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How to Argue About Money and Still Keep Your Marriage Intact

April 9, 2014
Managing Money
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When my wife and I recently sat down to hash out the final financial details of our trans-Pacific move back to the United States after nearly two decades abroad, I found myself wishing we were wearing masks and speaking through Auto-Tune—anything that would wipe emotion from our faces and voices as we talked.

You know how it goes: You start out talking about dollars and cents, and you end up arguing about stacks of books bought but never read (mine) or the breadmaker that has yet to produce a single loaf (hers). We get defensive about our personal spending, yet easily critical of how the other uses cash. In short, we’re a normal couple.

We’ve been here before. We detailed our money squabbles in the Wall Street Journal nine years ago after we both left our jobs and commingled our cash for the first time. I’d like to tell you that the money arguments evaporated after we first sought professional advice, and that our financial woes disappeared. They didn’t. In fact, in the years immediately following publication of that piece, they got much worse.

The feast-and-famine cycle of starting our own businesses kept us on an emotional roller coaster. I ran afoul of the IRS over my overseas tax returns and received a heart-stopping letter demanding $100,000 in back taxes. My hard-partying ways as a part-time musician took a dangerous turn to addiction. By 2007, our finances and our relationship were hanging by a thread.

But that thread was strong, thank God. And looking back, I can see the advice we were given didn’t create an overnight success, but rather planted seeds that required patience and practice to bring to harvest. We now have a beautiful 5-year-old son, we are debt-free and we have enough savings to go more than a year without income. Here are the tips that have helped weave our family together:

It’s OK to fight

You know what experts say is worse than fighting about money or other matters? Not fighting. “In general, even if you argue, you’re better off, because at least you’re communicating about it,” one financial counselor told us. Maybe reframing these discussions will help; I like to think of our battles not as fights, but as episodes of “extreme communication.” It takes away my fear that our disagreements are slippery slopes from which our relationship will fall; they are ways in which we find firmer footing.

Understand each of your patterns

My wife, Karina, is a saver, and I’m a spender. Financial planners we talked to in the past say that’s a common dynamic. When we had our son, however, that pattern shifted—Karina’s inclination was to spend (for Jonah), mine was to save (for Jonah). It looks like we’re diametric opposites, but really we’re two sides of the same coin: We’re both looking out for our son’s welfare. Understanding where our hearts lie can pull back the ferocity of our fights. Moving can bring out the worst in a couple, and Karina and I were no exception. We had a knock-down, drag-out fight over three blue towels she wanted to hastily pack in our overstuffed suitcases. “That’s crazy—overweight suitcases cost $100. Do you know how many towels we can buy for $100?” What I didn’t get was the emotional value she placed on the towels, the comfort and familiarity they’ll bring in an unfamiliar place. We didn’t pack the towels, but they’ll be arriving by post to our new home. I am not without sin here: The hundreds of books I’ve read (and will likely never re-read) now making their way across the Pacific cost a heck of a lot more than $100. I just didn’t want to let them go.

Have business meetings

As I’ve written before, a couple joining finances can be like the merger of two corporations. Professionalism is required when cash is on the table; for couples, that means scheduling a time to talk about finances, preferably during a morning or afternoon when you’re not working (talking about cash at the end of a busy day is a prescription for a fight). If we find ourselves drawn into a late-night argument about money, we’ll pause and schedule a time to talk about it the next day. And come to the table prepared to listen. This can be hard for me—I always want to have the last word, and my temper is quick. But one of the most important conversations we recently had about our decision to leave Hong Kong, our home for most of our adult lives, was one where I said nothing at all. “Quit bullying me; you’re not letting me speak,” she said after I kept cutting off her concerns about the move. “OK, I’m not going to say a word for 15 minutes—you talk,” I conceded. And the animosity dissolved. She was able to share her worries with me, and I was able to take it in without trying to win some imaginary debate.

Argue your spouse’s case

Here’s a neat trick to cut the rancor out of a heated money argument—switch roles. Argue your spouse’s point of view for five minutes. You can’t interrupt nor spend your time out of character (for example, rebutting your spouse’s portrayal of your side). It really breaks the spell because it requires a degree of empathy for your partner’s position and holds a mirror up to your argument. And it can be funny (the killer app in any financial disagreement: a sense of humor).

Work the problem

Both my battle with alcohol and my IRS problems went away by simply working the problem—keeping things in the day, doing the footwork necessary to get through it. (There’s a lot of angst toward the IRS this time of year, but my experience with the agents who helped me back-file my taxes and eliminate my fines was, believe it or not, a positive one. Another lesson: Our fears are often larger than reality.) A money problem isn’t an indictment against you personally; it’s just a money problem. Solve it, take your medicine and move on.

Have a referee

You go to the doctor when you’re sick, right? See a dentist about your teeth? So why are we reluctant to get outside advice on financial matters? Having a third party work with you can be invaluable—it puts both parties on their best behavior, and can help frame your partner’s point of view that’s difficult to see in the heat of battle. Do we do this perfectly? No, not even close. The duration and intensity our arguments have certainly diminished, however, and we’ve traveled a far distance from the annus horribilis of 2007. Our lives aren’t a fairy tale, and we didn’t turn a corner into “happily ever after” land. But we’re happy (except when we aren’t). And then we work to get back on the right path.

Photo courtesy of the Voigts.