If money is a tense topic in your relationship, this fascinating money phenomenon might be at the heart of it.

By Maggie Seaver
Updated May 15, 2019
Credit: Getty Images

No two people think about money in the exact same way. Everyone grows up in a unique financial background, earns a different salary, and approaches spending and saving in their own individual way. And there’s a name for this ubiquitous variance in monetary perception, financial bias—and it might be the underlying cause of money tensions between you and your spouse or significant other.

“A financial bias is simply a belief about money that affects the choices we make or the way we see the world,” explains Elaine Grogan Luttrull, CPA-PFS, AFC, founder of Minerva Financial Arts. “They can come from anywhere, but I find many people’s beliefs about money stem from the experiences they had as children or young adults—it’s amazing how those formative experiences stick.”

Luttrull explains, for example, if someone grew up in a household with a high level of debt, and remembers constantly having to evade phone calls from debt collectors, this person might grow up with high anxiety around the dangers of debt, which could influence their money choices later in life.

“We all have biases, and the dangerous ones are those we don’t know about or acknowledge,” Luttrull says. This is where things get tricky. When two people get married and merge their lives—and bank accounts—their disparate money beliefs will inevitably surface, making it crucial for couples to engage in frequent and consistent money conversations. Why? Because talking (and arguing) about money is uncomfortable with a capital U, and it’s not always about the specific or immediate irritant. You have to invite an open dialogue to get to the root of the problem.

For instance, you might be bickering about how expensive that new coat you bought is (and about how you shop all the time); but if you look at the bigger picture, this argument is actually the product of a clash between your respective money values and priorities. You considered this a valuable and worthy purchase for the winter ahead, while your spouse is confused why you’d ever splurge on that purchase when you’re trying to save for a house. See what we mean? And financial biases really do permeate every facet of married life, from how you raise your kids to how you grocery shop and prioritize leisure time.

Coming from two different places moneywise doesn’t mean you’re not compatible though—on the contrary. It's healthy for two people to merge and balance out each other’s contrasting traits and habits, money or otherwise. Luttrull puts it another way: “Our beliefs and histories don’t have to be different to cause friction. Imagine two people who both grew up in households that prioritized saving money—perhaps to a fault. Their habits are technically compatible, so there may not appear to be as much friction there, but their habits may not be healthy. They may be depriving themselves (or their children) of vital experiences and setting up future generations to repeat these habits.”

So how can you get to know and understand each other’s unique financial biases? Through experience and osmosis over time, yes, but also by actively talking about money—preferably starting before tying the knot—and continuing to check in frequently, well, forever.

“I love the idea of having a monthly, quarterly, or even weekly money date on the calendar,” Luttrull says. Find one hour to check in on your financial health as a team in a way that doesn’t feel like work. Open a bottle of wine or make a pot of tea, and reward yourselves afterward with a new episode of the show you’re currently bingeing. “The point of these money dates are to keep each other informed about the financial metrics that matter to you individually and as a couple,” she says. “Those metrics could be anything: the balance in your emergency fund, how much you each spent last month, what’s in your retirement account, or even the balance of credit card debt.

The most important thing is to approach these conversations with kindness—you love this person, even if their money habits sometimes baffle you. “We all value different things,” Luttrull says. “One person might value savings while the other person values experiences—and that’s okay. The trick is to find a bit of balance, and if you understand where your partner is coming from, it’s easier to see things from their perspective.”