According to the latest Couples & Money study from Fidelity, more than half of couples surveyed said they brought debt into their relationships ― 20 percent admitted that had a negative impact. Among respondents who are concerned about debt, almost half said that money is their biggest relationship challenge and 67 percent said they argue about money regularly.
Money conflicts in relationships happen more often than you might think. But they don’t have to be dealbreakers, no matter how bad the situation might seem.
We spoke with several couples counselors about the money conflicts they’ve personally mediated to learn how real couples deal with money problems and how some came to successful resolutions.
1. The Clashing Life Goals
“I worked with a couple once where the husband was the breadwinner and resented his wife for not working. She refused because she wanted to pursue her passions in life, even though none of them earned money. In turn, the man felt alone and overwhelmed with supporting his wife and four children by himself.
My recommendation was for her to further her education in something she loves so she can eventually develop a career with it to earn income. She loved helping others, so she decided to pursue a master’s in counseling to become a therapist so she could keep following her passion while also getting paid. This was a win-win for both of them!” — Dr. Wyatt Fisher, a licensed clinical psychologist, marriage counselor and Christian dating site founder in Boulder, Colorado.
2. The Thailand Sex Vacation
“The couple that I was seeing last — a male in his early 40s and female in her early 30s — came to see me for premarital counseling. They faced several hiccups before reaching the conclusion that they’d be happy married. One problem was that they were broke, partially due to the sex trip to Thailand that the male partner went on with his best friend a year earlier.
Long story short, the guy took out a loan of about $14,000 to pay for flights and sex. His long-time girlfriend first found out about the loan (and later, the reason for it) when they tried to buy a car together. He wasn’t repaying the loan regularly, resulting in a poor credit score and an inability to secure a car loan.
The trip to Thailand took place two years before they were living together and the female patient was temporarily living in a different town for a work assignment, so it was easy for her partner to hide his little two-week escape. So, we worked on the trust issues — we discussed any possible secrets that both partners had and whether they were able to move past these issues and establish a lasting relationship. It was evident to me that both of them wanted something more and were working together to make that happen.
In terms of finances, we figured that the guy would need to save up money to get the things his female partner expected — the car, saving up for the wedding, etc. In the end, she didn’t even hold a grudge for him spending the money; it hurt her that he cheated, but she recognized that he probably didn’t spend much on sex considering how costly the actual travel was. I was quite perplexed with the level of understanding that this woman had for this guy.” — Damian Jacob Sendler, sexologist and head of Felnett Health Research Foundation in New York City
3. The Compulsive Shopper
“One client of mine had a habit of spending a lot of money on clothes and shoes, only to never wear them. It drove her husband crazy when he would see tags adding up to thousands of dollars every time he walked in the closet.
My suggestion was to let her continue to buy whatever she wants, with these conditions: 1) She must show her husband what she buys the same day she buys it, 2) She must put on a fashion show for her husband that same day and 3) If she doesn’t wear the items within a 14-day period, they both go to the store together to return the items ― on a busy Saturday, nevertheless.
Lots of clothing was returned at first, and they found that returning all of these items became very time-consuming and exhausting. Soon enough, however, fewer clothes and shoes were purchased, and eventually, it slowed down to the point where only a few items needed to be returned. Now, she’s a lot more thoughtful about what she purchases and doesn’t need to make nearly as many returns. Plus, as an added bonus, they both still enjoy the fashion shows! They’re now saving money and are no longer resentful of one another.” — Dr. Erika Rasure, assistant professor of business and financial services at Maryville University in St. Louis
4. The Financial Philanderer
“Bob and Carol came to my office for what they said was ‘infidelity treatment.’ When they arrived, they confessed that the real problem was Bob’s spending habits. He wrote checks, ran up credit cards and withdrew cash from the ATM without telling Carol. What they were describing was ’financial infidelity’ and for Carol, it felt the same as if Bob were cheating on her with another woman.
Carol was upset that Bob refused to discuss the basics of their financial goals, including how they were planning for the future, envisioning retirement or creating shared investments. Bob was conflict-avoidant in general, but talking about money sent him into a full-blown panic.
In therapy, we started with a conversation about appreciation. I asked Carol and Bob to appreciate each other for how they had each handled their finances so far. Carol said she appreciated that Bob paid for dinner every time they went out. Bob said he appreciated that Carol saved money and that they had plenty in their 401(k) for the future.
People respond positively to appreciation, and most couples will withdraw if they feel criticized. It helps to start the conversation not with a criticism of what they are doing wrong (they already know that) but to let them know what they are doing well.” — Dr. Tammy Nelson, sex therapist and author of The New Monogamy
5. The Ruthless Battle
“I was counseling a couple where the wife was done waiting for her husband to change and decided she wanted to get a divorce. The day after she told him this in our counseling session, he found a $100,000 joint bank account had just been emptied to zero.
This set off an avalanche of financial maneuvers by each as they sought to ‘get theirs’ and protect themselves. It took years and tens of thousands of dollars in attorney fees to sort it all out. It could have all been prevented with a little honest, upfront communication. But, of course, this was one of the reasons why they were in counseling in the first place.” — Dr. Kurt Smith, therapist who specializes in counseling men
6. The Cultural Divide
“I have seen many couples in which Partner A is a first generation American and Partner B may be third or fourth generation American. Partner A grew up in a family that had to scrimp, sacrifice and save for their children to have better opportunities. Partner B grew up in a comfortable middle-class or even in a wealthy home and doesn’t remember their folks discussing finances in front of them or with them.
Partner A feels guilty spending on items or experiences that seem indulgent, thinking it’s selfish and unfair to their parents who sacrificed so much, as well as feeling like they’re taking what should go to their children. Partner B saw how money can provide creature comforts and excitement ― taking trips, buying a home that is a bit beyond their means, purchasing special gifts for their partner.
These couples have to talk about their values and the meaning underlying their views; otherwise, they will remain in emotional gridlock and not see eye to eye on finances.” ― Sari Eckler Cooper, founder and director of a practice specializing in couples therapy and coaching
7. The $5,000 Phone Bill
“I was counseling a young newlywed couple. The husband was just discharged from the Navy, and the couple was living with his mother-in-law (the bride’s mom). He ran up a $5,000 bill calling sex sites on his mother-in-law’s house phone.
Of course, it was a giant fight, and based on complete ignorance on his part. He had whiled away time during his Navy stints calling sex lines and continued the habit once he was home. He didn’t seem to realize it would run up his mother-in law’s bill. We managed to get it worked out, calm everyone down, get him to face his addiction to the calls and make reparations. I haven’t seen them since we fixed it, so I hope he learned something useful.” ― Tina Tessina, psychotherapist and author of 13 books including How to be Happy Partners: Working it out Together
What’s Really Going On When Couples Fight About Money
If we look closer at these money conflicts, it becomes clear that financial problems are a symptom of deeper relationship issues, not the cause.
“What it really comes down to is people just might not be communicating about money in general,” said Lorna Kapusta, vice president of Fidelity’s Women Investors division.
Kapusta said a good first step for couples who want to get on the same page and communicate better is talking about shared goals: “What’s important in your life? What do you want to achieve?” In those conversations about your shared life, money discussions will come naturally.
Kapusta did note that these conversations can be awkward and tough to navigate, so it’s helpful to work with an objective third party.
But what if hiring an adviser is out of your budget? “If one or both people have a retirement account ... you can often call those services and they will actually begin to help [with] those conversations ― and that’s for free,” she said.
Responses have been edited or condensed for clarity.