Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Nipping Money Arguments In The Bud

October 27, 2003

Too many couples get bogged down in money arguments. No wonder! Money decisions represent ways people show what they value in life. Money arguments are proxy arguments for value discussions.

Is it alcohol and cigarettes? Is it fancy cars and fancy homes? Is it a lake home or a time share? Exotic vacations? Education? Savings? Retirement? Contribute to charity? Tithe to their church? Private acts of charity?

Are they collectors? Passions, hobbies and compulsions show up in checkbooks.

Are people comfortable living on the edge or in debt? How aggressive are they in investing money to make money? Can they delay gratification and save for goals or do they carry consumer debt? Do they pay interest or collect interest?

How money is spent is a test of how a couple comes together in choosing a compatible lifestyle. It represents the merging of dreams, goals, ideas and values. Money matters force couples to really be a couple and to unify for common purposes. The decision-making process of who spends the money shows how power in handled in a relationship. Is it a joint-decision-making process or does one partner arbitrarily make purchases without consulting the other?

Money is a test of loyalty and fidelity. Is there a pattern of deceit, lies, secretive spending, coverups, gambling or impulsive spending? Spending obligates both parties and incurs obligations or debt on both parties. Not adhering to an agreed on spending plan shows a blatant disregard for the feelings of one’s partner.

It feels like betrayal. It is betrayal. It is a violation of the marital boundaries. In some cases it rivals an affair in terms of the violation of trust that it triggers.

Prevention of money fights. If couples come to me with on-going money disagreements, I offer these guidelines that if accomplished can clear up persistent fights.

- Have an actual budget that functions as a true operating plan for spending decisions. Too many people say they understand the importance of a budget but don’t take the time to sit down and deal with the reality of their money decisions. Too many couples, if they have a written budget, act as if it doesn’t mean anything anyway.

Ignorance may be bliss, but it is also the blueprint for having repetitive money arguments instead of actually coming together to really solve the problem. Meet at least monthly to review your budget.

- Spend less than you make. You can’t get by on a deficit budget. Some short term cash flow problems can be part of the budget, but basic expenditures can’t exceed income. Greed and impulsive spending have to be curbed within the discipline of a budget.

- The budget needs to be realistic. Use actual data, not pie in the sky estimates. Discuss fuzzy areas, such as food, clothing, maintenance, entertainment, gifts, holiday spending, etc.

- Unify income and spending into a common framework. It is "our" income, "our" expenses, "our" savings, "our" debt, "our" investments, and "our" credit cards. Each is accountable to the other. Each is responsible to the other. It doesn’t matter who makes what or who spends what or whether there are two checkbooks or one checkbook or one credit card or several credit cards if decisions are made through a single budget.

If you operate your money separately, you might as well be roommates or in a "living together" arrangement. Either you are a team and trust each other or else you are too independent. Picking and choosing which parts of marriage you like and which parts you don’t like keeps the marriage from truly being what it can and should be.

- No secret spending. This is a violation of the marital bond. Addictions need to be acknowledged and treated. Seek professional help rather than violate money agreements in the marriage.

- Establish discretionary spending for each partner that is a part of the overall budget. Make it realistic. This is one area where you don’t need to be accountable to each other except for living within the established amount.

- Have pre-established limits on spending that trigger an automatic joint-decision process before expenditures are made. Do this even if the resources are there to cover the expense. Honor your agreements. Expensive gifts, well meant, can be a violation of trust.

- If budgetary exceptions occur that jeopardize the overall budget, confer with each other on how to incorporate the expense into the existing budget. The same would be true for a "windfall" or an unexpected income that isn’t included in the budget.

- Have emergency funds to cover three months of family expenses. Emergency funds give you peace of mind. Work toward this goal if it isn’t possible at first.

Are you getting into trouble? These are some "red flag" indicators of being overextended. These are taken from a book, "Till Debt Do Us Part," by Bernard Podruska of Brigham Young University.

- Spending up to or beyond credit limits.

- No emergency funds.

- Making only minimum payments.

- Being unaware of the amount of debts.

- Making late or missing payments.

- Applying for additional credit cards.

- Refinancing or consolidating loans.

- More than 20 percent of take-home pay is used to make debt payments.

- Deceiving your spouse on the amount you spent or owe.

- Debts are turned over to collection agencies.

- There is no plan for avoiding debt, reducing living expenses or getting out of debt.