Dear Carrie: My boyfriend and I just got engaged. While we agree on most things, we seem to have a lot of differences when it comes to handling money and have had several arguments about it. How can we keep this from becoming an ongoing problem?—A Reader
Dear Readers: “How to avoid fighting about money” should be a required class for every couple. No matter how close you are, money differences have a way of creeping into—and causing problems in—the best of relationships. While there’s no lack of studies on money problems as a major cause of disagreement and conflict, the reasons for those problems can be as varied as the couples themselves.
But while the particular reasons you and your fiance argue about money may be unique to the two of you, there are some common ground rules that any couple can use to help work out their differences and develop mutual trust.
5 Ways to Keep a Money Problem From Getting Out of Hand
Ready to duke it out? Take a deep breath and do the following:
- Choose a safe time and place to talk. Don’t try to solve the problem while one of you is running out the door or trying to chill after a long workday. Make a date to sit down together in a comfortable environment when you have the time to thoughtfully share your worries and wishes. Each of you should have an equal chance to make your case. Can’t come to an agreement right away? Take a break and then come back to the table and try again.
- Understand that it’s often about more than just money. It’s about hopes, fears, childhood experiences, and the values we learned from our parents. So you have to go deep and ask each other—and yourself—questions to get at what’s really behind your money differences.
Chances are the real cause of your disagreement lies in what money means to you. To some, money represents self-worth. To others, control. If it’s a control issue, confront that now or it could lead to serious problems and even financial abuse later.
- Avoid the blame game. In a long-term relationship, it’s tempting to use ancient history to support your side. Don’t. Rather than make accusations, look for areas of understanding. Whether it’s about an extravagant purchase, a large debt, or someone dropping the ball, pointing fingers won’t solve the problem. Whoever is the “guilty party” will appreciate being given some slack—and be more open to finding a solution.
- Stick to the facts. It’s human nature to dwell on “what ifs.” But no matter how dire the situation could be, deal only with the real problem at hand. If, for instance, you’re arguing about a late bill payment, figure out how to handle that specific issue rather than worry about the imagined consequences of a pile of hypothetical unpaid bills.
- Be willing to listen and negotiate. Just as there are two sides to every problem, there are usually two (or more) solutions. The ideal is to meet in the middle. To do that, you first have to listen to each other’s side—and really hear it. A good technique is to restate what you’ve just heard to make sure you got it right. Ask clarifying questions. And definitely avoid inflammatory language. There’s no positive outcome to calling someone a spendthrift or a killjoy.
Most importantly, realize that negotiation and compromise are your guiding principles and the fairest way to find a mutually satisfactory solution.
5 More Ways to Keep It From Happening Again and Again
Successfully dealing with a specific money problem is a good first step. However, to help keep these types of problems from constantly recurring, you need to look at the big picture—and agree on certain parameters. Here are five more “rules of engagement” that can help you long after you’ve walked down the aisle:
- Address problems sooner rather than later. If you let things build up, they’re more likely to blow up. Agree to talk things out as soon as either of you has a concern.
- Acknowledge each other’s strengths, weaknesses, and differences. Maybe one of you is a saver and the other a spender. Or maybe you have different levels of interest or financial know-how. That’s OK. Figure out how you can complement each other. It’s fine to designate different financial roles and responsibilities that play to your individual strengths as long as you both understand the big picture and participate in major decisions. And along the way, the less-involved partner might become more engaged!
- Give each other some space. Togetherness is important, but when it comes to money, a little independence can go a long way in keeping the peace. I like a “yours, mine, ours” approach where each partner contributes to a joint household account but also has a separate account with a certain amount of discretionary money to budget and spend as they wish. That way, you can hopefully avoid judgments about spending decisions—as well as deception.
- Prioritize financial goals together. You’re bound to have individual as well as mutual financial goals. Be realistic about the best way to achieve them, separately and together. Perhaps you can each contribute to your own goals and to your mutual goals. Or maybe you’ll have to prioritize one over the other. Just make sure you agree on what you’ll do first so neither of you feels less important than the other.
- Keep talking. You won’t solve all your money differences in one discussion. And no matter how successful you are at handling today’s issues, future misunderstandings are bound to happen. It’s often hard to talk about money, especially at first. But the more you do, the better you’ll get at it—and the better your relationship will be. I can tell you that from experience!
All the best to you and your fiance. I hope you have a long, happy, and financially rewarding life together.
Carrie Schwab-Pomerantz, a certified financial planner, is president of the Charles Schwab Foundation and author of “The Charles Schwab Guide to Finances After Fifty.”