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By Carol Church

Money is an incredibly common area of conflict for couples, and it can be a really serious one. Some research suggests that fighting over money is one of the most common causes of divorce, especially if the fights are particularly angry or intense. It’s hard, because learning to negotiate finances with another person can be really difficult. We all have our own styles of saving, budgeting, and spending, and what feels right to one person may feel really wrong to another. And in most families, at least some of the time, it can feel like there just isn’t enough money to go around.

Perceptions of Spending Styles Matter

So how can partners reduces some of the destructive stress around finances? Surprisingly, one recent study found that some of the problem may be our perceptions about our spouses’ spending styles, more than anything else. In this research, men and women were asked how much financial conflict they experienced along with various other questions, such as how much they earned, how they thought their partner did with money, how much money stress they were under, and so on.

When the researchers tallied the results, they found that the #1 predictor of financial conflict was men’s belief that their wives were “bad with” money, which negatively affected men and women both. It also wasn’t good when women thought their husbands were bad with money, though this was less serious.

Most of us might have assumed that being under financial stress or not earning much money would predict money conflict the most. It did– but not as much as thinking that one’s spouse was an over-spender. Even couples with plenty of money and few financial worries suffered when someone believed their partner to be a money waster! This problem is especially tricky when you consider that “tightwads” and “spendthrifts” often tend to be attracted to each other and end up together.

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So, how can partners who are experiencing financial stress due to different money personalities (or even just the perception of different money personalities!) improve their situation? One way to handle this is to work on a realistic budget together that allows for each spouse’s hobbies, needs, and interests. If there is frequent conflict over purchases, it may be useful to create a small “fun money” account for each spouse that can be spent as each person sees fit, without spousal discussion. (If the saver wants to put the money in the bank, that’s fine too!) But aside from that account, make a rule not to keep financial secrets from each other. Sometimes false perceptions come about because one spouse suspects the other of “financial infidelity”—hiding spending—even when it isn’t true.

Although it may be surprising to learn just how powerful our perceptions can be when it comes to financial conflict, it may also help to know that some of this issue may just be “in our minds.” Financial disagreements with a spouse or partner are difficult, but are something that can be overcome.

Save the dates of our 3-part Family Finances Series which begins July 10 with a webinar on Separation & Single Parenting in the Military.


Britt, S.L., et al. (2017). Tightwads and Spenders: Predicting Financial Conflict in Couple Relationships. Journal of Financial Planning, 30, 36-42.