After dating for more than a year, Chris and Lisa married with every confidence that, over time, they could reconcile their widely divergent money styles. Six years later, the couple separated; divorce soon followed.
In analyzing the breakup, Chris told friends that he saw Lisa's unwillingness to make even a token reduction in her spending as a sign that she didn't love him enough to work at fixing the problem. Lisa said Chris' spending and saving expectations were unrealistic, and that he made her feel guilty and smothered.
Those who counsel couples routinely rank money high on the list of reasons partners fight or split up. In any marriage, even one where both partners have similar money management styles, family finances create conflict at least occasionally. But when one spouse is a saver and the other is a spender, financial disagreements can be frequent, emotional, and divisive.
If you and your spouse seem to be polar opposites when it comes to money attitudes, don't give up hope of a truce. Experts say opposite money personalities actually can complement each other: Savers keep spenders out of the poor house while spenders encourage savers to enjoy the fruits of their labors now and then. Of course, getting to that point—where both money personalities contribute to a balanced approach to the family finances—requires compromise and communication.
Your money personality—how you feel about money and the way you manage it—is a product of your upbringing and your life experiences. It was formed over many years and is unlikely to change significantly after you become an adult. Couples who understand this also understand that trying to convert one's spouse is an exercise in futility.
"Your financial styles were developed long before [your] relationship started," says Dr. Jon Rich, a clinical psychologist practicing in Irvine, Calif., and author of "The Couple's Guide to Love & Money." "Because basic personality types don't tend to change, you have to try to find a way to work with the personalities you have."
Diane McCurdy, president of McCurdy Financial Planning in Vancouver, Canada, agrees that you have to focus more on compromise than on change.
"Different isn't wrong," says McCurdy. "It's what attracted you to each other in the first place."
McCurdy says she works with many couples who have conflicting money personalities, because "spenders are instinctively drawn to savers, and vice versa." She encourages mismatched couples to try to appreciate and respect the differences in their financial approach.
Of course, that's much easier to do if you're able to look at your spouse's behavior objectively—something Rich says many couples just can't manage to do.
"For instance," says Rich, "a spender may be thinking, 'If my partner cared about me more, she would spend more money on me.' A saver, on the other hand, might be thinking, 'If my partner cared more about me, he would be saving for our future.'
"These are erroneous beliefs," Rich says. "Your spouse's financial behavior might have something to do with the relationship, or you might just be reading too much into it. It often causes needless distress to believe that one's partner is sending a message by the way he or she spends money."
It's absolutely vital that you talk about money and your marriage. "What ruins marriages," says McCurdy, "is what's not said, not what's said."
Throughout your discussions, remain open-minded, rather than insisting that your partner do things your way. "Everyone thinks their attitude toward money is the best," says McCurdy. "But you can't have an 'I'm-right-and-you're-wrong' attitude."
As you talk, advises McCurdy, make agreements to compromise. An agreement, she says, gives weight to your intentions. It also gives you the right to get your partner back on track if he or she veers from what was agreed upon.
Both Rich and McCurdy believe it's crucial that couples set goals. McCurdy recommends first making separate "wish lists" and then, together, ranking the items and working toward those that you both feel are most important.
Some goals, she says, should be at or near the top of every couple's list. These include paying off nonmortgage debt and saving for retirement—"so the saver doesn't feel put-upon later" because he or she has to support the spender in their senior years.
Revisit your goals at least annually, and make adjustments based on changing priorities and finances. You can achieve individual goals with separate funds.
Rich says a solution that works for many couples is to have His, Hers, and Ours accounts. Use the joint account to pay household expenses, including mortgage or rent, utilities, insurance, and car and home repairs. If there's money left over, split it into personal no-questions-asked accounts. It's from these accounts that you can pursue individual wish-list goals. For a spender, that might mean paying for a family dream vacation. For a saver, it could mean beefing up an IRA (individual retirement account).
According to Rich, "This relieves the stress and conflict caused when couples disagree over discretionary spending." He advises checking in with each other at least once a month—more if there have been problems—to re-evaluate and, if financial circumstances warrant, change the discretionary spending amounts.
Regarding management of the joint account, McCurdy says that depends on the couple, but "anything works as long as it's working." She suggests letting the person who's good at money handle the bills, but advises couples to sit down together to go over them regularly.
If you and your spouse reach an impasse, a professional can help you move forward. Whether you choose to see a marriage counselor, a financial planner, or another type of professional such as a member of the clergy, depends partly on whether you believe your issues have more to do with your relationship or your finances. You may start with one type of professional and switch to or add another type as you explore issues.
For financial planning assistance or money management counseling, contact the professionals at your credit union. You also can find a nonprofit, accredited credit counseling agency by visiting the National Foundation for Credit Counseling Web site, or by calling 800-388-2227.
Check with your health plan or employee assistance program (EAP) to learn if your benefits cover counseling and therapy, and to find out how to find a qualified, participating professional.
The most important thing to keep in mind as you work to narrow the gap between your money management styles, says Rich, is that you and your partner are a team. As such, "It's not possible for one partner to win—you both have to win." For couples at opposite ends of the spender-saver spectrum, that means each partner has to inch his or her way closer to the center.