When You and Your Partner Have Different Outlooks About Money
A few summers ago, I was enjoying a leisurely lunch with my friend Carmi. Mid-noshing, she brought up the fact that while her husband needed to squirrel away a robust reserve for emergencies, she wanted to just enjoy her life in the here and now. She and her husband both had high-demanding day jobs, and she didn’t want to feel deprived.
This is a pretty common scenario: One partner is wary about money and is super focused on preparing for worst-case scenarios (i.e., losing their job and ending up broke on the street). The other is optimistic or more happy-go-lucky about money and isn’t as concerned about saving.
As you can imagine, this may lead to spats and feelings of resentment in a relationship.
How can couples meet in the middle? Here are a few pointers on what to do when you and your partner have drastically different outlooks and approaches to money:
Have a talk about what money means to you
From the day we’re born, we start to develop ideas, behaviors, and perceptions about money. These can be shaped by the grownups around us and their relationship with money, or based on our experiences. Over time, we’ve created a money story aka how we talk about money, or how we react to financial scenarios.
For instance, from an early age, I associated having money with being self-sufficient. When I was a kid, I looked for ways to make a buck, and couldn’t wait to get a job so I could have my own money. In a nutshell, money equaled freedom and options.
In turn, I became a bit of a workhorse — and for better or worse, still am to this day. And I have problems parting with my money. At times, I don’t know what I should spend it on. Or I might be worried that my bank account will hit zero and I won’t know how to replenish my funds.
For my friend Carmi, money is something that came and went. She didn’t always have control over money flow. What’s more, to her, money was about having the ability to enjoy a fine meal or to throw a fun gathering with a handful of friends. For her, fear of missing out supersedes planning for the future. As you can see, our money stories shape the way we treat our money.
Figure out your partner’s money spectrum
Ask your partner what they love spending money on, what they hate spending money on, and what they wish they could use their money for.
You could also go so far as asking them what money represents to them. If they have debt, how comfortable are they with having debt in general? They might not have all the answers, especially when asked on the spot, but it will certainly open the channel to more money talks.
You might be surprised. Someone’s money behavior might be reactive, and not intentional. It could come from a darker place of fear and shame. Be prepared to go deep.
Come from a place of understanding
When you get into a money spat with your partner over differences, realize that your partner isn’t acting that way to intentionally upset, hurt, or restrict you, explains Adam H. Kol, a couples financial counselor and founder of AHK Coaching.
“Rather, we each have our own history with and baggage around money,” says Kol. “They’re just doing what they think is best, usually in response to that baggage, so try giving them some grace.”
If you realize you’ve been a judgmental jerk, just acknowledge it and apologize! Says Kol.
“When you start unpacking your own money stories and histories, this will help you and your partner understand yourselves and each other much better. And when that happens, resentment is typically displaced by compassion. And once you get to the values underlying their words and actions, then opportunities for compromise will emerge.”
Back to my friend Carmi and her husband: The reason why her husband was so dead-set on having a large emergency fund was because he had freelanced for many years. There were times when he was having a lean month and needed to dip into his reserves. He wasn’t trying to deprive Carmi of enjoying life. Rather, he was trying to look out for both of them.
Deciding between separate or joint accounts
Personally, I think the idea that couples who have a shared account are more committed and trusting than those who prefer to keep their accounts separate is a bunch of bull. Sure, it’s partly due to the dynamic of your relationship, but it also has to do with your preferences and ways of being.
I am pretty set in the way I manage my money and crave autonomy. My partner is the same. So it makes sense that we keep separate accounts. You’d be surprised at how many couples in committed, long-term relationships also keep separate accounts.
Kol personally likes having one shared account for shared expenses that each partner contributes to in some agreed-upon way. Then, the other money can be placed into individual accounts with more or even complete freedom.
“However, if you’re going to try this, make sure you’ve cultivated trust and healthy communication first!” says Kol.
Not sure if you should opt for a shared account, joint account, or a combination of both? To figure this out, Kol recommends asking a single question: What will cause resentment? Will keeping separate accounts make you feel like the other partner is keeping something from you?
On the flip side, maybe keeping a joint account will make you feel like someone is monitoring your spending activity 24/7, and in turn, feel stifled. If that’s the case, then separate accounts may be the way to go.
Focus on shared values
You’re most likely in a long-term relationship because you want to build a life together based on shared values. What do you both find important, and how can you satisfy those needs? For instance, if you both love going to the movies, perhaps you can allocate more of your discretionary income to nights out at the cinema. And if you both value high-quality food, how can you save on groceries while enjoying healthy, nutritious meals?
While it sounds easier to date someone who is your money twin, it’s not very realistic — nor does it lead to compassion and understanding. Instead, by understanding your partner’s money story, and the why behind their financial actions, beliefs, and behaviors, you can build a life together despite having different outlooks about money.