How to Argue With Your Spouse About Money

How to Argue With Your Spouse About Money

It’s Friday afternoon, and I’m wrapping up an email as I get ready to head home. The phone rings and it’s a client on the other end of the line: “We’re having a money ‘discussion’ and we want your opinion,” she starts. I hear her husband shout a greeting in the background, with a jaunty “And I’m right!” thrown in.

Most people would be surprised at how much of my role as a financial planner is marital counseling. But anyone who’s married knows that even a small money decision can easily become a big battle at home.

I’ve written previously that every marriage should expect — and embrace — money arguments. But when disagreements arise, how can you resolve them in a healthy way? What’s the difference between a productive money conflict and one that damages a relationship?

Here are five suggestions for navigating a tricky money conversation with your husband or wife. None of these tactics are magic bullets that guarantee you’ll win an argument. If that’s what you’re looking for, you’ve come to the wrong place. But they are lessons learned from work with hundreds of couples. These tips will help you strengthen your relationship while you work through complex issues.

If you and your spouse are arguing about money, here are some ways to help you make progress:

1. Schedule the conversation instead of letting it happen spontaneously.

Jack walks into the living room just as Gloria’s favorite TV show is starting. He blurts, “There’s no way we should spend this much on a European cruise!”

After stewing all day on how her grandmother ran out of money at the end of her life, Daphne 
walks into the house as her husband prepares dinner, surrounded by chaotic children. “We need to double our retirement savings,” she states. 

Conversational ambushes like these happen all the time in relationships. They happen often in financial conversations because the significance of the topics is so great. But, as author Joshua Harris says, “The right thing at the wrong time is the wrong thing.”

When you bring up important topics seemingly at random, your spouse may feel bombarded. While you may have ruminated all day on the finer points of your thesis, your spouse may be caught completely off guard and unprepared.

Instead of catching your spouse by surprise, try bringing up the topic and suggesting a specific time for the two of you to talk about it later. This “conversation” doesn’t need to be formal . . . the opponents taking their places, an official call-to-order, the minutes of the previous session read. But the talk should be planned. You could propose discussing it in 30 minutes, or talk about it over the weekend. Put it on the calendar if you have to.

Choose a time and place where you know neither of you will be distracted. Make sure that the location is a neutral one. One CEO liked to have family money discussions in his office. His wife and a financial advisor would come, but it was his territory. He was used to making demands of employees and getting his own way there. He did not consider that his wife felt pressured to give in on his turf, leading to resentment on her part.

If the topic is more emotionally weighty for one spouse (perhaps you feel this is important and he does not), do not be surprised if one forgets the scheduled time for the conversation. Rather than getting discouraged, gently remind your spouse about the plan. Try to maintain an open attitude. If it doesn’t happen when planned, decide when you’ll come back to the topic again.

Terry texts his wife about an argument they’ve had regarding financially supporting an adult daughter: “I know we don’t see eye to eye on how to help Holly. Since this is so important to both of us, do you think we could sit down and talk about it more after dinner tonight.”

“Yes,” she texts back, “I think that’s a good idea.”

2. Focus on the why — not what, not who.

Money arguments usually center on a particular position. Should you buy a car for your daughter, or not? Should you do private school, or not? These options are the “whats” of the discussion. Spouses tend to choose their positions, then get entrenched in their stance. Yielding feels like surrender.

Unfortunately, these conversations can also shift to the “who.” Blame is lobbed back and forth, and before you know it, you’ve both sprinkled blanket statements with “never” and “always” throughout. These are rarely helpful.

Try a different approach. To resolve conflicts meaningfully, try to understand why your spouse holds the position they do. Really listen and focus on the reasons that led to their conclusion. Set aside your own position for a moment and see if you can get underneath and around the emotion your husband or wife feels while discussing it. Try to repeat your spouse’s “whys” back to them to see if you’re getting it right. When you work to understand the values driving your spouse’s opinion, you honor their perspective and their heart.

Sue is frustrated that Terry doesn’t want to send Holly the money she needs. After listening to him for a while, she understands why: he is afraid that Holly will come to rely on their help and won’t be independent when they’re no longer around to provide it.

3. Brainstorm ideas for addressing each other’s whys.

Once you both understand each other’s reasons for holding their positions, re-state your spouse’s interests to confirm you’ve got it right. Then look for ways to resolve the disagreement while respecting all the whys mentioned. Brainstorm objective criteria or specific goals that would help you both feel better. How will you know when both sets of goals are met? What clear benchmarks would make everyone feel better?

Gloria: “You’re afraid that spending this much on a cruise will mean taking out too much from our retirement accounts and that we will run out of money if we spend this much every year. I think that’s important too.”

Jack: “And I hear you saying you’re worried we’ll regret not enjoying our retirement while we were both alive and healthy. What do you think about asking our financial planner to help us create a sustainable plan that includes some bigger vacations over the next several years.”

4. Take a break when emotional flooding happens.

Suddenly, Terry felt himself getting very frustrated. This always happened when they talked about it. His vision started to blur slightly as his voice raised, “How is this my fault?”

“Emotional flooding” happens when the emotional part of your brain takes over from the rational side. It’s sometimes referred to the “fight-or-flight” mode. Chemicals have literally flooded the brain and the associated emotions are so strong that it’s difficult to talk through an issue.

Once one partner in the discussion is emotionally flooded, you should avoid going forward with the conversation. The only solution is to take a time-out from the entire discussion. Psychiatrists tell us it actually takes about 30 minutes for the flooded chemicals in your brain to clear out, so avoid the conversation — even thinking about it — for at least a half hour. Return after some time has elapsed if everyone feels ready, or plan another time to talk about it later. Both you and your spouse will be better prepared for a productive conversation, and agreeing to a break shows that you love each other more than the argument.

“I’m sorry,” Terry says, “But I’m overwhelmed at the moment and need to take a break. Can we talk about this tomorrow morning?”

5. Get someone else involved.

Including a third party, like a counselor, financial planner, or pastor, can be daunting. Couples often avoid getting help because:

  • Going to a counselor may feel like defeat.
  • One spouse may think the other is getting a financial planner to side with them.
  • It can be embarrassing or scary to bring up arguments in front of someone else.

I understand how difficult it is to bring another person into an argument. But a professional will be experienced in helping you navigate the challenges of resolving complicated issues. They will be used to being in the middle of emotional topics and offer help in a judgment-free, no-shame, no-blame environment.

When someone else mediates the discussion, you may hear things you may not have realized your spouse is saying. They can help overcome difficult personality dynamics that may not be obvious to the spouses. They may also think of solutions that neither of you had thus far. Objective professionals, like financial planners, can provide unbiased answers to some of the problems you’re tackling, and offer advice for how other couples have handled similar issues.

Jack and Gloria’s financial planner helped them develop a plan that balanced spending now with sustainable withdrawals throughout retirement. Even though the conversation was tense between the spouses at times, the planner was able to gently keep them focused on the why of each position.They both felt great at the end of the meeting.

As you navigate the disagreement with these tactics, be encouraged. All marriages face challenging conversations like the ones above — we’re only human, after all. And these disagreements, large or small, bring a lot of emotion to the table. But a tough disagreement does not have to wreak havoc on your marriage. Your relationship can thrive as you navigate these arguments.

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