= Here's Why So Many Couples Bicker Over Money – And What To Do About It
Here’s Why So Many Couples Bicker Over Money – And What To Do About It

Here’s Why So Many Couples Bicker Over Money – And What To Do About It

Money fights just hit different.

There are a million and one things that could stir up a fight between you and your S.O. — sex, not spending enough time together, one half not doing their share of their chores — the list goes on and on. But when it comes to the top things couples squabble over that lead to splitsville, money ranks right up there near the top.

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Digging deeper, a recent American Institute of CPAs (AICPA) survey reveals that 73% of cohabiting couples say that money decisions are definitely a source of tension in the relationship. What’s more, this tension bleeds over to the bedroom; nearly half (47%) say that this form of financial stress has a negative impact in matters of physical intimacy.

I talked to Elle Martinez, host of the Couple Money podcast, and Megan McCoy, a financial therapist, licensed marriage and family therapist, and director of the Personal Financial Planning Masters Program at Kansas State University, to weigh in on some of the common reasons couples bicker over money, and how to get past these stumbling blocks and work toward building a life together:

1. Money is a taboo topic. Money topics can be so hush-hush in our culture that we simply don’t know how to navigate financial conversations, explains McCoy.

2. When it comes to money, arguments with your partner are just different than other kinds of fights, says McCoy. For one, they tend to get more heated faster and are more drawn out than other issues.

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“Often they end with no resolution, which leads to the tension trickling into other areas of functioning,” says McCoy. “And because money fights are so nasty, your children might see the conflict and internalize the anger, or create bad money beliefs from watching things play out.”

3. Opposites attract (as proven by Paula Abdul and MC Skat Kat). It’s one of those strange phenomena, but spendthrifts can tend to be romantically attracted to savers, and vice versa.

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For those who are attracted to their “money opposite,” spenders tend to be attracted to the responsible and conscientious saver, and savers can be drawn to the fun-filled and carefree spender, explains McCoy. “But as time goes by, we are unable to really ‘understand’ our partners’ behavior, because it’s so different from ours, and because we aren’t talking about money, we tend to assume things about our partners. The saver probably assumes the spender is materialistic, and the spender starts to assume the saver is controlling or boring.”

It turns out that neither are true. “Research finds that spenders and savers don’t differ in materialism or boringness, but rather their brains differ,” says McCoy. “It turns out that the pain area of savers’ brains just really gets lit up from spending money, whereas that pain center doesn’t light up for spenders.” In other words, savers might actually experience the sensation of pain when parting with their money. 

4. We all have different money stories that influence our behavior. In short, a money story is the set of beliefs, perceptions, and attitudes we have about the mighty dollar.

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These narratives are largely shaped by our observations, what society teaches us, and also from our own experiences about money. “What we saw with how our family dealt with money and cultural/community expectations are two big ones that can unconsciously influence us,” says Martinez.

Because of that, our behaviors and habits around money can be super different from that of our partners’. What triggers fear and anxiety for one person could easily bring on a sense of happiness and joy in the other. And if we don’t talk about money with anyone, let alone with our S.O., we have no idea what’s going on in the other person’s head when a financial situation pops up. 

5. Money is a finite resource. Unlike knowledge, creativity, and cat memes (which are infinite), we might be more prone to fight about money in a relationship because it’s a limited resource, explains McCoy.

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“When we fight about other things in our relationship they aren’t finite — like about who’s taking out the trash — at the end of the day there are tons of future trash bags for one or both of us to take out,” she says. “But when we fight about who’s allowed to spend what, there’s a finite amount of money that we have to share that’s limited.” 

6. And ironically, while money can create so much stress in a relationship and lead to breakups, couples may tend to downplay money fights, points out McCoy.

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“Many believe that money isn’t important, so we don’t want to expend that much energy on figuring out the role of money in our lives,” she says. “But money is more than the numbers on the Excel sheet.”

McCoy relates this super-poignant and relatable quote from a research team led by Natalie H. Jenkins: “Money is a major issue for couples because it, like nothing else we know of, provides the screen on which couples project all their deepest fears, hopes, and hurts in life.”

7. Plus, money fights are actually about other things. Peel back the layers on that fight you just had on how much to spend on the holidays, and you’ll find that arguments about money are really about what you each value and prioritize, says Martinez.

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“For example, with budgets, most of them hit three main areas: paying the bills, saving and investing for the future, and enjoying money now,” says Martinez. “Couples typically argue about those last two. Striking a balance where both partners are happy is tricky.”

So now that we’ve gotten to the bottom of why couples can fight so much over money, let’s talk about how to work past these arguments and strike a balance:

Start by having regular money convos. Because we tend to slink away from talking about money in general, we often only talk with our S.O.s about finances when there’s a 911 situation, explains McCoy. “Because we’re under duress, it tends to be a not-fun-discussion about sacrifice.”

And create a spending plan together so both of you are on the same page.

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McCoy agrees with, like, 99% of the population that the word “budget” feels so freakin’ restrictive. “You work hard to make money, so you should be able to spend it,” she says. “You just have to make sure you are spending it on things that make you happy, rather than just wasting it mindlessly or because you feel like you have to.” 

Here’s what you can do instead: Create a spending plan together based on allocating cash on what each of you values. Then cut things that you don’t need and that don’t make you happy. That’s what it’s all about. 

If you are fighting with your partner, you are more likely to approach your finances as a competition. This is my money versus their money. The goal is to shift it to an “our money” mindset so that you can maximize your ability to reach your goals by pooling resources. 

You’ll definitely want to tether your goals to your values and priorities and then give these goals a specific timeframe, adds Martinez. “Start small with a three-year set of goals,” says Martinez. “That gives you a framework to begin aligning your budget together.”

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Also, when you’re going through your expenses and figuring out what you can cut out or lower, don’t just put in a generic savings account. Instead, tie it to a goal, recommends McCoy — for instance, Fido Fund 2023, Bombass House 2024, or what have you. “Tying your sacrifices today to you and your partners’ dreams of tomorrow will help you reach your goals faster, and help you all become more committed to one another,” says McCoy. “That’s because those shared future financial goals include you both.” 

Money apps can be your friends. Just like how money-splitting payment apps like Venmo and Splitwise can make it oh-so-much easier to ask your friends and fam to pay you back, make the most of money apps that let you track spending together and create shared goals.

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“Any kind of tracking app or spending plan app will help take some of the stress out of making the right financial decision,” says McCoy. “It’ll become automated, and in a good way.” 

Apps like Qapital and Digit have joint goals features. There are also apps designed for couples to do money together, like Honeyfi and Zeta. Use tech to your advantage; they can reduce awkwardness and tension.

And if these convos don’t go as you planned or you’ve hit a wall, consider working with a financial therapist, mental health professional, or financial pro who has experience working with couples.

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“A couple’s counselor who can mediate for you can help you develop communication and conflict resolution skills,” says McCoy. “Or enlist a financial counselor or planner who can help you brainstorm how to use your money better. A financial therapist can help in both areas.” 

Have you ever fought about money in a relationship? Tell us about it in the comments.

And for more posts about life and money, check out the rest of our personal finance posts

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