When you consider that about 41% of Americans with families say that money was a big source of tension in their households in 2022, it's no wonder that financial problems are a leading cause of divorce. What you may not know is that the challenges can begin even before you say "I do."
To help pave the road to better marital finances and relationships, here's an accounting of the most common financial issues that challenge married couples.
- When working together, couples can achieve more than singles can.
- If you’re committed to a relationship, you and your partner owe each other a calm, honest conversation about each other’s finances, habits, goals, and anxieties.
- Money problems involve discussions in which ego, anxieties about control, and notions of marital roles will have to be checked.
- If debt is an issue, couples can employ various tools and strategies to start paying off debt and get on a better financial footing.
- Having kids changes everything; Ideally, couples should communicate their expectations and ideas about how to raise and pay for them well before they’re born.
- Couples who have trouble talking about money can seek out the help of a financial advisor or planner for unbiased advice.
Marriage-Killing Money Issues
1. What's Mine, Yours, Ours
When each spouse works and they can't agree on financial issues or even find the time to talk about them, they sometimes decide to split the bills down the middle or allocate them in some other manner that seems fair and equitable. Once the bills have been covered, each spouse can spend what's left as they see fit.
It sounds like a reasonable plan, but the process often builds resentment over the individual purchases made. It also divides spending power, eliminating much of the financial value of marriage. The couple who splits the bills probably hasn't sat down to plan for their long-term goals such as buying a home or securing their retirement.
It can even lead to relationship-ruining behavior. When one spouse hides money from the other, it's known as financial infidelity, and it can be as serious as the term implies.
Bill splitting also tends to leave out planning for big changes, including setbacks. How will the couple handle it if one spouse loses a job; decides to take a pay cut to try out a new career; leaves the workforce to raise children, go back to school, or care for a parent?
Couples owe it to themselves to have a conversation about such contingencies well before any of them becomes an urgent issue.
Most people come to the altar with some financial baggage, whether it's student debt, credit card debt, or a gambling habit. If one partner has more debt than the other, sparks can fly when discussions about income, spending, and debt servicing come up.
People in such situations may take some solace in knowing that debts brought into a marriage stay with the person who incurred them and are not extended to a spouse. It won't hurt your credit rating, which is linked to your Social Security number and tracked individually.
That said, in most states (those that operate under what is called common law), debts incurred after marriage jointly are owed by both spouses.
Post-marriage, debts incurred individually are still owed only by the individual, with the exception of child care, housing, and food, which are all joint debts no matter what.
Note that there are nine states in which all property (and debts) are shared after marriage regardless of individual or joint account status. They are Arizona, California, Nevada, Idaho, Washington, New Mexico, Texas, Louisiana, and Wisconsin.
In these community-property states, you are not liable for most of your spouse's debt that was incurred before marriage, but any debt incurred after the wedding is automatically shared—even when applied for individually.
Personality plays a big role in discussions and habits about money. Even if both partners are debt-free, the age-old conflict between spenders and savers can play out in multiple ways. It is important to know your money personality—as well as that of your partner—and to discuss these differences openly.
Some people are natural savers who may be viewed as cheapskates and risk-averse. Some are big spenders and like to make a statement, and others take pleasure in shopping and buying.
Others rack up debt—often mindlessly—while some are natural investors who delay satisfaction for the sake of future self-sufficiency.
Many of us may display more than one of these characteristics over time but usually revert to one main type. Whichever profile you and your spouse most closely fit, it's best to recognize bad habits, address them, and moderate them for the good of the relationship.
4. Power Plays
Power plays often occur in one of four scenarios:
- One partner has a paid job and the other doesn't.
- Both partners would like to be working but one is unemployed.
- One spouse earns considerably more than the other.
- One partner comes from a family that has money and the other doesn't.
When one or more of these situations is present, the one who makes or has the most money often wants to dictate the couple's spending priorities.
Although there may be some rationale behind this idea, it is important that both partners remember that they're part of a team.
Whether and when to have children is, among much else, a financial decision. Food, clothing, shelter, Little League, ballet, designer jeans, prom gowns, minivans, and college tuition are on the long list of child-related expenses.
And that doesn't include expenses for offspring who have already left the nest. That's assuming your kids will leave the nest. Some never do.
The average cost of raising a child to age 18 in the United States. For middle-class parents, the average cost rises to $310,605.
Of course, having kids isn't just about the cost. If one partner cuts their hours, works from home, or leaves a career to raise children, couples should address how that changes marriage dynamics, assumptions about retirement, lifestyle, and more.
6. The Extended Family
Co-managing finances while respecting the goals, needs, and expectations each spouse has regarding the extended family can be especially tricky.
His parents need a new car. Her brother can't make the rent. His sister's husband lost his job. Now one spouse is writing a check and the other wants to know why that money wasn't used to address needs at home or fund a vacation for "us."
When a serious crisis arises—illness, major storm damage, an unexpected death—the pressure can be magnified.
Family money dynamics work the other way, too. His mom will pay to fly him home for the holidays. Her mom will fund a new car because the one she's driving is a Honda, not a Lexus. Her mom buys the grandkids extravagant gifts and his mom can't afford to match that kind of spending.
The joys of a family often extend right into your wallet.
How to Handle Money Issues in a Marriage
If you've read this far, you probably won't be surprised that the best way to handle such marriage stressors is with honest communication of expectations, hopes, goals, and anxieties. Couples should also practice empathy, have the maturity to check their egos, and abandon any predilection for control.
Yes, that's much easier said than done. And no, there is no silver bullet.
Some people may never get it right, but that doesn't mean they can't employ certain tools and techniques to address the symptoms. Here are some issues and approaches that may help.
You and your partner need to be on the same page financially. Talk openly about your preferences for handling money, your goals for the future, and any concerns you have about how you jointly are handling your income.
And listen to what your partner has to say. Maybe one spouse likes to dine out three times a week but the other spouse worries about how that affects their budget. Or a husband keeps dialing back the thermostat to save money while his wife finds the chill unbearable. Attitudes towards money filter through many aspects of daily life.
And speaking of budget, you should have one, and it should be one that you agree upon going forward.
Set Financial Goals
Where do you want to go? A couple should come to an agreement on what their long-term goals are and how they'll get there. Much of that discussion will involve financial matters. Whether your priorites include having children, buying a house, saving towards a comfortable retirement, or all of the above, they need to be planned for and agreed upon.
Deal With Debt
For many couples, dealing with debt is the first issue on the agenda. Knowing what you're about to get yourself into can help you decide how to deal with it.
Given this fact, both partners should have an honest, nonjudgmental discussion—ideally around the time when their relationship looks like it's becoming serious—about the debts they would bring into a marriage.
Each needs to come clean about any bad spending or financial habits that the other should know about—or any personal or family issues that could affect future spending.
Couples should also perform a full accounting of debts and talk about how they plan to handle them. It can help to apply one of several common debt payoff strategies, such as paying off the higher-interest debt first (the debt avalanche method) or paying off the smallest loans first (the debt snowball method).
Sign a Prenup or a Postnup
If you just can't come to an agreement but your heart won't let you walk away, a prenuptial agreement may be an option. Just be aware that one partner may find it insulting.
The best practice would be to first have a conversation about the financial anxieties that make one partner think a prenup is the best solution. If this is a second marriage for both partners, for example, they may have financial assets that they want to pass on to their respective children.
If you've already said "I do," and you want more than vows to protect yourself, you may want to create a pain-free postnuptial agreement, also called a marital contract. This marital contract can underline your love for each other, though it can be a hard sell that winds up undermining marital trust if not used as intended or framed the right way.
On the other hand, a postnup can help save a marriage after a crisis that has undermined trust.
Know Your Financial Personality
Personality, as noted above, will play a major role in your financial plans and your marital bliss or lack thereof.
Pay attention while you are dating and be honest about who you are and how you were raised. Talking about your views and feelings can help put both partners at ease, or at least let them know what to expect.
Check Your Ego
The power play issue can get ugly quickly. Few things build resentment faster than being made to feel inferior. If you've got more cash, you need to be sensitive about how you present spending decisions. If you don't have the money, you need to be prepared for stress and tension that is almost inevitable, even in good marriages. This subject comes up with increasing frequency when couples wait until later in life to marry.
Studies have shown that people with more power are more likely to act selfishly, impulsively, and aggressively, and approach others with less empathy. Each partner in a marriage should ask themselves whether their behavior works toward the goal of a more kind, appreciative, and equitable relationship or not.
One solution that has demonstrated success is for the higher-earning spouse to delegate all spending decisions to the lower-earning spouse. It takes a certain personality to be able to make the decision to give up power, but if you can do it, it may be a sound path to peace.
Address Family Matters
To quote Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."
Extended family can be a huge challenge, and no single piece of advice will properly address every situation and the emotions inevitably attached to them. Even if you are on the winning side of the argument, the loser can extract a penalty that outweighs the win. Living with a resentful, angry, frustrated spouse can be a miserable experience.
Having a policy agreed upon in advance (such as asking for consent) can help stave off trouble. And defaulting to understanding will smooth over any small transgressions.
The percentage of married couples who argue about money at least sometimes, according to a survey by GoBankingRates.
Passing Along Good Habits
If children are in your future, start teaching them about money when they are young. Preparing them for a financially responsible future reduces the odds that they will dip into your wallet as adults and knock your savings plan off track.
Use allowances and goals to teach your children about earning, saving, and spending money. Talk to the older ones about investing.
The Upside of Getting It Right
Challenges aside, getting married has serious financial advantages. It's a great way to double your income without doubling your expenses.
Moreover, if you can synchronize your goals, you can reach them much more quickly than you could by working alone.
And keep in mind that, even if you get it right 99% of the time, it still means you'll argue about money issues now and then.
How Do I Even Start Talking to My Partner About Money?
Granted, money is an awkward topic for many, especially if it's causing stress in a relationship.
Andrew Tavin, a personal finance writer, suggests some icebreakers to get the conversation started. Your own answers and those of your partner could be illuminating. They include:
- If I could do anything with my money, I would...
- If money were no object, I would...
- If I could use my money to do something fabulous for my partner, I would...
- My biggest dream is...
Should a Couple Have Individual or Joint Accounts?
Some experts argue that couples should have joint checking accounts and even joint credit card accounts. As personal finance expert Rachel Cruze points out, the household income and expenses are no longer "his" or "hers," they're "ours." Joint accounts lend themselves to open, transparent spending habits. Separate accounts can lead to secretive and selfish behavior.
What Is Financial Infidelity?
There are ways to cheat on your partner that don't involve having an affair.
Acts of financial infidelity may include opening a separate bank account that a partner is unaware of. It may be hiding debts or an expensive bad habit. It may be squirreling away a secret stash of cash.
All of these behaviors mean, at the very least, that there's a lack of trust and confidence in the relationship. At worst, it means someone is hiding an ugly secret.
The Bottom Line
Good (and sometimes painfully honest) communication before and after tying the knot can dull the blow of bad financial news and lead to honest exchanges about each partner's money anxieties, habits, skeletons in the closet, and expectations.
If you're thinking about entering into what you hope is a lifelong relationship, you and your partner owe each other such a discussion.
Lack of communication is the source of many marital issues. Like many health problems, financial anxieties—if not addressed—can become far bigger problems with much more difficult solutions.
The best way to be sure you and your spouse are on the same page with your joint finances is to talk about them regularly, honestly, and without judgment. Don't do it when you're mad, tired, or back from an evening of wine or margaritas.
Couples may find it helpful to schedule a time once a month, once a quarter, or once a year to check in on short- and long-term goals. Having an annual financial plan and regular check-ins can defuse the tension of talking about money and keep you on track.
You may want to enlist the help of a financial advisor or planner for expert, impartial advice.