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How to Avoid Stressful Money Situations in Relationships

JOYN CEO David Geller has gone beyond wealth management to discover ways to bring meaning and joy to his clients’ lives.


You name it, couples fight about it: taking the kids to practice, in-laws overstaying their welcome, messy bathrooms — the list goes on and on. But nothing has the potential to ruffle feathers and create tension in a relationship quite like finances.

Perhaps a partner’s saving habits leave much to be desired, or maybe there’s an earnings gap causing feelings of resentment. It could just be that one person’s spending habits are out of alignment with the expectations of the relationship. Either way, the likelihood of divorce among married couples increases by 45% when one spouse feels the other is making unwise spending decisions.

Mishandling money causes financial friction in marriages, but hiding money can lead to even worse consequences. This can cause severe feelings of mistrust; 35% of partners say they equate a spouse hiding a bank account to having an affair.

Research shows that outstanding debt can lead to depression and severe anxiety and that poor financial decisions can leave people feeling guilty and worthless. When people are under this kind of duress, they often struggle with communication, express negative reactions, and seclude themselves. The best way to navigate these bad financial situations is to address the root cause of your feelings.

For example, if you’ve been fighting with your spouse about his or her “frivolous” purchases, analyze why it bothers you. Are you the only one managing the budget, handling the housework, or bringing in an income? You might actually feel bitter about the difference in spousal workload.

Life events, such as a new job, new baby, or the appearance of a serious illness, can contribute to shifts in individual and shared priorities. When these changes aren’t addressed, people often lash out during times of financial strain. By revisiting discussions regarding priorities, you can work out a balance between yourself and others as you navigate money issues.

To avoid stressful money situations in relationships, consider the following strategies:

1. Surface individual money messages.

We each have our own money personalities that are shaped by individual money messages, which are the beliefs we hold about money that we developed early in our life. Perhaps to you, money is all about survival and security. To someone who has never struggled with money, they might relate it to power, prestige, and freedom of choice.

These money messages drive our financial behaviors in accordance with how we rank their importance, so we must be able to identify the messages that are most meaningful to ourselves and to others. We may struggle to see past our own money beliefs because we’ve come to accept them as personal truths.

We all have different experiences with money, so understanding how our backgrounds have shaped us can make it easier to navigate conversations about finances. If your parents liked to shower you with thoughtful, lavish gifts, for example, then you might want to spend your money on similar gifts for your significant other or children as an adult. On the other hand, if you grew up on a tight budget, you may have difficulty parting with money even when your circumstances allow it. Our concepts of the value and meaning of money is shaped by our experiences. Understanding your own experiences can help guide financial decisions in specific situations.

To identify the money messages you’ve received in your life, you have to start with understanding where each one comes from. Oftentimes, childhood experiences have left a significant impact on the way each person views money. Once you’ve established the origin of your beliefs, determine whether your view is still relevant and useful to your life. For instance, if you grew up frugal but acquired more money as an adult, you may want to consider new possibilities. You may not want to scrimp and save every penny now because you may have other things you’d like to do with those funds. Examine whether your belief is limiting you or leading you to make unproductive decisions. From there, you may choose to reframe your original message.

2. Learn to identify when money isn’t the real issue.

Money can become a parking lot for deeper relationship issues such as trust, security, power, and commitment. Take the time to ask yourself whether the issue is just about dollars and cents or whether the disagreement is, at its core, about something that potentially threatens your relationship values.

When money issues are causing stress in a relationship, a common response is to avoid talking about money in an effort to keep the peace. We’ve all been there. The problem is that this rarely works, if ever.

In relationships, knowing how your partner thinks and feels about money can help you better understand one another’s spending, saving, and investing patterns. In most cases, overspending isn’t just about being careless. Retail therapy may be how your partner relieves work-related stress. Remove the stress, remove the overspending. By the same token, underspending isn’t just about being frugal. Perhaps the frugality stems from the fear of not having enough money when you need it the most. If you can address the fear, you can reduce the white-knuckled grip on the purse strings.

There is often more to the story that needs to be considered in order to better understand ourselves and those around us. Start a conversation about money messages so that you and your partner can each understand where the other is coming from and how to get on the same page financially.

You can do this in a number of ways. Start by framing open-ended questions with “What if?” scenarios that can help you reach the underlying psychology of your partner’s views on money. You might ask your partner something like, “If you could work 60 hours a week for the rest of your professional life and make great money, or work 25-hour weeks and make enough to scrape by, which would you pick?” Not only is this a great way to get to know your partner even better, but it will also help you place yourself in their shoes so that you can make informed decisions about the future.

3. Seek help from the experts.

Money management is a deeply personal issue, so finding someone you’re comfortable confiding in will go a long way toward helping you open up and solve your problems. Consider that people in debt are more likely to experience mental health issues than those who are not dealing with money issues, and mood-altering conditions such as depression or attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder have been connected to financial struggles. Therapists can help with these issues, and financial therapists can go one step further. They can help you determine your feelings about money while assisting with budgeting to better align your bank accounts with your values and beliefs.

If you’re reluctant to go the therapy route, know that other helpful options are available at your fingertips. Podcasts are one of today’s most popular and accessible mediums, and there are plenty of programs to choose from. For example, The Happiness Lab by Yale professor Dr. Laurie Santos dives into scientific research to help listeners change the way they think about happiness. You might also browse applicable TED Talks or download an app on your phone. One relevant app is the Insight Timer, a meditation app that can help you reduce anxiety, manage stress, and improve happiness.

The root of your problems will become more apparent once you have a better sense of your money messages and money beliefs. Try focusing on why a money issue is important rather than looking only at the surface issue; it’s a great way to help the conversation become more productive.

4. Seek insight from your network.

It’s common for individuals to isolate themselves during times of stress. That could be because they are afraid of how their partner might perceive them or due to a concern that their partner may not understand their financial decisions. Money is a common stressor, and it’s more than likely that someone in your network has had a similar experience and encountered similar feelings. Reaching out to your community can provide you with reassurance, reminding you that you’re not alone and that you don’t need to figure out everything by yourself.

Stress causes you to have a limited view of your options, making it difficult to recognize potential opportunities. During times of financial stress, a financial advisor can provide strategic insight on your situation and help you see opportunities that you may have been unaware of. Visit a behavioral wealth manager to help you address both the financial and relational context of your stress in order to help you and your partner become better aligned. Aim to achieve a balance between what matters most to both of you.

The subject of money can be touchy in any relationship, especially when spending habits are not aligned. In marriage, that can lead to feelings of frustration and resentment and potentially even lead to divorce. But financial disagreements aren’t exclusive to lovebirds. It’s easy for friends to be at odds with each other over informal loans and other day-to-day charges that can affect their relationships.

It’s not hard to see how money can be an easy measurement for determining whether our lives are successful. But by tackling money problems from a psychological perspective, we can begin to understand some of the root issues and reframe our own views and beliefs on the value of money. Just because money is a factor in your relationships doesn’t mean you have to fight over it.

Navigating Bad Situations

Couples aren’t the only ones who fight over money. Good friends can also disagree (and often do). But in recent years, money transfer apps such as Venmo have tried to ease financial tensions between friends by providing an easy-to-use service for facilitating small transactions. Instead of grumbling about unpaid loans, people can now simply say, “Venmo me!” In a matter of hours, they can see the money land in their account.

The only problem? Venmo requests can create as much tension as they should be solving. Using Venmo is almost too easy, and frivolous $3 money requests can be annoying and inconsiderate. In a world before Venmo, friends generally expected to cover minor payments, such as a cup of coffee, a shared ride, or concessions at the movies. Now, people see those numbers and think, “I can’t believe she charged me $2.75 for that.”

Venmo is just one example of how financial transactions among friends and acquaintances can be complicated. If you’ve ever lent money to a friend, you may have noticed how that transaction changed your relationship, even if only temporarily. Once money changes accounts, it becomes a business deal between both parties.

There’s a reason many experts advise people not to mix money and friends. If the borrower struggles to repay, it puts a strain on the friendship. Even if the borrower repays quickly, it can still strain the friendship. Many friends who lend money take a greater interest in the other person’s finances, which can lead to stress for the borrower.

In families, disagreements over money are part of the natural ebb and flow of parent-child relationships. However, money has additional effects on these relationships. Financial habits practiced by parents can have a significantly impact children, especially when those habits are poor ones. For example, a parent’s behavior toward settling a debt has the potential to influence how his or her children approach borrowing and repaying money as an adult. Parents who lament over and struggle with debt will often have kids who grow up to be more guarded against borrowing money. On the flip side, parents who are comfortable with debt and loans tend to have kids who are equally at ease.

Money mistakes are easy to make, and in the United States, debt has become an unfortunate way of life. Early last year, the collective American debt surpassed $4 trillion for the first time in the country’s history. That spike was due to a number of factors, including car financing, student loans, and holiday spending at the end of the year.

It is distressingly easy to fall into debt. A divorce, for example, has the potential to leave one or both parties struggling to make ends meet. Reasonable financial agreements are difficult to make in divorce courtrooms because the frightened and angry parties are focused on getting everything they can, with little to no regard for their soon-to-be ex-spouse. Even if the parties come to an agreement, they have attorney fees to settle after the end of their marriage.

Additionally, medical expenses can be a sudden cause of money trouble. Healthcare costs are expected to rise 5.5 percentage points annually for the next 10 years, which could leave hundreds of families facing negative bank accounts as they seek treatment for their sick and injured.

Even if you’re not handling treatment costs or an ongoing legal battle, it is still possible to find yourself in unfortunate financial situations. Without a budget you can overspend, student loans can limit the start of your career, and unexpected unemployment can drain secure savings accounts. While often uncontrollable, these outside financial influences affect the stability of our relationships and emotional health.

Modern Viewpoints on Money

In the not-so-distant past, a high income was considered one of the most important determinants of success and happiness — especially for men. Of course, there are plenty of other determining variables, such as how often someone smiles or the quality of a friendship, but people often measure easy substitutes instead of figuring out the heart of an issue. Measuring people’s happiness or career success? That’s hard. Measuring how much money they make? That’s easy.

Don’t take this lightly. What we measure matters. When we use money as our primary metric for success, security, and freedom, we often feel disillusioned with our lives. That’s because a successful life is built on a foundation of loving relationships, activities that grab our attention and passion, and the support we lend to friends, family, and those in need. No matter how much money we have, we can always imagine a scenario in which we end up not having enough, leaving us feeling scared and constrained. True feelings of security and freedom flow from our confidence. With the help of family and friends, we can navigate whatever financial challenges come our way. Our mistaken focus on money as the prime measure of success distracts us from what really matters in life, leaving us at risk of waking up in the future with regrets about how we spent our time.

If you’re a parent, for example, you might start measuring your life in terms of your finances so that you can provide for your children. However, this may cause the ball to roll toward a series of unintended consequences for your family. Taking that route might encourage you to accept a job that offers more money, even if it’s less fulfilling. Such a trade-off could take a toll on your physical health, your mental wellbeing, and your happiness.

Although it’s difficult to predict how younger generations will behave and feel toward their finances in the future, a lot of Millennials are willing to earn less in order to have improved quality of work life. This includes more time off, more engaging tasks, and better benefits. It is a completely different concept from what people believed only 40 years ago, and an example of how measurements of a happy, successful life have evolved.

Thankfully, new generations are not alone. The days of viewing personal struggles and financial challenges as separate problems are nearing an end. Financial service providers recognize that money is a common stressor inside relationships, and they’re coming up with new ways to help. Advisors are aiming to prevent possible financial issues in marriage by combining wealth management services with psychological advice tailored to each couple’s specific situation.

For example, SoFi, an online financing company, recently partnered with Zola, a wedding planning and registry service, to help guide newly married couples through all sorts of financial hoops, including setting up a joint account, saving for the future, and, of course, budgeting for a wedding.

People are working to create a world that’s not founded upon the importance of money, but it is an impossible aspiration to undertake if you’re attempting it on a macro level. The best way to realign your metrics is to engage in introspection and figure out how you personally feel about money. Only then will you truly understand what makes you happiest.

How Money and Values Align

There’s no doubt that navigating financial situations can be a trying, stressful experience, whether they involve a couple’s wedding expenses, a spouse’s frequent purchases, or a loan between friends. That’s why understanding our own personal relationships with money ought to be the first step toward achieving financial well-being with those around us.

People are social beings, so we’re heavily influenced by others. If we are surrounded by people who believe that money determines our levels of success, security, and freedom, then it becomes hard for us to resist that point of view. Ultimately, our communities shape our own behaviors and practices.

Think about how people develop accents and pick up regional habits. Do they need to do that? No, but it usually happens anyway without any conscious effort. In much the same way, having a community of friends who shares your financial values will make living a fulfilling life easier. The key to long-term success is to keep reinforcing the message that money is a tool for building a more meaningful and joyful life.

We all need support in many aspects of our lives, including our finances, work, and relationships. That support used to come in abundance from religious communities where you might hear a sermon about how money isn’t everything, but as we become more secular as a society, our repeated exposure to those messages has decreased. We haven’t replaced that guidance with anything, so we lack the foundation we need to execute confident financial decisions.

Unfortunately, the world demands we dedicate more and more of our time and attention toward the pursuit of wealth. The costs to us are huge, both for ourselves and for our children. Instead, we need to build a supporting community of people who feel and act the way we do. The goal is to focus on what drives a fulfilling life. You can’t always change the world around you, but you can change what you value, what you pursue, and how you live your life.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.