Financial Problems in Marriage: Questions and Answers

Financial problems in marriage have both a financial aspect and a relationship aspect. You must deal with both for the sake of your relationship.

financial problems in marriage cause emotional conflict
Are you trying to solve all of your financial problems in marriage with logic and reasoning? Emotions are key to every conflict.

The answer to financial problems is simple, but the answer to financial problems in marriage is not.  First, let’s consider the simple answer to financial problems–increase income and decrease expenses until you have a balanced budget. On your own, that would be easier to do than together with your spouse because you would only buy what you thought was necessary, no one would give your grief about your choices, you would be responsible for your own income, and there would not be an opportunity for resentment to build.  Neither would there be any problems with this in your relationship if you and your spouse were on exactly the same page. However, the more different your spending values and work ethics from your spouse, and the more distant your relationship, the more financial problems you are going to have in your marriage.

“My spouse has terrible ideas about using our money.  How should I react?”

Immediately opposing your husband or wife may help to curb expenses, but at a cost to your relationship.  You can handle your spouse’s ideas in a way that protects the finances while preserving your marriage. Most people try to jump directly into a discussion about finances in order to deal with this, but it is much easier and more effective to use a two step approach.

Connect first

What your spouse is saying may indeed be terrible, stupid, harmful, etc., but forcefully pointing that out won’t help.  That would just cause fighting and disconnection.

Spouse 1:  “I think we should withdraw some of our retirement money and take a trip around the world.”

Spouse 2:  “What!  Are you nuts!  Then what are we supposed to do when we retire, eat our souvenirs or live off of our memories?!”

“How can I make a connection when my spouse is saying such things?”

Everything has both good and bad aspects.   By agreeing with those aspects that are true, you are making a connection with your spouse, which will help him or her to also consider other aspects as well as alternatives.   Instead of instantly disagreeing and trying to convince, focus on listening and connecting.

Spouse 1:  “I think we should withdraw some of our retirement money and take a trip around the world.”

Spouse 2:  “Hmm.  A world trip.  What made you think of that?”

Spouse 1:  “I’m bored.  We don’t do anything together anymore.”

Spouse 2:  “A world trip sure would liven things up.  And, it might be a lot of fun.”

“Isn’t agreeing with a harmful idea harmful?”

The agreement isn’t actually with the harmful aspects of the idea. In the above example, you are not agreeing to do anything.  And talking about an idea is not the same as putting it into action.  Counselors have been using this method for decades to connect with their clients before persuading them to take healthier actions.  Instead of getting freaked out when the client comes up with a terrible idea, the counselor asks how it would help and then agrees with those things. As a result, clients feel listened to and understood.  Then, they are more open to hearing what the therapist has to say about it. If the therapist simply said, “That’s crazy!” the client would walk out the door and never come back.  Therapists know that to really help clients make good decisions, they need to maintain a good relationship with them.  That is true in your marriage as well.  Only after agreement and connection comes problem solving.

Problem solving example dialogue

The essence of problem solving is coming to a decision together rather than one person being autocratic about it.  Autocratic behavior in a marriage is destructive.  Instead of being autocratic, simply let the information guide both of you (even though you may already know what the end result will be):

Spouse 1:  “So, how much money shall we withdraw for our world trip?”

Spouse 2:  “Let’s take a look at the information so we can make a good decision about it.”

(The couple sit down and look at all the facts including the cost of a world trip and how much it would impact their savings, the tax penalties, etc.)

Spouse 1:  “Maybe a world trip isn’t such a good idea.”

Spouse 2:  “I think you’re right.  But, we can still think up some other ways to have fun.”

Although it takes a little more time to make financial decisions this way, it keeps you and your spouse connected through the entire process.

“We made a budget, but my spouse won’t follow it.”

This is another variation of a spouse’s failure to follow through with any plan that you make together.  When I help clients learn how to make plans with their spouse, I always introduce the idea of making a backup plan. Having a backup plan encourages people to stick with the first plan, and also gives them recourse if the first plan is not working. If your backup plan is to put a freeze on all discretionary spending if the budget is not working, your spouse may be more inclined to follow the budget.

“What are some other examples of backup plans for financial problems in marriage?”

Your backup plan could be any of a number of different possibilities including having a third party manage the bills and give you both allowances, attending a support group for over spenders, getting financial coaching, attending marital counseling, or even having a marital separation if the situation was severe enough.  These ideas would likely be less desirable to your spouse and would help him or her to follow plan A.  And, having a plan A and B can go a long way to prevent you from feeling stuck.

“We didn’t make a backup plan, and now we are in a mess financially. What can we do?”

Since you did not have a backup plan, at this point, you can try to restart the problem solving and make new plans—including a backup plan.  Be sure not to be critical of your spouse’s failure to follow through on the last plan.  If you do, then he or she is unlikely to do any problem solving with you.  If your spouse refuses to do problem solving with you, the the main problem has become one of communication and relationship. The financial problem is only a symptom of that and may also be an early warning sign for your spouse divorcing you.  Work on the relationship first, financial problems second.

“My spouse refuses to follow through on any plan.  Am I stuck?”

If you have done all you can to build your connection with your spouse, and to work on your financial problems cooperatively, then you may feel stuck. Getting unstuck will mean either getting help with building a better connection with your spouse, or creating some plans that do not depend on your spouse’s cooperation. Such plans are called boundaries and are completely under your control.  In my book, What to Do When He Won’t Change, I lay out a three step approach for women with uncooperative or selfish husbands geared toward improving their relationships.  This happens mainly with a combination of good connection plus good boundaries.  Either one alone will not create change.

“How can relationship coaching help with a financial problem?”

If your relationship is otherwise good, and your problem is limited to finances, then getting financial counseling makes more sense than relationship coaching.  However many people with financial problems have many conflicts and difficulty communicating.  Because of this, it’s hard to cooperate on their finances, even after they get financial consulting. Without some repair and strengthening of the relationship, the relationship may continue to fail.  Financial problems in marriage often contribute to separation and divorce, but the inability to work together on the financial problems is more likely to be the deciding factor in what happens to the relationship.

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