) and publisher of the award-winning monthly e-letter, "The View From the Porch." With a fully virtual practice in Seminole, Florida, Holly primarily serves clients located in the Tampa, St. Petersburg, and Clearwater areas. Holly will also work with clients who are a good fit located elsewhere in the United States except Texas.

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