Money and Marriage: How to Work as a Team

Money and marriage—oftentimes, the biggest obstacle to your financial goals is the person who shares your bed. Managing money in your marriage can feel challenging, but here are tips on how to work as a team.

It’s not that she was wrong. She was just really wrong.

My wife and I had built up a nice nest egg, but the stock market started to scare me. I’m a buy-and-hold type of guy* but this time my gut was telling me something was different. So I suggested to my wife that we should go all cash.

“Let’s not change it,” she said.

It was 2008, before a dip in the market became the Great Recession. We didn’t end up changing our holdings and ended up losing hundreds of thousands of dollars and over half of our net worth while we were expecting our first child and I was about to be laid off.

This was very hard for me to get over. In fact, it took me years to stop blaming her. And blaming myself for not sticking to my convictions. Many of you know this blame tango.

You make a poor money decision. Or you want to try something new, like a career change. You argue. You blame her. You blame yourself. You’re not happy.

You’re not alone.

A study by SunTrust Bank found that money is the leading cause of stress in relationships. For those in stressed relationships, 35% point their finger at money. Unlike wine, this stress doesn’t get better with age. For relationships of those between 44 and 54, money was the leading cause 44% of the time.

Why is it So Hard to Manage Money and Marriage?

Two reasons why it just seems especially challenging to get on the same page with your spouse.

  • We Marry Our Financial Opposite: Researchers at Wharton and Northwestern found that “people tend to marry spouses with opposing emotional reactions toward spending.” The researchers label these opposites as “spendthrifts” or “tightwads.” Here’s the interesting thing: “Critical to the definition of spendthrift and tightwad is that there is some self-recognition involved. You recognize that you are acting differently than you want to act and as a result you tend to be attracted to people who act in a different way than you.” It’s as if we intentionally set ourselves up for failure.
  • We Each Bring Money Baggage (and Debt) into the Relationship: Because of your life experiences, you build a model of how you approach your money and settle into a certain pattern that you keep repeating even when it hurts you. You’re stuck in a loop. Eileen Shapiro and Howard Stevenson in Make Your Own Luck call these patterns “Emotional Loops.” For example, some of us have a comfort Emotional Loop, which leads us to spend on things that make life more comfortable without a second thought—things like taxis or eating out—even though it hinders us from saving up for that downpayment. I get more into Emotional Loops below.

(When you’re in the middle of arguing, wouldn’t it be nice to have a dog rest its head on you both? I think the divorce rate would be 0% if we all had that.)

No wonder “for richer, for poorer” often feels just like “for poorer.” Sometimes, it feels like we should just call it quits and leave. But maybe it’s time to put down our money baggage and stick around until we figure it out.

Is there a better way to handle money in our marriage?

6 Tips to Manage Money and Marriage

  1. Choose to Trust and Work on Your Friendship: Often times, the reason it goes from a run-of-the-mill disagreement to code red is because trust has been broken. The frustration has been building for months or even years until domestic civil war breaks out. Put away the judgement and contempt. Everyone acts according to what they think is rational, based on their personal Emotional Loop, so they’re not any less than you even if you’re the breadwinner. (By the way, having more money has never been a good predictor of better leadership or sounder relationship judgement.) Move on from the past and focus on the future. You are not enemies, but friends. Though passion may have strained, it must not break your bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of your nature.**
  2. Get Out of the Script: Many of us already think we know what our lives are supposed to look like. It’s what we imagined growing up. It generally goes something like this: First you land a great job, then get married, then comes a kid (or two or three), a dog, two luxury cars, and a 4-bedroom house with a picket fence. Eventually you buy a second home and travel the world. And somehow, your money should just be this invisible force that pays for this lifestyle. In reality, your money story together should be tailored to your situation. For some, it makes sense. For others, especially those with a lot of debt, it doesn’t.
  3. Trade Arguing for Investigating: What’s Your Origin Story? We spend too much time fighting. Your money argument is actually not about money but about your Emotional Loops. Spend your calories discussing your respective loops from an investigative—not accusatory—posture. How do you find your Emotional Loop? Basically, you have to go back to your Origin Story. Think about almost every Batman movie you’ve ever seen. There’s often a scene that recalls his parents’ tragic death and his fall into a bat-filled hole. This is his Origin Story and reminds us what drives Batman to dress up like a bat and fight crime. We don’t get him if we don’t know his Origin Story. You have a money Origin Story too. And you can’t fully understand or appreciate each other’s approach to money unless you hear the story that powers the decisions. Share your Origin Story with each other. For example, my wife knows the story of my growing up in poverty, how my parents yelled at each other constantly over money, and how that affects almost every money decision I make as an adult. This helps inform our conversation about money. Find a night where you can share your Origin Stories over a nice meal and bottle of wine. In this way, you learn about each other and have empathy. In this way, you are teaming together. But don’t stop there—find the common goal that binds together your loops.
  4. Get On the Same Page: Often times, it’s hard to figure out what the right thing is if you don’t even know where you want to go or haven’t identified your loops. Here’s the thing: when you talk about your goals with each other, don’t even mention money. Money is just the tool to get you what you truly want. (See a theme? Money discussions are never really about money and always about hopes and fears.) Instead, talk about what really matters to you both. Is it stability? Or is it comfort? If you’re having trouble finding what it is, go back to your Origin Story. It’s hiding in plain site.
  5. Do the Analysis: Once you have a goal, ask yourself these questions:
    • Are you in the debt reduction or asset building phase of life? If credit card debt takes up more than 30% of your income, then make it your first priority to reduce debt.
    • How much would your shared goal cost? This will require you to work the numbers.
    • Are you currently spending, saving, or investing in a way that allows you to achieve your goal? If not, how do you reorient your money and lives to achieve it?
  6. Different, But Equal: So you’re opposites. You see that as a bad thing. But if harnessed correctly, your differences are a strength, not a weakness. Every Tom Brady needs a Gronk; every Steph Curry needs a Draymond Green.*** They have very different personalities and strengths from one another. Apart they’re just talented players. Together, they’re champions. Figure out your respective strengths and allocate responsibilities accordingly. In the same way that one of us is a spendthrift and the other is a tightwad, there is also typically one who is a big picture thinker and another who is strong at the details. Or one has a higher risk tolerance than the other. Stop fighting about these difference and use them for good. Money responsibilities aren’t limited to a single role. Many big picture thinkers haven’t developed the discipline to execute. Others are very good at being frugal but have no direction. The two roles need each other and are equally important.

(Touchdown, team You Two!)

Money and Marriage is Teamwork

On the surface, we’re silly people. We identify something in our approach to money that we don’t like. So we become attracted to someone with a different financial outlook. But when we’re married to them, we realize that we don’t quite like living with our money opposites. We feel stuck. We want out.

We’re either very good at conspiring against ourselves or the differences are meant to make us better, even if you do lose hundreds of thousands of dollars.

I learned that in the long run, the stock market would come back even after what seemed like the end of the financial world. Perhaps more importantly, I learned not to be so consumed with tracking my money, which was feeding into my Emotional Loop. I now limit myself to once a month for 5 minutes. I have better things to do with my time. I also learned that my wife’s focus on the short term helped us execute on our plans. Her frugality helped us set aside more to invest. I set the goals; she runs our budget. We’re a great team. But we didn’t get here without some frustration along the way. It took a lot of intentional trust building, investigating our Emotional Loops, and planning. Now, we hardly think about it because our newly formed habits just take over, sort of like how a good quarterback just knows if his receiver is breaking his route short.

After prolonged money frustrations, we turn away from each other. But when we work to get on the same page, we face each other. Once you figure out how to match your respective strengths with your money function, you’re ready to walk forward.

Together.


Want to achieve more together?

You’re excited to team with your spouse.  Imagine what you two can do together!  What if you two could invest in or partner with a group that works to restore the world?  Even better, what if you two could create a machine generating enough income to not only improve your lives but that of many others?  Think about all the lives that will be improved because of your teamwork!

Download my FREE 17-page Guide to Achieving Your Goals and you’ll get tips on how to clarify your goals, create a plan, map the future, and help get past times when you feel discouraged.  (You can preview it here.)  Start achieving your goals together today!

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*True story: One of the first stocks I ever bought was Citi. I bought it when it was trading in the 50s. I held it all the way down to when it was about a buck. Yeah, I’m a buy-and-hold kind of guy.

**Yes, that was Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural speech as he was working to unite the country. Words for all ages and times.

***Marriage is a team sport, and championship teams harness each player’s complementary skills. The list goes on and on: Montana and Rice, Aikman and Irvin, Kobe and Shaq, Magic and Kareem.

2 Comments

  • Ariane Voigt June 9, 2017 at 5:42 pm

    This is so interesting. I absolutely married my financial opposite!

    Reply
    • JT June 10, 2017 at 7:28 am

      Hi Ariane! Yeah, I think most of us would say that. Most of us would also say it’s a curse, but it is a gift if you can learn to work as a team!

      Reply

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