Love and Money: How couples can have healthy money conversations

By Jake Elm, CFP® , Financial Advisor    |   Behavioral Finance, Work Life Balance

Money is by far the top cause of stress in America. More than 72% of people reported feeling stressed about money sometime in the last month.

For many people, simply thinking about money can be intimidating and stress-inducing. Because of that, it’s not surprising that 57% admit to purposely avoiding talking about money with friends and 20% say they never talk about money. Ever.

To be more precise, I don’t think most of us have a problem talking about money in general terms; we just don’t like to talk about our money. Our days are filled with conversations about what people buy, what they do for a living, where they went to school, a certain discount they scored, or what hot stock they jumped on.

However, we run and hide from specific conversations around our own personal income, expenses, budgeting, savings, investing, insurance, etc.

There are many reasons for this; maybe chief among them is that we so often tie self-worth to our net worth. As author Daniel Crosby has said:

“There is so much subtext and hidden meaning wrapped up in money. Money is shorthand for happiness, power, and personal efficacy, so it can be very scary. When money is short, it can be seen as a deficiency on the part of the breadwinner, and when there is lots of money, there can be fears that greed takes the place of genuine love.”

Love and Money

The emotional impact of money is especially intense when it becomes a topic of conversation between spouses or partners.

Here are a few sobering stats about couples and money:

  • More than one-third of couples reported finances to be the most stressful facet of their relationship. This was followed by intimacy at a distant second (11%), children (9%), and in-laws (4%).
  • 42% of U.S. adults said they have disagreements about money with their partners, and 27% said it happened weekly or monthly.
  • 63% of couples believe “their significant other overspends in some way” according to a study by TD Bank. That number jumps to an overwhelming 83% for millennials.
  • In 38% of divorces, couples report financial problems as the leading cause. Fights about money are the second leading cause of divorce, behind infidelity.
  • 43% of Americans don’t know how much money their spouse makes.
  • 45% of couples admit to hiding purchases from their partner. Additionally, 36% of couples disagree on how much they have in investable assets. About 20% of adults who are married or in a committed relationship report having “secret debt” that they haven’t revealed to their partners. And 5.4% have a “secret checking account.”

On one hand, yes this data is a bit discouraging. On the other hand, some may find it comforting to know they’re not alone in their struggle to communicate effectively about money in relationships. We can all work on improving.

Talking about money in a committed relationship is unavoidable. It’s like taking out the trash or doing the laundry; it’s just one of those things that has to be done.

The answer to how to better communicate with a spouse or partner about money is to do just that, talk about it. That’s it. There’s no secret. Incredibly easy to say, but much harder to actually do.

So find a system that works best for you. Maybe go on “money dates” periodically where you review a budget, future goals, or how you’re feeling about your current situation together. Or maybe you prefer more frequent, casual discussions at the end of each day or week.

Simplify the money discussion

Whatever your method of communication, one recommendation I give to couples who want to communicate more effectively about money is to combine your finances and get shared bank accounts.

Meaning, a single joint checking account which all income flows into and all expenses flow out of.
This is a bit of a controversial take because it’s becoming less and less common. About 37% of millennials report forgoing a traditional joint bank account after marriage and are opting to keep their finances separate. This is double the number of Gen X and Baby Boomer couples who keep their money separate.

Too many credit cards, savings, and checking accounts can muddy the waters and make it difficult to track what’s going on in your financial life. The more your money is spread out among multiple accounts, the more likely you are to not know exactly how much money you have or how much you’re spending—which leads to stress and uncertainty.

Having separate accounts adds friction to everyday money decisions because you have to coordinate how everything is going to work together.

How do you split up bills and expenses? Does one person pay the mortgage while the other pays for food? How do you determine how much each person should pay for these expenses? How do you split it up so it’s “fair?” Who pays for dates and vacations? How do you save for joint long-term goals like a house, a car, or college, or retirement?

Don’t even get me started on couples who Venmo each other after certain purchases.

So instead of trying to decide who pays for what, with a joint checking account you both pay for everything — much simpler.

Share Your Money Feelings

Additionally, in order to successfully manage money as a couple, you need to be open about your financial wants, goals, and worries. With a joint account, you’re both in on the good and bad details about your financial situation. You can’t hide your purchases because spending can easily be viewed by both spouses. This transparency not only makes things easy to track but also promotes openness and better habits. Having shared finances forces conversations about money which leads to better financial decisions.

A recent study of over 200 couples by the Journal of Consumer Research found that couples who use joint bank accounts are more satisfied with how they and their partner are saving and spending, have less financial conflict, and build better money habits over time.

Now, if you think this discussion on joint bank accounts doesn’t matter much in the grand scheme of your finances, I’d beg to differ.

There are investors who grind 80 hours a week to add a tenth of a percent to their returns when there are two or three full percentage points of lifestyle bloat and mismanagement of family finances that can be exploited with way less effort.

Behavior and temperament matter far more than technical smarts when it comes to building wealth.

I liked this line from the JCR study I mentioned above:

“It’s possible that joint accounts make couples happier, but it’s also possible that happier couples are more likely to join their finances.”

Typically, the same principles that lead to successfully sharing and managing money as a couple are also the same principles that lead to happy, successful relationships.

 

Sources:

 

2015 Couples Fact Sheet Fidelity Investments, 15 June 2015

Borne, Leah. “This Is How Much People Hate Talking about Money.” The Money Manual, 2 June 2022

Christy Bieber, J.D. “Revealing Divorce Statistics in 2024.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 9 Jan. 2024

Croll, Dylan. “Happily Ever after: Why a Shared Bank Account May Be a Good Thing for Couples.” Yahoo! Finance, Yahoo!, 23 July 2023

Crosby, Daniel. “On This Day of Love, a Thread about Love and Money with a Some Research That I Think Will Surprise You:” Twitter, Twitter, 14 Feb. 2022

Daly, Lyle. “These Are the 5 Most Common Reasons Couples Fight about Money.” The Motley Fool, The Ascent by The Motley Fool, 13 Mar. 2023

Elizabeth Scott, PhD. “What Are the Main Causes of Stress?” Verywell Mind, Verywell Mind, 28 Nov. 2023

Epperson, Sharon. “Most Couples Are ‘financially Incompatible,’ Survey Finds. Having a Money Talk Could Help – No Matter How Long You’ve Been Together.” CNBC, CNBC, 14 Feb. 2023

Knueven, Liz. “3 Reasons to Combine Your Finances When You Get Married – and 3 Reasons Not To.” Business Insider, Business Insider, 5 Aug. 2020

Money, Marriage, and Communication.” Ramsey Solutions, 27 Sept. 2021

 

Jake Elm, CFP® is a graduate of Utah Valley University’s nationally ranked Personal Financial Planning program. As a financial advisor at Dentist Advisors, he provides dentists with fiduciary guidance related to investments, debt, savings, taxes, and insurance.  Learn more about Jake.


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