It’s not sex, the kids or the in-laws that couples are fighting about most these days — its money, and it’s getting worse. Nearly two out of three people say that discussions about money turn into fights with their spouse at least some, if not all, of the time (up from 45% last year), according to the Spending and Saving Tracker survey from American Express.
Of course, this probably doesn’t come as a surprise to anyone with a significant other (who hasn’t not-so-nicely asked their partner just what they were thinking after opening that credit card bill?), but these fights don’t have to be miserable or frequent. Here are five things you can do to minimize the severity of these fights and work together so that you can both get what you want.
Create a shared financial plan.
“One of the biggest causes of money fights are differing goals,” says couples therapist Kelly Crossing. She adds, “You want one thing, like to save up to buy a new house, but your spouse wants another, like a brand-new Porsche. You guys can’t afford to get both, so you fight.” Sometimes it’s not the goals that are the problem, it’s their execution. Neither of you knows who is responsible for which goal, so saving falls through the cracks and anger ensues.
“A written list of shared goals can help prevent these kinds of fights,” she says. When you’re not angry with one another, sit down and make a list of everything you want that costs money, from retirement savings to getting out of debt, and the cost. Prioritize these goals from the most to the least important (you’ll both have to make some trade-offs). Next, create a shared budget using the free budgeting tools from Mint.com, so you can figure out how much you can afford to put towards these goals, and then write out specific instructions for paying for each.
Finally, make sure you know who is responsible for saving for each goal, as well as who pays each of your bills. Automate as many of these payments as possible, so you don’t have to worry about remembering to pay them. If possible, create a little padding in your budget so that if one of you does overspend, it doesn’t cause another fight.
Make “fight rules.”
You hate it when your partner questions you about your spending right when you walk in the door, and he gets enraged when you use your “shocked” tone when confronting him about the credit card bill. “Most couples have at least a few scenarios that are instant button-pushers and they should try to avoid them if they want money discussions to get anywhere,” says Andrew Schrage, co-owner of Money Crashers Personal Finance. To do this, make “fight rules.” “Agree that if anyone begins to scream, swear, or become overly critical, the other spouse has full permission to simply walk away from the conversation,” he says.
“It’s also important to make rules about when you should talk about money. One of the most effective ways to do this is to schedule a regular, recurring ‘money meeting’ with your spouse, where each person goes over where they stand on paying bills and funding goals, as well as any other financial concerns,” says Crossing. This allows each party to stay in the loop on what the other person is doing, helps prevent payments from falling through the cracks and creates an opportunity to bring up any financial concerns or issues. “Because you’re not having this meeting when you’ve just noticed something infuriating, it’s a productive ways to build consensus,” she adds.
Often times, when we’re angry we just stop really hearing what the other person is saying. When that happens, you risk escalating the fight. “Instead, listen to what your partner is saying and reiterate it to make sure you understand,” says Schrage. Saying something like, “So, if I hear you correctly, you’re saying you want X.” If you aren’t sure what he wants, ask until you do understand, and inquire about details. If, for example, he says he wants you to “be more responsible with money,” ask him what he means by “more responsible” and how he thinks you should do this.
On the flip side, you need to be clear about exactly what you want. An unspecified demand like “I want us to save more money” is less effective than a specific one like “I think we should be saving $300 more per month for retirement.” The specific demand allows him to understand exactly what you want and more easily set up a plan to make it happen. It’s also important for both of you to talk about how the issues make you feel. “Having insight into our own feelings and behavior is critical,” says Crossing. Maybe your objection to him buying that boat isn’t so much about the cost of the boat, as it is about you feeling like he cares more about buying things for himself than buying things for the family.
Don’t be afraid to go solo.
It’s the classic scenario: A spender marries a saver and they argue over how to cope with it. Maybe every time he sees the credit card bill he freaks out, even though you two have the money to afford the items you bought. Maybe you just want to have your own money because it makes you feel secure. “Either way, it’s fine to have separate bank accounts or credit cards,” says psychologist David Amarel. “The underlying issue is to strike a healthy balance between autonomy and cooperation,” he says. “Ultimately, it’s important to recognize that the income and the expenditures come out of the same pot.”
Know when to walk away.
Sometimes, you and your partner are just too angry with one another to be able to make any kind of compromise. At this point, you’re at risk of saying hurtful things that you don’t mean and you’re most likely not going to come to any kind of compromise when you’re that angry. “So, walk away,” Amarel advises. She also recommends saying something like, “We’re both really angry and I think we should wait and talk about this when we’ve cooled down.”