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Money, Money, Money: Why Do Married Couples Argue About Money?

 Type "most common arguments in marriage" into Google and look at the research. Money is near the top of every "what couples argue about" list. Most of these lists include money, sex, children, in-laws, cleanliness, and a few others. Why is money so often a source of tension? If it is a source of tension in your marriage, what can you do about it?
Money is frequently a source of tension, because money means different things to different people. Through study and marriage counseling experience, I have come to believe that money has four primary meanings for different people. Money likely has more than one meaning for you, but for most people one meaning is primary and the others are significantly weaker.


 As I explain these four meanings, pay attention to your gut response. While reading one or two of them, you will likely say, "Yep, that is me." However, a few may make you think, "People like this drive me crazy." Paying attention to your gut response will help you figure out what money primarily means for you.


For some, money means status. If you look up to others who are financially successful or feel yourself comparing your possessions to those of others, money means status for you. When your bank account number begins to decline or your house or car begin to look worn down, you probably feel less important and feel others respect you less.


Money can also mean experience or enjoyment. If you primarily associate more money with more vacations, weekend getaways, and dinners out, money likely means experience for you. Do you believe that people who have more money have more fun? Many who see money as experience view shopping as a fun activity. They enjoy buying for themselves and others.


Maybe you see money primarily as power. You believe that if you have money and possessions, you have control and influence. Some who view money as power are very hesitant to put all their money into a joint account. Moreover, the ability to buy what you want often gives people a powerful feeling.


Does having money in savings make you feel secure, while seeing the number in the bank go down causes you to feel anxious? If money is security, you may feel strongly that having savings prepares you for whatever unexpected expense may come. Most who see money as security prefer low risk investments rather than high-risk and high-reward investments. You may have money to spend, but you would prefer to keep it in savings just in case.


If you were to win $10,000 in a contest, what would you do with it? This is not money that is a part of your budget. You did not expect or plan for this money.  Assume for this exercise that you are not in any debt and that you have a few months worth of expenses in a savings account. What would you do?

  • Would you go buy something nice that you have wanted for a while? 
  • Would you take a few friends or family members on a vacation?
  • Would you express your opinions and suggestions more confidently in your social circles? (Maybe a prize of a million dollars would have been better for this example.)
  • Would you put it in the bank and save it, feeling good that you have money to cover any unexpected expenses that may come?

You may answer "yes" to some or all of these questions, but which ones do you feel most passionate and excited about? Which would come to mind immediately after finding out you won the prize? Considering these questions can help you determine which is the primary meaning of money for you.


With four options, it is unlikely that money means the same to you and your spouse. Imagine the possible arguments between a spouse that sees money as experience and a spouse that sees money as security. When one wants to save, the other feels they are being robbed of enjoyment. When one wants to spend on a vacation, the other struggles to enjoy it, because it causes anxiety and insecurity to see the bank account number go down.


Know yourself.

If you are aware of what money means to you, you will be able to fight for a more healthy outlook. I am not arguing that money ought to mean the same thing for each person, but extremes tend to be unhealthy when considering these four meanings of money.  For example, it is unhealthy if you save every penny possible, and therefore refuse to spend on those you love. On the other hand, it is unwise if you save very little and spend on flashy purchases. Seek to be aware of how you view money so that you can fight extremes, while pursuing more balance and understanding.

Know your spouse. 

   If you know what money primarily means to your spouse, you will be able to better communicate and make financial decisions together. For example, if you want to bring up the idea of taking a vacation, which communication example below would likely work best with a "money is security" spouse?

  • "I would like to take a nice vacation. We need time to get away. Let's go on a nice cruise and take all the kids with us. We can eat the finest of foods and have all sorts of awesome experiences." 
  • "I want to talk about beginning to plan a vacation. We have been saving for this purpose, and I feel that a week away would be really good for us. We will make sure to only spend what we have saved for vacations. I love you and think it would be great to get away and spend some time focusing on each other and the kids."
A spouse who views money as security may struggle with the idea of taking a nice vacation, but the second way of communicating shows sensitivity and understanding. Communicating in this way would likely help the spouse respond in a more rational and gentle manner.
Understanding what money primarily means to oneself and one's spouse has helped many to seek a more healthy balance individually and show love and understanding to one's spouse. I hope it does the same for you!
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