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To Stop Fighting About Money, Couples May Need a Financial Referee

Dec. 8, 2014
Managing Money
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In spite of declining divorce rates, marriage is still hard work. Relationships between people with different values or conflicting goals can be especially rocky.

In fact, money fights are a predictor of divorce, especially because money is connected with feelings of unfairness and power in the relationship, according to a study by Jeffrey Dew of Utah State University. That’s why sitting down together with a neutral third party to talk about financial conflicts can be so important for couples.

Financial advisor Andy Tilp has a lot of experience working with couples embroiled in arguments about money. “It is very important that I hear both sides, and that they hear each other’s side of their financial picture,” he says.

Recently, Tilp worked with a married couple from New York City with two children as part of a “Financial Makeover” program offered by NerdWallet and the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors (NAPFA.) Sarah and James were in despair over their financial situation and having a hard time communicating effectively.

At first they were skeptical that Tilp would be able to help. “How am I going to get on the same wavelength as my husband?” Sarah remembers wondering.

But Tilp’s lack of judgment put them at ease. “Andy really went out of his way to NOT tell us exactly what to do,” says Sarah. Instead, Tilp helped them identify problems they both wanted to solve.

The process works best if each person makes a list concerns and sits down to talk about them with a clearly defined set of rules. Rule No. 1, says Tilp, is to speak in the first person and avoid pointing fingers. For example, saying, “I find that we don’t have enough money to buy groceries at the end of the month” is very different from saying, “You spend too much.”

When Tilp walks couples through the process, he establishes another rule: each spouse has to listen to the other without getting defensive. Once the list of concerns has been laid out, Tilp steers the conversation toward finding solutions.

Avoiding the blame game is easier said than done. Sometimes Tilp recommends taking a break so each person can visualize the problems as a common issue shared by the whole family rather than thinking of them as one person’s fault. “Sometimes good outcomes require hard work, compromise and sacrifice,” says Tilp.

Sarah agrees that the process was hard work, but the payoff has been immense. By sticking to a budget, she and James were able to build their savings account balance from $3 to $1,000 in only one month. James is now contributing enough to his 401(k) to get the company match, and both Sarah and James are picking up freelance work to boost their income. “I’m definitely more confident and optimistic,” says Sarah.

Best of all, Sarah and James are not fighting about money any more.

Tilp was satisfied with the process too. “They had found the common ground and wanted to both fix it,” he says.

Sarah and James have the tools to succeed as financially savvy partners. Now all they have to do is keep following Tilp’s rules and stay the course.

Other couples in similar situations can seek the following resources to strengthen their finances and relationships:

Couple fighting over money illustration via Shutterstock.