The Business of Marriage: Money, Relationships and Parenting

I recently read an article by Liz Weston, a personal-finance writer, in which she encourages couples to reduce money conflicts by viewing marriage as a business, and a potentially lucrative one at that.

Weston cites a study out of Ohio State University that found that those who stayed married built nearly twice the net worth as those who remained single. While marriage is a financial boon, divorce is not. On average, post-divorce net worth is about 77% of the net worth of a single (never-divorced) person.

Weston argues that marriages would do better (money- & otherwise) if couples “think more objectively about finances and how they [are] going to handle them.” That’s great advice. Yet, I’ve noticed two things about parents, myself included:

(1) How we save and spend money before we have kids sometimes differs from how we do so after kids arrive.

The pendulum can swing either way: Spouses who were savers when childless sometimes spend like freewheelers on kids, while those who were financially flexible before having children sometimes horde pennies and nickels as parents. These shifts in spouses are unremarkable, unless they contrast with our own money styles, in which case they can spark arguments.

(2) Even if our spouse’s money habits stay the same after we become parents, our attitudes about them sometimes change (meaning, worsen).

The financial behaviors we once found acceptable, or slightly troubling, in mates can become major issues, and sources of ongoing conflict, after we have children.

Parents who cite money as among their Top 5 relationship challenges would be wise to deal with financial conflicts sooner than later. Why rush to do so?

A compelling study out of UCLA found that money conflicts are uniquely toxic to relationships. The challenge posed by money—and related issues like spending, salaries, savings, or expenses—is that couples who argue about money spend more time, on average, fretting about these issues than they do on other topics.

Even more than other issues,e.g., housework, money-conflict is both highly recurrent (it comes up a lot) and often deferred (we shove it aside a lot). The study’s primary author, Lauren Papp, claims that because money problems take more time and effort to resolve than other relationship issues, the frequency with which money-conflicts arise, and are shelved, erodes our relationships.

So how do we best pay the piper, so to speak, in service of our relationship’s financial issues? One approach is to discuss our attitudes about spending (and spending on children), with particular attention to the ways in which our perspectives are in sync with, or a contrast to, how we were raised.

When persistent money arguments prompted my wife and me to broach our differing toy-buying styles—minimalist in my case, generous in hers—we discovered that I was unconsciously repeating how I was raised, while she was reacting against her upbringing.

Neither approach was wrong, but our autopilot behaviors meant that our spending contrasts turned into arguments. By understanding where each of us was coming from, we began to appreciate each other’s our toy-buying style of choice and the importance of our divergent philosophies.

Because we tried to hear each other out and understand each other’s perspectives, we now do our best to find a toy-buying mid-ground. That mid-ground not only includes negotiations on toy-quantities, but also toy-costs. Plus, while we’d prefer our new approach to be a done-deal, turns out we need to revisit it regularly, e.g., on birthdays and holidays, to ensure we stay aligned.

For those of us who are less than keen on compromising our spending patterns, the results of a recent study from Brigham Young University might offer habit-shifting inspiration.

The study found that when one or both spouses are very materialistic in attitude or expectation, they boast more financial problems and reduced relationship satisfaction. What’s unique about this study is that it focused less on spending habits and more on attitudes about money.

Financial and marital problems are as impacted by how we think about finances as by the ways in which we spend money.

Like other habits, shifting how we think about money, and the acquisition of stuff, isn’t easy. But the pressure to buy stuff for ourselves or our kids (which often means working harder to pay for that stuff) means some parents not only put relationship satisfaction at risk, we also lose sight of life’s non-material pleasures, like emotional connection and enjoying the moment.

Bottom line: If our relationships suffer from disagreements about money, we owe it to our marriages and our families to get down to business and resolve our financial issues. If we don’t, we’ll all pay the price sooner or later.

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