Spending

The 5 most common money fights couples have, and how experts say you can avoid them

Money is "one of the No. 1 things people fight about, and it's one of the top reasons for divorce."

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Valentine's Day can often serve as a reminder that opposites attract. One partner may be fastidious about making plans while the other is forgetful. One likes to make elaborate meals, the other prefers making reservations. Couples' differences are part of what keeps relationships exciting, but if you and your partner have differing views about money, you may find yourselves in the not-so-cute position of having financial fights.

About seven in 10 Americans (69%) married or living with a partner have had a disagreement about money in the past year, according to a recent survey from the American Institute of CPAs. The five most common points of contention: needs versus wants, spending priorities, making purchases without discussing them first, paying off debt, and saving for larger purchases.

"Money is a really hot topic," says Brad Klontz, a certified financial planner and financial psychology professor at Creighton University. "It's one of the No. 1 things people fight about, and it's one of the top reasons for divorce."

To avoid the most common money fights, you and your partner will need to communicate and strategize. Here are three tips that can help.

1. Get your priorities straight

Fights over needs versus wants, spending priorities, and saving for large purchases often come down to deep-rooted differences in financial outlooks, Klontz says. "People that come from different families and upbringings are going to have different attitudes about money," he says. "The fights come when one person tries to convince the other they're right. You can argue about what's a need versus a want for 50 years."

Klontz tells couples in conflict to revisit some of the foundational money talks they had when the relationship first got serious. Or to have those talks for the first time, if they skipped that step.

Have an open and honest discussion about your relationship with money, including your top goals and your biggest financial fears, he suggests. From there, lay out a spending plan. Decide on your top five financial priorities as a couple — which might include investing for retirement or saving for a down payment on a home — and determine what percentage of your dual income you'll allocate toward those goals.

"You won't get all five of your things — it's a negotiation," he says. "But once you figure out your top priorities, it's easier to cut back on the things that don't matter as much."

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2. Give each other financial freedom

To avoid fights about who is buying what, come up with an arrangement that takes some pressure off spending on things you want. "A lot of people find that a yours, mine, and ours approach works for them," says Ted Rossman, an analyst at CreditCards.com. For many couples, he says, that means divvying up your monthly income into separate accounts, with a joint account for major expenses and individual accounts for discretionary stuff.

If you take a more merged approach with your accounts, setting no-questions-asked spending limits can work, too, he says. "Maybe you have to talk about expenditures if they go over $100. Maybe it's $500."

These kinds of rules should apply even in a household where only one person is earning a salary, Rossman adds. "You don't want the stay-at-home parent to feel like the other is their boss," he says. "Carving out some kind of fun money for each member of the household is really important."

3. Don't keep secrets

Making purchases without discussing them and hiding debt from your partner both fall under the umbrella of financial infidelity, which is a common problem for young couples. Half (51%) of millennials admitted to having told their partner financial fibs, according to a recent survey from CreditCards.com.

To keep each other honest, have regular financial check-ins with your partner, says Rossman. "These don't have to be big, formal, and scary," he says. "You can just check in about your expenses and your progress toward your goals."

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When it comes to debt, it's best to be upfront at the beginning of the relationship, says Rossman. "Once you're married, your debt becomes intertwined. For better or worse, you're in it together," he says. "We've all heard the horror stories about couples who have gotten married only to find out that one of them had $100,000 in debt. That can lead to a lot of bad feelings."

If you have been hiding aspects of your financial life from your partner, it's time to come clean and get yourself on the right track. Klontz recommends a four-step process that follows the acronym SAFE:

  • Speak your truth: Tell your partner what you've done and let them express their feelings about your behavior.
  • Agreement: Put a strategy in place (like the ones discussed above) that can help curb this behavior.
  • Fidelity: Stick to the plan by checking in with one another. Make sure it's working for both of you, and make adjustments if it's not.
  • Emergency plan: If one of you slips up, have a solution ready to go, such as seeing a couples counselor.

Regardless of the source of your financial disagreements, understand that you're not the only couple out there having these issues, says Klontz.

"Everyone feels bad about this stuff, but it's actually really common," he says. "It's unusual for people to be on the same page about everything financially. Just try not to spend your time convincing the other person that you're right."

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