Couples And Money: Opposites Attract, Blend Over Time
Attraction is often a mystery. In general, we seek out others who have similar values, traits and backgrounds. But according to Jenny Olson, an assistant professor of marketing at Indiana University who studies couples’ financial decision-making, “money-management styles are one case in which opposites do attract.
Money management is different in that we tend to be drawn to others that complement our natural approach. This could be subconsciously looking for someone to balance our approach. In my situation, I was a spender when I met my husband. He was frugal and was a great saver. I was attracted to him because, on some level, I felt he offered security. I believe he was attracted to me because I knew how to enjoy life.
In healthy relationships, over the decades that couples are together, they tend to grow more alike. Early in our marriage, my husband tempered my impulsive spending and helped develop a shared vision for the future. With something to save for, I was able to resist impulse buying. I helped him see that spending a little extra now made the journey more enjoyable. We had a positive influence on the other’s natural tendency and provided each other with mutual accountability.
This moving to the middle was not automatic, and money was a source of tension in our marriage. What we underestimated was how our emotional history with money was affecting our behaviors.
Behavior experts David Whitebread and Sue Bingham of the University of Cambridge conducted research in 2013 that found kids start learning about money as young as 3. By age 7, most of their attitudes, feelings and their approach to money, such as planning ahead and delaying gratification, are set.
The messages we learn as children are powerful. One reason is that these messages and attitudes are ingrained before we discover our capacity to challenge and reject them. As an adult, it is hard work to uncover these beliefs and examine them rationally.
We didn’t know it at the time, but my husband and I were working to uncover our money stories, scripts or biographies. With the help of a therapist, we were able to understand that some of our money behaviors were a proxy for deeper feelings and emotions. Getting to the root of our beliefs and examining whether those beliefs were still applicable was important in each of our journeys.
Once we pushed past the initial discomfort and could fully examine our thoughts and habits, we could learn, grow and improve our lives, financial and otherwise. We also had to learn not to be accusatory, talking about the things we wanted the other to avoid doing with their money and instead reflect, discuss and build shared goals.
Studies have shown that couples who are able to communicate about the differences in their financial beliefs are better able to make decisions together. Early in our marriage, we talked about our joint income, the debts I brought into the marriage and our expenses. We talked about shared goals and our spending priorities.
After we had children, we made a point of, at least once a quarter, having a date night to discuss past spending, where we were off track, how to get back on track and what spending goals we had for the next three to five years. When a topic triggered a conflict, it was critical to approach the topic with empathy and a goal of reaching a middle ground.
Communication is so very difficult, particularly when you are arguing about surface issues and don’t get to the root. I will give my husband credit for teaching our family that everything is a trade-off. For example, we could landscape the back yard or take a nice vacation, or maybe build a workshop for my husband. Eventually, we will get around to all three; it’s just a matter of timing and priorities.