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Why Is It Hard for Couples to Talk About Money?

Are you afraid to discuss finances with your partner? Dr. Rachel Vanderbilt, the Relationship Doctor, explains why talking about your finances is important, even if it may be uncomfortable.

By
Rachel Vanderbilt, PhD
5-minute read
Episode #46
The Quick And Dirty

Finances should be viewed as a team sport in your relationship, and the most effective way to reduce conflict about it is to be open and honest.

Have you ever seen the show Marriage or Mortgage on Netflix? A couple has about $30,000 that they can either use as a down payment on a home or on a big wedding. After seeing a few houses and being wooed by wedding vendors, the couples have to decide which option seems like the best use of their money. This kind of discussion is something that couples may shy away from, but is really important to have.

Before my husband and I got married, we had conversations around some similar major life milestones. Looking at the numbers, my husband deduced that we could financially afford to do any two of the following three things in the next two years: have a small wedding, buy a house, or have a baby. For me, it was an easy decision to sacrifice a wedding, and we instead got married on a random weekday in a courthouse under a parking garage and behind a dojo for the cost of our wedding certificate.

When it comes to our romantic relationships, money conversations should start early and happen fairly regularly. For example, on a first date, do you split the check? Do you even discuss who pays, or do you feel there is a general rule around payment etiquette? I have heard the rule that whoever asks the other on a date should pay the bill. I have also heard that a first date should always be split. In truth, the answer is you should probably talk about it before the bill comes to avoid an awkward moment.

Why do couples shy away from conversations about money? Well, like most things in our relationships, we can trace it back to our childhood. Often times, children are not exposed to productive conversations about money in the house. They may be chastised for asking questions about money, particularly when asking their parents or other relatives how much they earn at their job. While they aren’t exposed to more positive money conversations around the house, they may very well be exposed to more negative conversations or conflicts among their parents when times are tough.

Money and finances are a source of conflict for many couples. In fact, in my own research, 75% of married participants indicated that they currently had an ongoing or repeated argument over money occurring in their relationships. When couples indicated they argued about money or finances with their partner, it corresponded with lower scores on satisfaction in their relationship. For about 25% of participants in my dissertation research, which looked at conflicts across the lifespan of a relationship, arguments about money were the most severe conflicts they had with their partner at any given time. 

So, children are not taught productive ways to discuss money, and are actively discouraged from asking questions about it. Then, when they have to navigate their own money conversations in their adult relationships, it can be intimidating and quite uncomfortable. This can result in these perpetual conflicts that are difficult to resolve and make us feel anxious about both money and our relationships.

How do couples manage their finances?

Researchers have identified four ways in which couples manage or organize their money, each of which have their own implications for marital outcomes:

  1. Pooling System: This is where both partners combine all of their monetary assets together into a single pot. Partners are aware of how much money is flowing into the household, and each has a stake in how that money is spent. However, in homes where one partner out earns the other, the higher earner may feel like their opinion is more valuable than their partner’s opinion on how money ought to be spent. So, this system may not lead to financial equity among partners.

  2. Partial Pooling System: Partners may have a central pool of money, but also keep some money in separate accounts. This gives the couple the freedom to pay for shared expenses out of the primary account while also having the individual autonomy to spend their own money as they wish. 

  3. Independent Management System: In this system, individuals keep their money separate entirely. This requires more purposeful communication about who contributes to which shared expenses. It is also the least risky option for partners who are concerned about losing their individual wealth or autonomy in the event that they get divorced or their partner is viewed as financially irresponsible.

  4. Housekeeping Allowance System: One partner is responsible for all of a couple’s financial assets. They may provide an “allowance” for their partner to spend as they wish, but most financial decisions are made by the primary partner. 

According to one study, sharing responsibility for money decisions is more likely to happen when partners earn a relatively similar amount at their jobs. When a woman makes more than her husband in a relationship, it decreases the likelihood that he will be solely responsible for making financial decisions, and increases the likelihood that she may be solely responsible. Interestingly, a man earning more than his wife does not impact the likelihood that she will be solely responsible for the finances. The more a woman earns in her relationship, the less control her husband will have over shared money.

10 Crucial Money Rules Couples Should Follow

Couples who are in a second or third marriage are less likely to pool their finances than are couples who are married for the first time. Those who are cohabiting are equally likely to pool their resources as they are to independently manage them. Young people and those in the early stages of their relationships are more likely to partially pool their resources for practical reasons, whereas older married couples are the most likely to have a housekeeping allowance system.

Couples who pool all of their money together are the least likely to experience conflicts around money. Alternatively, couples who keep their money separate are most likely to experience conflicts about money. People who are older than 40 are less likely to report experiencing conflicts about money, and couples without children are also less likely to report experiencing conflict about money. Couples where both partners are employed are more likely to report financial conflicts than are couples where one or both partners are unemployed.

For couples who do not experience economic hardship, their choice in money management strategy is unrelated to their likelihood of experiencing conflicts about finances. However, this isn’t true for couples experiencing economic hardship. For people who are having trouble making ends meet, pooling money together is associated with less conflict about the financial situation they are in.

Making decisions about expenditures

Money decisions are hard and they really, truly can be tough to talk about with your partner. The longer you put off conversations about money, the harder the subject may be to broach. If money is something you struggle to talk about, it may be a good idea to go through financial counseling with your partner. This is true of couples who are considering marriage as well as for couples who have been married a long time.

6 Tips to Manage Money as a New Couple

Before you get married, you should have an understanding of your partner’s financial background. Do you or your partner have debt (student debt, credit card debt, etc), and does your partner need legal protection from these debts? Do you and your partner own your current assets outright or do you have regular monthly expenses (like car loans, a mortgage, etc.)? Are there certain assets you would like to retain sole ownership of and may need to create a prenuptial agreement for (think: inheritances or other familial assets)? You each need to understand the financial risks you may unintentionally take on by becoming legally bound to one another.

All couples benefit from honest dialogue about the status of their financial situation. Set aside time once per quarter to review the status of your financial situation. Both partners need to be aware of where money is coming from and going to. In addition, no one partner should make a major financial decision without the input of the other partner (like a car or a house). Finances should be viewed as a team sport in your relationship, and the most effective way to reduce conflict about it is to be open and honest.

Citations +
All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Rachel Vanderbilt, PhD

Dr. Rachel Vanderbilt is the host of the Relationship Doctor podcast. She is a relationship scientist whose research examines how we communicate in our romantic relationships. Specifically, she studies how we communicate in our romantic relationships as we age and our relationships mature, particularly during conflicts that are difficult to resolve. She believes that we can all benefit from evidence-based recommendations about how to have healthy and happy relationships.

Do you have a question for the Relationship Doctor podcast? You can leave a voice message for the show by calling (813) 397-8165 or send an email to relationshipdoctor@quickanddirtytips.com. You might hear your question on a future episode.