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Avoid Money Stress in the Family

Feb 03, 2021 6 min read Ilana Polyak

Key Takeaways

  • Be open about your finances from the beginning.
  • Develop a financial strategy.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help.


Photo courtesy of the Starr family


Julie and David Starr have always had their money differences.

David was working as a TV producer in New York when the couple met in 1998. Being 10 years Julie’s senior, he took retirement savings seriously, and had already squirreled away a sizable nest egg.

“David grew up in a household where there was a lot of anxiety about money,” Julie, 49, says.

She, meanwhile, worked at a not-for-profit and was studying to be a nutritionist.

“I didn’t have anything saved,” Julie, who is now a real estate agent in Western Massachusetts, where the family lives, says. “I grew up in a middle-class family, and I just figured everything would be fine.”

Julie describes herself as a spender; she has a weakness for fashion. David needs a nudge to buy himself a shirt, she says. He also raised money concerns when they discussed having a family; they now have a son, 14, and a daughter, 11.

Says Julie, “He was always saying, ‘What if you can’t support your children?’”

Few subjects can cause as much tension in relationships as finances. In an online survey by the National Foundation for Credit Counseling, 47% of respondents said money disagreements were most likely to cause the greatest stress in their relationships.


Discuss your finances early on

Because there are cultural taboos around money, discussing it may not be easy for many couples.

But sharing this information early on creates a climate of openness that can help you avoid a real relationship killer: financial infidelity — that is, telling lies about your spending habits, which about 20% of people in relationships admit to, according to CreditCards.com Opens in new window.

Early on, it’s important to bring the financial dialogue into the open. While there’s no need to come to the first or second date with credit scores and bank statements, don’t wait too long to discuss your family’s economic background and how money was managed in your house. Talk about the lessons you learned and the ones you didn’t.

When the relationship gets serious, and certainly if there is talk about living together or getting married, it’s time to tell all.

Reveal what you own (savings, property and inheritance, for instance) and what you owe (credit card debt, student loans and so on). Sharing credit scores is important, too. A credit score is a snapshot of financial health, and revealing this helps you avoid surprises.


Acknowledge your different backgrounds and personalities

As the Starrs demonstrate, upbringing and life experience can create money differences. In the most extreme cases, one person’s spending may be so extravagant that it can cause financial instability.

David’s reluctance to spend even spilled over into a seemingly wise financial move. When the Starrs’ children came along, David didn’t want to get life insurance.

“I forced him to get [it],” says Julie. “We had two small kids. There was no way I was taking that chance.”

Having a life insurance plan helps assure that some of your family’s financial needs will be taken care of in the event of your death. Taking steps toward protecting your family’s financial security in the event of a tragedy can certainly make it worth making those premium payments.

Understanding each other’s spending and saving habits can take time, and requires a commitment to tackling the issue early on. It can continue to lurk in the background if not addressed.


Create a money strategy

If you have different approaches to managing money, it may take some time to meld them into one cohesive strategy. When there are slight differences, that may simply be a matter of the spender becoming more disciplined and the saver learning to loosen up a bit.

Take the Starrs. Two years ago, they got a dog. Because of their busy schedules, Julie pushed them to hire a dog walker, which cost $60 a week. She also insisted on fencing in their backyard to the tune of $2,000.

“David has recently asked me to stop the dog walker,” Julie says. Instead, they trade off dog walking with friends.

But when there are major differences, such as one partner spending so much that it threatens a family’s financial stability, it can take a bigger effort.

First, approach the topic with love, not accusations. Explain that you want to monitor your spending—both of you. Then, work together to set realistic goals.

You might start with saving $1,000 for a vacation so you don’t finance a trip with credit cards. This could help your partner see what a difference conscious spending can make.

Finally, set up a budget as a couple that allows you to meet all your obligations and leaves enough to achieve those goals.


Combine your talents

Partners enter relationships with different financial knowledge and skill sets, not to mention interests. Perhaps one person is a spreadsheet whiz and likes to create monthly budgets. Maybe one partner enjoys following the stock market and tends carefully to the investment portfolio.

Even if one person has a firm grasp of the budget and the investments, it’s still wise to distribute the load more equitably, perhaps by taking turns making a budget, paying bills and rebalancing the investment portfolio.

Otherwise, the person taking on the lion’s share of the workload may feel resentful. And the person who takes a less active role runs the risk of not knowing enough about the family finances in case of illness, death or divorce.


Get help if you need it

You don’t have to go it alone on finance. Sometimes, a neutral third party can help couples move past their financial roadblocks. Seeing a financial professional might also help you identify gaps and opportunities in your long-term financial strategy.

But if your money differences are so big that they’re spilling over into other aspects of the relationship, marriage counseling might be called for. A therapist—especially one with an expertise in dealing with money issues—might be able to help you understand the root of each other’s money issues, and figure out ways to work through them.


What you can do next

Conversations about money may be uncomfortable. Julie Starr, for example, says it took years of regular money talks with David before the topic felt natural. But without open communication, it can be impossible to work through problems.

Not only does your financial future depend on good communication on this topic, so might your relationship.



Ilana Polyak is a freelance writer who specializes in personal finance and the financial advisory industry. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Barron's, Kiplinger's Personal Finance, Bloomberg BusinessWeek and CNBC.com, where she is a frequent contributor.

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