One of the most common sources of conflict in marriage is money, how to spend it, and how to save for things that really matter.

It doesn’t make sense when you think about it logically. Money is simple. Keeping a budget is something an 8-year-old can do.

For a marriage to be wealthy, a couple needs to have more money coming in than going out. It’s just addition and subtraction. Debt needs to be eliminated, and money needs to be saved and invested for the things we want. You know, toes in the sand with a drink in our hand.

If you and your partner follow this rule, you’ll have no financial issues for the rest of your lives. But it doesn’t feel that way, does it? It feels like we need a Master’s degree in Finance and Wealth Management.

But do we?

Dr. John Gottman wanted to find out, so he went to a group of 8-year-olds and asked them for money advice. He told them he works with moms and dads who are fighting about money, so they can stop fighting and love each other more. All the kids understood this.

He told them a story about a couple.

The husband’s story went like this: “I don’t want to save for tomorrow. I want to live for today. I want to spend money enjoying life. Uncle Jack saved up millions of dollars living in a one room condo and he never went out. He never truly enjoyed life. I don’t want that.”

The wife’s story went like this: “My family grew up poor. We never had any money when an emergency came up or if somebody got sick. We never had enough to plan for the future. When my parents got older and couldn’t work as hard, they had nothing. They couldn’t retire. I don’t want to be like my parents.”

One wants to spend now. The other wants to save for later. They are stuck in financial gridlock.

Dr. Gottman looked at the kids and asked, “What should this mom and dad do?”

A hand shot up. “Save some and spend some.” The other kids looked at each other and agreed.

The 8-year-old believed that the couple should work out a compromise with each other. The best option would be to work hard for a while, put some of the extra money in savings, and use the rest of it to enjoy life so they don’t end up like Uncle Jack.

That’s all it takes. Kids are totally logical.

So what’s wrong with us adults? Why do we struggle with money when an 8-year-old knows what’s best?

Money Isn’t About Money

Money, to a degree, defines us. It determines how we dress. How we eat. What social groups we join. Whether we like it or not, money influences what we can and cannot do with our lives. So where does all this start?

Out of all the forces that determine our relationship with money, the most influential is our personal history – the melting pot of our childhood, teenage, and adult experiences that have sculpted and resculpted our likes and dislikes about money throughout our lives.

Our unique experiences come together to form what Dr. Gottman calls our Money Map.

We spend our lives swimming in a sea of moments that sculpt our financial dreams and fears. Maybe it was your father’s gambling problem, or your mother’s uptight way of controlling the household finances. Maybe it was your sister’s expensive interest in riding horses. Maybe it was your wealthy uncle who had a nine car garage, leaving you to feel like you couldn’t measure up.

These, along with thousands of other moments, create our individual beliefs about money.

Money Maps, like Love Maps, are often subtle and difficult to read. You may have grown up with an alcoholic mother who spent food money on liquor, making your meals unpredictable, so you made a promise to yourself that high-quality, expensive food was more important than saving for retirement. Or maybe you were picked on by kids in school for the way you dressed, so you spent all of your savings on custom tailored suits and ate Mac and Cheese every night so you wouldn’t get made fun of.

It’s these personal meanings that guide how we deal with money in our marriage. Logic has very little to do with it.

So when your partner complains about the expensive organic groceries you bought at Whole Foods, or the silk tie that costs more than a plane ticket, an argument breaks out. To you it’s not just food or a tie. These privileges represent stability and success. They protect you. They define you.

Money is loaded with power and meaning that can make can discussions heated and hurtful. Arguments about money aren’t about money. They are about our dreams, our fears, and our inadequacies.

What 8-year-olds don’t understand is that the key to managing conflict about money is to not focus on how much something costs. Instead, it’s to go beneath the dollar value to explore what money really means to each person in the relationship.

To move past these arguments, you need to use conflict about finances to understand how your partner came to be that way. Work together with this new understanding of each other to create shared meaning around money that brings you closer, rather than pushes you apart.

So what does money mean to you in your marriage? Is this different than your partner? Let us know in the comments below.


Want to create a wealthy and meaningful marriage? Then join us for our new weekly column Managing Money in Marriage by subscribing below. Over the next nine weeks, we will teach you how to stop fighting about money and build a wealthy relationship, both financially and emotionally. As a welcome gift, we will send you The Meaning Of Money Exercise.


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Arguments About Money Aren’t About Money
Kyle Benson

Kyle Benson is an Intentionally Intimate Relationship coach providing practical, research-based tools to build long-lasting relationships. Kyle is best known for his compassion and non-judgemental style and his capacity to see the root problem. Download the Intimacy 5 Challenge to learn where you and your partner can improve your emotional connection and build lasting intimacy. Connect with Kyle on Twitter and Facebook. For more tools visit kylebenson.net.

  • Elif Duman

    Hi we have money conflict in our marriage. I grow up as a middle child of a official family. My father was extravagant so we could not save money. But they focused on our education and spent money on This to make us have good jobs as girls. I like to buy little things and do not like to be mean. But I also like to keep some money away. However, my husband grow up in a different culture. His father was storekeeper and they save money. My husband doesnt like buying little things. But he likes to buy valuables. An expensive watch, a high cost car. Everytime i spent money we have arguments. I buy shoes that cost much than he wants to be, we argue. I was exhausted after delivery and need a cleaner he refuse. I want to buy a baby sling he says this is unnecessary. I buy some fruits and he asks if i checked the price and why i give so much money for this. I like to buy books to keep for myself but he says go to library to read for free. He buys an expensive car but do not use it not to reduce its value. I asked him to buy a moderate car and use it to ease our transportation but he refuse. In every single topic about money we conflict. I hate to buy things when we first marry since our arguments madem me feel terrible. After 4 years i force myself to argue to buy what i need/want because no other ways worked.

    • Hi Elif,

      I’m sorry you have so many arguments about money with your husband. It sounds like both of you have different meanings on the purpose of money and what it means for both of you. While this conflict may never get resolved, what you can do is use the differences to be closer with each other. Use the money conflict to understand each other better. On Monday, I’ll give you a detailed list of the meanings of money so both your partner and you can understand each better and learn to work with your differences.

      • Elif Duman

        Hi,
        I am happy to hear from you. I read about marriage conflict management a lot, but i could not make things work in my relationship. I am frustrated most of the time because of my husband’s reactions. I still love him, but by the time i fell we are getting less connected every day.
        I am looking forward to see your list.
        Thanks

      • jennifer mitchell

        I would get much like to read this list too.

  • Jane

    I recommend keeping finances separate. This is probably not an option when you are a young couple but being divorced and having been a struggling single mother of 2 girls afterwards, I decided to keep my own accounts separate from my fiancee’s. He is a bit of a spendthrift whereas I am very disciplined due to a strict budget and not much income. I currently own a house which I have rented out in order to gain additional income as I have downscaled to part time work while my daughter finishes school. We have made plans to move in together at the end of the year but that will mean I become more dependant due to loss of income. This makes me very nervous. I tell myself that I can go back to a more restricted budget, having done it before, but I feel like I am suffering a combination of loss aversion and am very nervous about having to combine our budgets due to economic necessity. On the other hand, it is a logical progression since we have been together for over 9 years. Also, the house I own is much nicer than where we are currently renting and I feel like I want to live in a nicer place. I just won’t have the same purchasing power, and I will be less independent financially. It is a difficult decision to make.

  • Kestrel2

    Hi – this is an important and timely discussion. As someone who finds the arguments over money very distasteful, I’m deeply aware that the arguments are more about the underlying situation rather than the amount itself. I’m frustrated, however, that almost every helpful professional suggestion surrounding couples and money, or money at all, is based on a presumption of established and consistent income within the couple arrangement. The concept of arguing over saving, spending, budgeting is inherently dependent on a kind of income stream that allows for saving, spending, or budgeting. Those 30-40% of us, projected by the Bureau of Labor Statistics by 2020 to be over 40%, who are self-employed or freelancers live by a feast or famine ethos that often, frankly, prevents any kind of budgeting or savings. Some months are plenty where one can pay off the past three months of famine – regular life bills that do not change based on income – but, rarely is there enough excess to save for the future… The kind of fiscal austerity that would be required of a middle-class family who is solely dependent on the whims of a fickle client base is a rather untenable quality of life. So, the frustration is not with the partner, but with the social constructs of a market-driven corporate squeeze and the lack of opportunities available for those who do not fit within an employee-only world. Still, fighting against the systemic oppression often comes out as an attack on the loved one; and, support toward finding more effective ways to work together would always be helpful.