When my husband and I married, we mutually designated yours truly as CFO. And every month, my heart rate accelerated as I reconciled our poverty-line income with a pile of tilting receipts.
I’d procrastinate, which is unusual for me (unless you consider my love/mostly hate relationship with math). I despised worrying about every expenditure. Guardianship burdened me; I loathed playing the killjoy if my exhausted husband wanted to catch a movie. I hated fighting about money.
Yes, I kept us in the black. But several years and a Dave Ramsey program later, my husband took the helm, likely rescuing me from a heart attack at thirty. Turns out he has a natural gift for financial planning. With a trustworthy, agreed-upon plan in place, financial stress evaporated. And every time he mentions he’s working on our finances, I fall in love a little more.
I tell you this because resolving our tension around money wasn’t actually about the money. Author Sheila Heen reports that 18 months following their win, UK lottery winners were roughly as happy or unhappy as before.
Spoiler alert: The core of your money problems wouldn’t actually be solved if you had more.
How to stop fighting about money problems
For my husband and me, money was a megaphone amplifying marriage dynamics. Like time or sex, money acts as a relational microcosm.
Want to peer into your power dynamics, trust, your ability to work as a team? Check your credit card statement.
When Jesus observes a man should “hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh” (Matthew 19:5), His statement applies to cash, too. How “one flesh” are your finances? Because fighting about money is another hurdle in the three-legged race of marriage.
So if you’re still arguing about the same old money problems, how can you stop?
1. Talk about money problems—and appreciate your spouse’s values as legitimate.
Maybe you know your Myers-Briggs or Enneagram profile. But how would you define your individual money personalities?
Start with the broad spectrum of saver vs. spender. Where do you each fall?
Now look at your families of origin and their stories. What did you learn about money … even what not to do?
In my developmental years, my parents labored under farm debt. We ordered water at the occasional restaurant, camped for vacation, avoided gas-station snacks on road trips. Imagine my horror when, while dating, my now-husband ordered popcorn at the theater. At seven dollars, that was five generic bags’ worth of popcorn kernels! But going to the movies was a beloved memory with his mom—who always purchased popcorn.
At that moment, finances were my avenue for safety; for him, delight. “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21). And money was the means to different treasures.
Your treasure might be independence, approval, comfort, power, control. But it can swell so we “worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator” (Romans 1:25). Healthy desires can morph from a strength to an idol. And when those desires clash? You’re fighting about money again.
So discuss these questions, too:
- What inner purposes does money serve for each of us, and how do those inform why we spend or save?
- How do my spouse’s underlying values enhance our family?
- How does my money style create loss or vulnerability? (Penny-pinching could, say, steal from freedom, joy, and carefree memories.)
- How have our clashing desires (James 4:1) damaged our relationship, especially around trust and honesty?
- What’s the “issue beneath the issue” that keeps us from working together?
- What do I need to confess to God and my spouse?
2. Find full buy-in on mutual goals.
Chances are you share some end games and common values: maybe to be out of debt, save for something valuable to both of you, or the higher goal of financial freedom. Hopefully, you both want to honor God by managing well the money He’s given: “One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much, and one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much” (Luke 16:10).
But getting on a budget, for example, requires substantially more goading if your spouse doesn’t share the same underlying “treasure.”
See, the best and worst part of any fitness program, including financial fitness, is at the beginning. You’re motivated—downloading the apps, creating the plan, buying the gear or the protein powder. Maybe you’re motivated by pain or discomfort or fear of some sort: Dude, after the effort to walk up that hill, you should probably think about the gym.
But then you’ve got to actually get up when it’s dark every morning, resist grabbing that sealed bag of Doritos out of the trash, and sweat instead. The self-discipline is the means to buying a smaller size of pants or biking with your kids.
No hyped-up Peloton instructor for financial freedom will hound you to finish. And the last thing you want to do after the kids are in bed is work on money problems rather than Netflix.
But financial fitness means financial freedom—freedom from freaking out or taking it out on each other. From the slavery of debt and keeping up with the Joneses. Financial freedom means managing your money rather than money managing you.
If you decide you share the goal of financial freedom, don’t miss our step-by-step online course, Financial Freedom for Couples, led by longtime author and financial planner Russ Crosson.
3. Divvy up financial responsibilities according to strengths.
My husband wears our family’s hat of “financial planner” now. But while most bills are set on autopay, my administrative abilities make it easier for me to take care of the one-offs—the car registration, the medical co-pays. We mutually adjust our budgets, because I’m most aware of certain household needs and he knows how much we need for car repair.
Eliminating money problems stems from teamwork and mutual appreciation for what we each bring to the table.
Think broadly about the strengths you each contribute—not just who can handle the math. Does one of you excel at research (“Which investments work for us?”), or organization, or the schedule flexibility to sit on hold with the stock broker, or relating to your scattered accountant? Which of you realistically estimates expenses or ensures the family has enough budget to make memories?
Sure, it’s harder when neither of you want to touch the money mess with a 10-foot pole. But if tasks remain that rank with taking out the trash or scrubbing the toilets, maybe it’s time for a chat about the division of labor just like any other household chore.
And if someone gets stuck with the mutually-agreed “worst” task, talk about how the other spouse can help. Staying within the budget? Inserting expenses into the app you use? Saving receipts and categorizing them? Watching the kids so the other spouse can focus?
Imagine kissing money problems goodbye
So consider the past pain or fear, and the future rewards, as motivation. Scrawl them on prominent sticky notes so you don’t just buy a nice budget-planning course, a financial “gym membership.” Set the promise of a freer future before you.
Maybe it’ll be rewarding when you make the final payment on that credit card debt, or creditors don’t have your number anymore, or your spouse doesn’t panic when the grocery bill is high. It’s possible you’ll have enough cash to go on a vacation and not swallow hard with every receipt. Or you’ll be able to double your giving to causes you’re passionate about.
Or maybe you’ll just feel faithfully in control of the money God’s given you. Peace between you and your spouse, and even a sense of personal power, are within reach as you learn to manage the beast that is your money. It’s like 2 Timothy 1:7 reminds us: “for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.”
Stop fighting about money problems by tenaciously pursuing solutions from the inside out.
Copyright © 2021 Janel Breitenstein. All rights reserved.
Janel Breitenstein is an author, freelance writer, speaker, and frequent contributor for FamilyLife, including Passport2Identity®, Art of Parenting®, and regular articles. After five and a half years in East Africa, her family of six has returned to Colorado, where they continue to work on behalf of the poor with Engineering Ministries International. Her book, Permanent Markers: Spiritual Life Skills to Write on Your Kids’ Hearts (Harvest House), empowers parents to creatively engage kids in vibrant spirituality. You can find her—“The Awkward Mom”—having uncomfortable, important conversations at JanelBreitenstein.com, and on Instagram @janelbreit.