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Clashing Attitudes: Therapist Ulash Dunlap Discusses Differences in Money Management

Sept. 26, 2012
Personal Finance
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We heard from Justin Lavner from UCLA on what the academic research tells us about money in relationships. Now we sit down with Ulash Dunlap, a therapist in private practice, who does a lot of pre-marital counseling. We asked her to share her experiences working with couples that fight over money.

What is your clientele like? 

They tend to be younger, Type A, high-functioning sorts of people. The ones who have trouble with money often don’t have a lot of experience budgeting; their parents may have done this for them.

When do conflicts emerge?

Conflicts emerge when you have two people with very different attitudes about money. There are three rough buckets of attitudes:

  1. Those who view money as security – Worrying about the future, very focused on saving.
  2. Those who view money as success and power – An enabler of social status
  3. Those who are very spontaneous in their spending decisions

You throw two people with very different attitudes together, and it’s not surprising that conflict occur.

There can also be events that cause conflict between people – unemployment for example. It changes the dynamic if you go from two salaries to one, to being forced to prioritize. The San Francisco Bay Area, where I practice, is very expensive to live in, and for young couples moving into the area, it can be a change in lifestyle and cause some friction. They can occur when people change roles – if one partner goes from working to staying at home, or to taking care of elderly parents, it can cause tension because they feel dependent on their partner, when they were previously independent.

What strategies do you recommend for couples navigating money issues in their relationships?

  1. I advise pre-marital counseling for all couples. Open communication is very important, because your values don’t change. Being able to talk about what’s important to you, and using a therapist as a neutral 3rd party to mediate, can be very effective in getting simmering issues on the table.
  2. Learning how to disagree is a key skill for relationships, and disagreements over money are some of the most frequent.
  3. For couples with a lot of disagreement over money, and especially those looking to purchase joint assets like houses together, I recommend considering a financial planner.
For our readers at home: What are your attitudes towards money? How do they differ from your significant other? Are there strategies you’ve found helpful in working through financial conflicts? We welcome your comments!