Often, money equals power.
That can become especially true within a marriage, where sharing finances with a partner depends on mutual trust, respect, and understanding — principles that can be easily breached, leading to anger and suspicion.
But armed with the right tools, spouses can prevent letting money ever become a point of contention.
Business Insider spoke with a relationship expert and several financial planners to discern how couples can avoid fighting about money. Here’s what they had to say.
Learn how to talk about it
Choosing to facilitate open and honest communication around money is the most important financial decision couples can make for a successful future.
According to Michael McNulty, a Ph.D. at The Chicago Relationship Center and Master Trainer with The Gottman Institute, the majority of issues couples face within a relationship are “perpetual problems,” meaning that they continue to come up again and again. As one of these “perpetual problems,” money is something spouses should learn to talk about and work through from day one.
“When perpetual problems become gridlocked, when they have become too much to talk about, they have these negative reactions: They feel more tense, it’s hard to take the information from one another, they tend to use negative patterns of communication,” McNulty explains. “And then what ends up happening is they stop talking about the issue.”
As soon as they get married — or ideally, before — successful couples show their entire hand to their partner: student loans, credit card debt, everything. From there, they can start developing a structure that allows for continual open dialogue and find ways to tend to both of their needs and wants going forward.
Money can be awkward and uncomfortable to open up about, but getting everything out in the open will pay off in spades.
Develop goals together
When you’re sharing your finances, it’s important to decide together what you want to do with those resources. Successful couples come up with goals as a team and check in frequently to make sure they’re on the same page.
Financial goals set the course for the rest of your life goals — Should we blow our money on a trip to Italy or save up to buy a home? — so it’s imperative that couples operate from the same starting point.
“If partners in particular have two different sets of goals and they’re just not on the same page, that can lead to a lot of acting out financially,” McNulty says. “One partner might spend without the other knowing and that sort of thing.”
Schedule time to check in every week
As a way to maintain open, honest dialogue, McNulty often recommends weekly “state of the marriage” meetings to clients, where they can discuss any perpetual issues that might be flaring up, from how to divvy up chores to how to handle their finances.
“If any of those problems get gridlocked, which means that they’re stuck and they’re really hard to talk about, we have to work extra hard on how to talk about them,” he says. “Usually having this weekly meeting helps us to talk about them.”
Katie Gampietro Burke, CFP at Wealth by Empowerment, also advocates regular check-ins. Even though she primarily handles their finances, she and her husband sit down every Saturday to talk through things such as how much they’re spending, how their bills are paid, or where they want to put any extra income for the month. She recommends scheduling it in at a specific time each week so it becomes a natural part of your routine.
Understand your partner’s money philosophy
Understanding how your partner developed their philosophy toward money is crucial in finding common ground and developing compromises that work for both of you. Was money tight when they were growing up? Had they been deceived about money in a prior relationship? Has handling money been an issue for them in the past?
“If you get those stories back and forth, often it’s easier for partners to understand one another,” McNulty says.
McNulty gives the example of a minister’s daughter who grew up with very little and was made fun of by her classmates for the way she dressed. Once she was out on her own, she developed an interest in fashion and started purchasing more expensive clothing to counterbalance the issues she dealt with as a child. She conflated dressing nicely with doing well in life and feeling connected to others, McNulty explained. But to her money-conscious husband, her spending just seemed irresponsible. Only once she opened up about her history was her husband able to understand and compromise on a higher clothing budget.
Reflect on your own money philosophy
As much as you need an open mind to grapple with your partner’s views on money, you need to fully understand your own bias as well. Taking the time to think through why you hold certain beliefs when it comes to money and where those ideas stem from will help you identify exactly where you differ from your partner.
“I think that it really can be very helpful if people know their individual relationship with money and why they spend the way they spend, and why they save the way they save, and what’s behind all that in terms of their life story and their needs and their goals and everything like that,” McNulty says. “That prepares them to have the dialogue with one another.”
Respect your partner’s decisions
No couple will agree on every single decision. Everyone has different priorities, and part of operating within a partnership is to respect your partner’s choices. That includes keeping an open mind if your spouse’s spending habits differ from your own.
“Don’t judge what your spouse spends their money on,” Pamela Capalad, CFP and founder of Brunch and Budget, told Business Insider. “If you truly think your partner has a spending problem, then it’s time to have an honest and loving conversation with them. If you’re just annoyed that they spent money on something that you would never spend money on, then take a step back, take a breath, and give your partner the benefit of the doubt.”
For some couples, this means adding personal discretionary funds to the monthly budget that each spouse can use for whatever they want, no questions asked.
“It’s knowing what the other person is spending on or saying, ‘Hey, this other person has $200 a month that I don’t know what they’re spending on, and that’s ok.’ It’s being ok and trusting that other person that they can spend their money on whatever,” Pam Horack, CFP and “Your Financial Mum” at Pathfinder Planning LLC, told Business Insider.
Create a support system
Couples don’t have to tackle their money issues alone. A financial planner can help them make sense of all the numbers, while a therapist can help them address any deeper issues simultaneously brought up.
“First and foremost what I recommend to couples, especially if they’re noting different approaches to finances, is to get some couples counseling — besides getting some good financial counseling — before they get married so they can begin to learn how to dialogue about such an important issue,” McNulty says.