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5 money fights that can bankrupt your marriage

Dawn Papandrea

December 16, 2014

Whether a spouse is hiding purchases or financial decisions are made without discussion, money arguments are at the root of many marriage breakups.

In fact, constantly fighting about money is the leading predictor of divorce, according to a Kansas State University study. Researcher Sonya Britt has said that money beats out arguments about children, in-laws and even sex.

How do you make sure you don't become one of those couples? Read on and find out what to do if your honey (or you) spends a little too freely or even cheats financially. Even if there are no fights right now, you'll learn how to make sure they don't come about.

The Fight: Financial infidelity

Going behind your spouse's back and engaging in secret spending isn't all that different from cheating, especially when it's taken to the extreme with secret credit card accounts. The big question is, why does it happen? “People have their own perspective about money and what is a priority for them to spend on and that might not be the same priority that their spouse has,” explains Clare Levison, CPA, personal finance expert and author of “Frugal Isn't Cheap: Spend Less, Save More, and Live Better.” That's why the hiding occurs — to avoid confrontation, she says. Of course, if the dishonesty catches up with you, it's likely that an all-out battle will result.

Avoid it: To take away the temptation to cheat financially, couples should carve some money out of their budget so each can spend the way they want, says Levison. “Allow yourself a little bit of fun money for which the other person doesn't get to make judgments,” she says.

The Fight: Saver vs. spender

Even if you have a lot in common, don't assume your partner has the same goals and expectations toward money as you do, says Anthony D. Criscuolo, certified financial planner with Palisades Hudson Financial Group in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. “Couples need to have an open-ended discussion about core values and what money means to them,” he says. Oftentimes, when one person is a spender and the spouse is a saver, not meeting in the middle will lead to bickering and resentment.

Avoid it: Try to figure out what you can agree about, advises Sara Gilbert, community engagement liaison at GreenPath, a nonprofit credit counseling company. Both the spender and the saver perspectives can benefit the relationship, so it's important to recognize that. “The frugal person will make sure they save for emergencies, retirement, etc., while the spender might recognize that you can't save it all, and shared experiences that enhance one's lifestyle do cost money,” she says. Discussing financial goals might be a place to find some agreement. Then you can find ways to compromise — such as agreeing to that vacation, but only after putting away X amount of dollars first — so you can reach those goals together.

The Fight: Spending freely

Even if it's done out in the open, when one spouse makes a major purchase without consulting the other, it can cause friction. It could be anything from overspending on a gift to joining a gym to going overboard on a home décor item, but the fight goes something like this: “Why did you spend so much on that? Don't you know we have to pay the taxes this month?” “What's the big deal? And how was I supposed to know about the taxes?”

“Couples need to have an open-ended discussion about core values and what money means to them.”
–Anthony D. Criscuolo, financial planner

Avoid it: The solution is simple: Have monthly money dates, says Levison. During these talks, set some ground rules like agreeing to discuss purchases over a certain amount, or not lending money to anyone without partner approval. “Make these talks fun. Cook a special meal together. Decide on that day you won't do any other chores or housework because you're spending time on finances,” she says.

The Fight: Division of labor

There's no getting around the fact that doing the grunt work of financial management is a thankless job, but in most marriages, the task typically falls to one person. “I don't think there's anything wrong with the person more inclined to take care of the finances to do it, as long as all the burden for seeing the budget through doesn't fall on them as well,” says Levison. In other words, no matter who is physically scanning statements and balancing checkbooks, both parties should be involved in the decision-making aspects of the finances.

Avoid it: “It's not a good idea to let one person manage everything, and one person to be clueless,” says Gilbert. For starters, if something should happen to the person in charge, such as an illness, the other spouse will have a tough time sorting through and managing things such as retirement accounts, investments and joint and individual accounts. But the everyday effect is that the spouse doing all of the financial work could begin to feel overburdened. Or worse, the one in charge of the purse strings could equate that role with being in a power position. To keep everyone accountable, look over statements together, so that both husband and wife are knowledgeable about each other's individual and shared assets.

The Fight: Money stress

If you really want to put a marriage through a test, see how it survives an unexpected financial emergency, says Gilbert. Whether it's sickness, job loss or a broken furnace, taking a hit to your income or savings and/or accumulating debt as a result can lead to lots of fighting and blaming if you've never planned for it.

Avoid it: No matter how tight your budget, it's a good idea to start an emergency fund, says Gilbert. “Start small. You can't create six months of savings overnight. It could take years,” she says. But if you have $500 in the bank to fix the car, or $1,000 in the bank if the water heater goes, it can help keep you from relying extensively on credit or borrowing, and give you some financial security as a couple. Along those lines, living within your means by not making purchases on credit that you can't afford to pay back can help tame stress levels, too.

The common denominator for overcoming any couple cash conflict is honesty, communication and compromise. By getting on the same page and avoiding money fights, you can build a financial future.