3 Common Fights About Money—and How to Resolve Them

We vow to love each other for richer or poorer, but that doesn't stop us from squabbling over finances. Experts weigh in with solutions for couples' thorniest challenges.

two stacks of money on pyramids
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Sex. In-Law Problems. Parenting differences. These are all sources of conflict in relationships, but according to research, financial arguments are the ones that most strongly predict divorce, behind infidelity. Here's how to keep the topic from being so fraught.

THE ISSUE: You feel judged by each other about how you spend.

Real Couple Example:

Rachel Miller (name has been changed for privacy) loves to buy art and handmade housewares. Her husband wants the newest iPhone and what looks to Rachel like a monster truck. He downshifted his career to take a job with less stress, so they needed to reduce costs. That's when the finger-pointing began. "When we look at who spends more or where to cut, it gets tense," she says. "We value different things. I'm a more frequent buyer of cheaper items, and he makes larger purchases, but less often." With their finances fully merged, they both see—and judge—exactly how the other spends money.

Expert Fix:

Give each partner a "no-judgment" fund.

How It Works:

They decide on an equal amount of cash to put in separate accounts every month, and they can spend that money however they want, with no nitpicking from their partner, says Erin Lowry, author of Broke Millennial Talks Money.

First, Lowry suggests they go over their shared financial goals, like saving for retirement or a down payment on a home. If Rachel still finds herself grating every time she hears the engine of her husband's dream truck, Lowry recommends they check in about whether those goals are being met. If the answer is yes, then it may be helpful for Rachel to release her anger about the truck. "Who is that resentment serving?" Lowry says. "But if their needs are not being met, then they have to have a frank conversation about prioritizing joint goals."

THE ISSUE: You disagree on a major money decision, like supporting a family member.

Real Couple Example:

Julien and Kiersten Saunders, the couple behind the blog Rich & Regular and the book Cashing Out (available in July), struggled with what they call a "flammable" topic: how much financial support to give Julien's mother. Kiersten's parents are retired and self-supporting, but Julien's mother is single, and they always knew there'd come a time when she'd need help with money. They just didn't expect it to arrive so soon.

In February 2020, Kiersten took a risky financial leap to be a full-time entrepreneur. Then the pandemic hit. By the end of the year, they wanted to get Julien's mom out of senior housing and into an apartment that better suited her needs, but the business, though growing, was too young to be predictable. "We didn't know where the money would come from to help her, and we had a hard time talking about it," Kiersten says.

Expert Fix:

Call a money meeting.

How It Works:

When people are stressed, they see things in a more black-and-white way, which hinders compromise, says financial therapist Amanda Clayman. Julien and Kiersten argued about whether to help at all, rather than brainstorm ways to increase their income or decrease other expenses. Clayman recommends partners schedule time to talk when emotions aren't running high, so they can find a solution that works for both of them.

This conversation needs to be more intentional than impromptu chats about expenses like dining out because it involves a major commitment, Clayman says. "With discretionary expenses, you have a lot of chances to try things, to experiment, to compromise," she says. "But with these fundamental, long-term expenses, it takes work to come to a place of making that decision together."

Before the meeting, you and your partner should take a few minutes to think about what's important and jot down talking points. Then, during the meeting, discuss how you feel and how that affects the way you see the money decision. Julien, for example, might share all the sacrifices his mother made to raise him, and how that makes him want to support her as an adult. The goal of these money talks should not be to "win," but to reach an agreement you're both comfortable with. For Kiersten and Julien, it's no longer "Should we offer support or not?" but rather "How much can we afford to help, and how often?"

THE ISSUE: You find it difficult to financially trust your partner.

Real Couple Example:

Athena Valentine grew up watching her mother pawn valuables to afford groceries. Her mom died when she was still in high school, and Athena had to sleep on couches at friends' houses. Over the next decade, she got her financial act together using tactics she writes about on her blog, Money Smart Latina, like practicing zero-based budgeting. Because of that work, she's been able to afford a one-bedroom rental for the past six years.

Now Athena wants to move in with her partner, Josh, but also feels unable to let go of the security of her own place. Living with someone requires trust that they'll fulfill their end of the deal, and because of Athena's history, she has trouble conjuring that trust. "I've never had the financial stability I have now, and I'm scared that if I move in with him, I'm going to lose it," she says.

Expert Fix:

Talk to a financial therapist.

How It Works:

When we have money issues, we might think that consulting a financial adviser is the way to go. But financial therapists are trained to consider a person's relationship and history with money, combining mental health treatment with financial planning (find one at financialtherapyassociation.org).

"Financial therapy helps people understand how they relate to money, how they think and feel about money, and how that impacts their financial behaviors and relationships," says financial therapist Lindsay Bryan-Podvin of the platform Mind Money Balance. If your financial therapist is also a licensed mental health provider, your insurance may cover the costs.

Athena's hesitation is understandable given her childhood experiences with money, Bryan-Podvin says. "Instead of being ashamed of that paralysis, honor it," she says. "Your brain and your body are simply trying to protect you from a precarious money situation." Athena says therapy has helped her communicate her needs to Josh and take baby steps toward creating a future together.

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