Relationships and Money: Savers vs. Spenders
Money problems are usually never just about money, but about power and emotions
Posted Jan 27, 2019
We all know about relationship complementary—the extrovert hooks up with the introvert; the spontaneous one attaches to the planner; the night owl marries the early bird. The same can happen with money, where spenders often marry savers. But while the night owls and early birds may easily learn how to adjust to each other, money, like sex and kids, is one of the power issues in the relationships, and the differences can easily lead to ongoing battles.
Here are some of overlapping common sources of money problems and arguments:
Maybe you grew up with parents who spent freely and didn’t worry about debt, or in a family where there was scarcity, saving, and constant worry. You may carry these same attitudes forward into your adulthood, or you may rebel again against them: offsetting your parents' seeming irresponsibility by being uber-responsible, countering your childhood deprivation by now being a spendthrift. But what matters is whether or not you and your partner are on the same page about how money is used, what it means. If you have competing philosophies, you're in for trouble.
Lack of skills
Managing money is a skill-set like good parenting or even good communication. Some couples struggle simply because they individually or together lack the skills to manage money wel —they don’t know how to set up a budget, balance a checkbook, or how to plan and save for future needs. If they both lack strong skills, the problem can obviously be solved by getting help in learning them. And if, say, Jake is weak in this area, it makes sense that his more skilled partner Jess can just take over.
But while seems like it should work, this arrangement can get easily thorny because of the power imbalance: Jake may resent Jess always "being in charge" just as Jess may periodically feel resentful of having to handle all the finances.
Spontaneous / impulsive vs planning
Jake is at Best Buy getting a computer cable when he walks over to the TV section, is stunned by the picture on the bigger TVs and decides to buy one then and there. He also notices that there's a weekend special going on with lower finance charges, and figures he can use this to help smooth this over with Jess.
But Jess doesn't think they need a bigger TV, or thinks it would be nice to have but wanted to save up for it and pay cash, or is fuming because Jake is being Jake and didn't talk to her about ahead time. Once again a recipe for conflict.
I deserve it
But Jake may talk himself into buying the TV because he feels like he deserves it—he's been working overtime for weeks, or "cheap" Jess doesn't like to go out to the movies and he deserves to watch something.
The emotional drive of I deserve this can be both powerful and pliable. Not only may it fuel Jake's impulsiveness, Jess too may find herself periodically using the same thinking when she feels resentful over doing all the heavy lifting in the relationship by always being the "responsible one."
There are people who get worried when they have less than fifty dollars in the bank and those who have less than a million. It isn’t about the amount of money, but about staying within comfort zones. For those prone to saving and keeping a tight control on finances, the need for control is usually driven by underlying anxiety. They may have grown up with scarcity or grown up in a family that was always fearing the worst, and are now maintaining that mindset and being hyper-vigilant.
Even if Jake bypasses the TV, Jess finding receipt for Jake's expensive lunch may be enough put her over the edge. The higher Jess' anxiety goes, the more controlling and critical she can become, triggering push-back from Jake.
Jess may say to herself, I have to save because you spend, and Jake says to himself, I spend because you are always rigidly saving. This is polarization, the same type of polarization you often see with parents: I’m easy on the kids because you are so tough; I’m so tough because you are so easy. This is a see-saw, an overcompensating for the other’s behavior, fueled by an ongoing power struggle and conflict over whose approach is right.
Tip of the iceberg
Both Jake and Jess may say that money is the only topic that struggle with, that everything else is okay. But the dynamic between them — that Jake constantly feels that Jess is too controlling and treats him like a child, that Jess feels that Jake is by-and-large always somewhat irresponsible—spills over to other areas of their lives but are never discussed. Instead all this tension gets dumped into money issues, intensifying these struggles even more.
Putting these problems to rest
The starting point, as with most big problems, is stepping back and figuring out the problem or problems under the problem. Are you struggling because you simply lack financial skills? Is about an imbalance and acting out? Is it about polarization or a power struggle fueled by other problems?
Get outside advice
If it is about skills, seek help. Most communities have low-cost or free financial counseling bureaus that can help you set up a budget, provide guidance on what is reasonable to have in terms of savings and how to get there. Rather than arguing between yourselves over whose reality is right, this outside person can serve as an arbitrator and help you get on the same page.
Come up with a plan
If you realize that the underlying problems are all about conflicting emotions, it's time to have sane adult conversations together. What this means is setting aside a good time when you are not tired, stressed, or half-drunk to talk about money. The starting attitude is one of problem-solving. Imagine each of you are at a team meeting at your jobs. Come up with an agenda and plan ahead of time. Your goals are to stay in your rational brains rather than your emotional ones, not endlessly rail about the past, but move forward toward an agreeable mutual solution.
And if your philosophies are different, try and reach a middle ground. Here couples, for example, not only work up a budget, but come up with a set amount for individual discretionary expenses. This helps the person who is more spontaneous not feel like he is locked into some financial cage, while the more anxious person knows there are limits on that is being spent.
Check in, speak up
Once you agree on a plan, check in and speak up. If you're prone to spending, step up and proactively let your partner know that you are staying on top of the situation and when she expresses concerns, don't dismiss her worries. Don't think of this as reporting to a parent, but about being considerate to the other’s built-in anxiety.
And if you are an anxious saver, realize how easily your control fuels that parent-child battle. When you find yourself wanting more control, see this as sign that you need to talk about your anxiety—what it is you are most worried about, why you are concerned. Talking about these softer emotions rather than issuing ultimatums can go a long way in avoiding a power struggle and keeping the emotional climate more positive.
Finally, consider counseling, even for a few sessions. Having someone who can make it safe for you to get the problems, and the underlying problems, on the table, having an outsider who can ask the hard questions that you are afraid to ask—can help you move towards a compromise that works for both of you.
Money is much more than dollars and cents. It’s about power, about emotions, about needs. Don’t let it be a constant battle in your relationship. Be willing to find a middle ground.
Be willing to finally put the problem to rest.