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Love and Credit Cards: When Personalities Clash

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By Eva Norlyk Smith, Ph.D.
June 8, 2011

If you and your spouse argue frequently about finances, chances are the problem is not the issue at hand. Instead, differences in your personalities – and the way you handle, say, your joint credit cards — may be at the root of your disagreements.

Consider, for example, Maggie and Jack. After Maggie had dated Jack for almost a year, Jack sat Maggie down one day to pop the question. Only, it wasn’t the question she had in mind.

Would she like to get a credit card? Jack explained that he had just received an offer from his card issuer to add an authorized user. Since he knew she didn’t have a credit card, he thought this was a good opportunity to help her get one.

“I was a bit surprised, but I just assumed that he was being helpful and considerate,” Maggie recalls. “Little did I realize that he had another motive as well. He wanted to learn about how I handled money. If I had raked up credit card debt on that card, we probably would never have gotten married.”

She didn’t, and they did—two years later, after Maggie had convincingly passed the ‘credit card test.’

While Jack’s approach might seem too calculated for some, it gave the couple a big advantage at the start of their marriage. They knew they were fairly compatible when it came to dealing with money. But not all couples have that kind of foresight.

“Many people get involved with someone and later find that they have a totally different set of money values,” said David Bach, bestselling author of “Smart Couples Finish Rich,” in an email. “More often than not, this becomes a source of conflict for couples.”

A frequent cause of money clashes
If credit cards are your spouse’s best friend, but you’re a saver, it’s obvious that there are going to be differences to negotiate in your relationship. But differences in money personalities can often be more subtle — and most people harbor a mixture of several different styles.

“Everyone has two money personalities, a primary and secondary, and we’re yet to find couples that have the same two,” says ‘the Money Couple‘ Scott and Bethany Palmer, co-authors of “First Comes Love, Then Comes Money.” “One of the things we see very often is that when people don’t understand each other’s money personality, money problems are harder to resolve.”

That’s why it’s so important to understand each other’s styles so that you can work together to create harmony around your finances. Once you know your primary and secondary money personalities, it’s easier to recognize the underlying dynamics that drive your differences and become more mindful of your innate tendencies.

Smart couples create a value circle
David Bach says that it’s also important for couples to focus on the common values that bring them together. To do this, he recommends creating a “value circle” — a common ground from which you can jointly make financial decisions.

“Couples that plan together stay together,” said Bach in an email. “A value circle provides couples with a team approach to planning their lives and finances together, all driven by underlying common values.”

Bach recommends the following 3 steps to creating a value circle:

1. Set a time to sit down and discuss your values in a neutral, quiet setting. Make it a fun activity. Determining your value circle is not a test and should not be stressful for you and your partner. Rather, it should bring you closer together.

2. As you talk, share your thoughts about what is really important to you. When you think about your lives, which values are the most important? Similarly, what role does money play in your life?

“Stay focused on your values—not goals, or things to do or buy,” added Bach. “If one partner worries about money, he might list ‘having a million dollars’ as a value. But that’s not a value; it’s a goal. The underlying value is security or freedom, and the million dollars is just a way to fulfill one of those values.”

3. As you and your partner clarify your values, write them down until you have a list of five core values that you can commit to focusing on over the next 12 months. Later, discuss how you can adjust your finances to accommodate those core values.

By discovering your common money values, Bach believes it will be easier to keep your financial habits and plans focused on a specific purpose and bridge the gap between conflicting styles.