Even if your relationship seems picture-perfect in most ways, being financially incompatible with your partner can put lots of stress on an otherwise blissful existence.
Most often, partners clash when one is a spender and the other is a saver, but arguments can happen even when both partners spend similar amounts but disagree about what to spend money on. You’re never going to agree on everything in a relationship, but consistent financial problems can lead to even bigger problems down the road.
So what can you do when you and your partner have different spending habits?
You don’t need to bring bank statements to a first date, but being honest about credit card debt or student loans with someone you care about and trust can be more beneficial in the long run.
Very often, conflict arises when one partner makes more than another. If the person who makes more is also a big spender, they may feel entitled to do what they want without considering their partner. If they’re the saver, they might resent spending done by the partner who makes less. If the partner who makes less is the spender, they might feel like they’re entitled to enjoy what little they have, while if they are the saver, they might resent the one who makes more money appearing to flaunt their larger paycheck by spending more.
Like life, it’s rare that everything is equal in a relationship, especially when it comes to finances. If you and your partner have income, debt, or spending differences, it’s best to talk about them openly and as early as possible. And you can start with your money values and upbringing.
Spending habits and the mindset we have about money often come from childhood. If you didn’t have much money growing up, that could express as either being a thrifty adult or not knowing how to manage your funds once you do get them. If you were more fortunate growing up, it’s possible that you never learned how to budget or that you are more conservative with your money because you don’t want your circumstances to change now that you’re an adult.
It’s different for everyone, so it’s important to talk to your partner about why you might be the way you are—financially. These discussions are less about making excuses and more about self-awareness.
In addition to different habits around what should be spent and saved, people have different opinions about how money should be spent—on ourselves and one another. Some people think gifts are how you show your love, which means the more extravagant the better, while others are content with homemade signs of affection or intangible things like time spent together. This is a great opportunity to talk about how you show affection for one another as well.
Talking about money can be incredibly difficult, but the good news is that it’s great practice for all of the difficult conversations you’ll have in your relationship. If you tackle the question of funds first, you’ll be in a great position to focus on the fun part of the relationship—being together!
Things aren’t black and white when it comes to spending as a couple. There are plenty of ways to make your financial situation work for your relationship.
If you have joint expenses, you could have a joint bank account that both of you contribute to, either as a flat rate or a percentage of your income.
If one partner has an income that fluctuates while another has a more steady stream of income, the steady stream can be used to pay for fixed expenses like rent, utilities, and food while the more fluid income can go into a fund that pays for more big-ticket items or less essential items, like vacations, savings, and investing.
You could keep your finances totally separate while you live separately and then combine them if you get married or start to make big purchases or start a family. There’s no one right way to manage your money as a couple, so the best thing to do is talk through the options and pick the one that works best for your situation.
When it comes to budgeting, you might be thinking spreadsheets and painstakingly tracking where every cent goes, and that works for some people. But it’s not the only way to budget. The most important part of a budget is sticking to a process that works for you, and when it comes to budgeting in a relationship, the plan has to work for you both.
As long as you sit down with your partner and talk about a budget and a process that works, you’ll be on your way to creating a spending process that works for your relationship.
But what if you disagree about how much money should be spent on certain things? To start seeing eye to eye, focus on a shared goal.
Maybe you’ve talked about saving up for a trip, a house, to start a family, or simply a nice date night. Without guilting one another for spending or slipups, create a shared goal and connect your habits and actions to it.
Set up an automatic transfer from your bank account into a savings account, put some money in a jar every week, cut out an expense and celebrate by doing something fun and free and remind yourselves that each step puts you closer to your goal—together. Say things like, “We did a great job saving this week. I can’t wait to take our vacation together this summer and make some great memories!” or “Every time our savings account goes up, I can picture us in our new house. I’m really proud of how well we’re sticking to our budget.” Agreeing on shared values and goals is always going to be more meaningful than agreeing on a budgeting number.
Most of us have strong opinions about money. While accruing tons of debt and spending above your means isn’t a great plan, neither is being a miser. There’s no right or wrong in this situation and the end goal is not to break one person down until they conform to the spending habits of the other.
If your partner spends too much money, you could say, “While you deserve to use your hard-earned money, I’d like to make sure we’re making automatic contributions to both of our retirement funds, but it’s hard to do that when our budget fluctuates so much. If I can set these up and plan for our futures, do you think we could work together to stick to a monthly budget for more personal items?”
If you don’t think your partner spends enough money, you could say, “We both work hard to earn this money and I want us to be able to enjoy some of it now. I appreciate that you keep us on track with saving, but you know I think we could spend a little more. I’d like to find a budget that works for both of us. I can commit to putting $X away per week in the joint savings account, but I’d like to also put $X in a fun account that we can pull from for travel and entertainment. What do you think?”
You and your partner are never going to agree on everything. Relationships are all about compromise! And it all starts with open and honest communication.
One of the hardest things to get over is your fear or discomfort of talking about money in the first place. But letting financial concerns go unsaid can lead to fights—or worse.
If your partner is secretive about money, won’t engage in conversations about budgeting or spending, hides purchases or debt, or tries to control your spending (and not in a “let’s budget together!” kind of way), those can be red flags in the relationship. A therapist can help you alone or you and your partner in couples therapy. If you’re worried about how therapy or coaching is going to fit into your budget, that’s totally valid. The good news is, if it helps you get your finances under control, therapy can actually help you save money in the long run.
Not sure if you need couples therapy? This quiz can help. And if you’re looking for a therapist or financial coach, our matching service can get you started.
Caitlin is MyWellbeing's Content Lead, a writer, speaker, communication coach, and the founder of Commcoterie, a communication consultancy. She teaches teams how to use professional coaching communication techniques in their everyday conversations, helps leaders engage their teams with effective and inclusive communication, and partners with service providers to activate their programs and offerings with their own clients through inspiring communication strategies. Find out more, including how to work with her, at www.commcoterie.com.
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