Stop arguing, start talking about money!

Author: Elly Prior | First published: 24-06-2012 | Modified: 24-10-2017

How do you manage your finances as a couple? Do the two of you argue about money? I've found that if a couple argues about money, they often have issues around sex and control.  

So, who tends to make all the decisions in your relationship?
Who is in charge or in control?
And are your values and beliefs around money so different that you're considering breaking up?

I'm really hoping that I can help you gain some clarity so that you can perhaps have a more fruitful conversation about your financial affairs with your partner.

Credit cards and dollars

What are both your attitudes towards money?

To begin to deal with financial infidelity in your marriage, you need to figure out a baseline. What is your - and what is your spouse's - attitude towards money?

  • You're financially intelligent, you make money work for you. You plan to make as much money as you can.
  • You have back-up plans, savings and/or investments. You're on top of your spending. You get stressed if you receive unexpected bills.
  • You live for today... you manage, but you worry about the future and there isn't much money left (if any) by the end of the month.
  • Your 'pink' zone covers the bills, you spend as you like, you have no sight of your overall financial status and you don't want to know. You borrow from Peter to pay Paul.

There's only one way to begin to deal with the differences - you need to talk! Only by openly and honestly communicating about your joint and individual financial needs and wants will you manage to avoid the divorce courts.

Communicating about money

Through my experience as a professional couple counsellor, I've found that even the most seemingly 'together' couples can still find it difficult to communicate about money. They may have no trouble talking about any other subject, but avoid talking about their finances until there's some sort of a financial crisis.

Not talking about the state of your finances may not seem much of problem if...

  • Each of your incomes is sufficient to provide financial stability for you as a couple. You've agreed that you can each do what you like, without having to worry about what your partner thinks of your spending
  • Your wealth and/or monthly income is roughly equal at the start of a more formal commitment to each other. Again, you can enjoy your financial independence
  • Both of you have reasonably similar values and beliefs about money - you can simply take it for granted that you think alike. You're also likely to trust your partner's decisions about what the money is spent on
  • Your families have no strong opinions about - or a say in - how you manage your finances

However, all that can change. There may be a slow increase in irritations about your expenditures, or perhaps a sudden change in your circumstances. Either way the result will be that you'll have to deal with money problems in your relationship.

A turn in fortunes

A shift in your circumstances that has an impact on your financial stability can suddenly throw up a whole new set of relationship challenges which you may not have been prepared for.

Here are some examples of the kind of changes you may well face during the life-time of your relationship or marriage. Any of these will have an impact on your household budget:

10 Ways your financial situation might change

  1. You're planning to take out a significant loan, such as a mortgage
  2. One of you becomes unemployed or is made redundant
  3. One or both of you retires
  4. One of you becomes a stay-at-home mum or dad
  5. One of you becomes (financially) dependent on the other due to ill-health
  6. One of you stands to inherit a - for you - significant sum/assets
  7. An increase in costs means your money runs out before the end of the month
  8. You're beginning to rob Peter to pay Paul
  9. One of you wants (or needs) to make a large personal purchase requiring joint funds, say to pay for a course, help build a business, to buy a car, etc
  10. One of you suddenly receives a large sum of money, for example an inheritance

These kinds of circumstances can lead to a complete shift in the dynamics of a couple relationship. For example, a partner who loses their own income can suddenly feel very vulnerable.  I've seen the most assertive and eloquent individuals in distress because they had no idea how to talk to their partner about their fears.

Money, relationship problems and advice

Your household budget - and in particular debt - can be a huge source of marital strife. Of course it doesn't matter if you're married or not - if the two of you are in a committed relationship and one of you has a debt that can no longer be serviced, it's likely to cause both of you considerable stress.

A personal debt may be manageable as long as there's enough money in the kitty whilst both of you contribute to the general household pot in an agreed way. However, if your circumstances change and/or you're secretive about your personal financial affairs, there's potential for the two of you to fall out over money.

Therefore there's every reason to learn to talk about money early in your relationship and be able to discuss all aspects of your financial affairs.

If you can have these conversations about your finances regularly, in a non-judgemental and calm manner, you're very likely to be able to come to a suitable arrangement when you hit a rough patch.

It's therefore best to start talking early - when all is well - just to get into the habit and to get to know and understand each other's attitude towards money.

Ducking debts?

If you're in debt now and you're no longer managing to keep up with your payments, please trust me when I say it's not a good idea to stick your head in the sand. I so want you to deal with the problem as soon as you can... I'd hate the idea that your financial problems and the stress that comes with them is going add an unnecessary burden to your relationship.

I really hope that the two of you can work together on sorting it all out. Blaming each other isn't going to resolve the problem. It'll only lead to defensiveness and secrecy, and is just a waste of your precious energy.

Money issues in relationships

Financial issues can be really tricky to discuss in a relationship. The reason is that it's tied up with our sense of security. So, you might find it helpful to read my page on Relationship Communication first.

It'll help if you're able to talk about difficult subjects in general, so that you can be a little more prepared for a tricky conversation about your finances.

Next you need to know - and be able to verbalise - what your specific concerns are exactly.  Statements like: "You're spending too much" or "I don't like your attitude" will only lead to your partner wanting to defend themselves. Before you know it, you'll be arguing about money yet again and nothing will get resolved.

So, what is it that you're worried about? Are you worried that your partner is...

... simply 'wasting' money
... overspending on the credit card
... generally 'frittering' money away

Or is there something else worrying you?

To help you out with this, let me give you some examples of what may be underlying your fears:

  • You're feeling insecure because you're not (or are no longer) financially independent
  • You're feeling insecure because of a major crisis in your relationship - such as your partner having an affair
  • Your job is no longer secure
  • You suspect or know that you're contributing more to the household bills than your partner
  • Your collective debts are getting out of control
  • You're no longer able to service your personal debts

When you can verbalise exactly what your concerns are about your finances, you can start to think about possible solutions...

4 Strategies to help avoid arguments about money

Before having a conversation with your partner you need to think about what you consider to be the best solution. Bear in mind this needs to be one that leaves room to negotiate.  

At the same time, do remember that you can't change your partner, so try not to control him or her. Instead, present a sensible argument and let him/her mull it over and come up with some ideas of their own.

Here are a few examples of strategies that might help you both to manage your finances better:

  1. Have separate bank accounts as well as a joint account with direct debits for all the regular bills
  2. If you're a stay-at-home mum or dad, calculate your contribution to the general well-being of your family in terms of money and get a regular payment to reflect that
  3. If the two of you have been able to build up some savings, you may want to split that amount. You could make some of that available by way of individual saving accounts, rather than just one joint account
  4. Agree on the areas you both feel you can commit to spending less on. (One of the best and most fun Christmases I've had was when we agreed to spend no more than £10 on each other and buy as many presents as possible!)

Totally freaked out about your financial situation at the moment? Have a look at Marie Forleo's video - she has some great tips to help you feel calm and in control:

Does your partner know all there is to know about your personal finances? Or are you secretly squirrelling money away for a future 'project'? 

Are you totally open and honest with your partner? Or are you - for whatever reason - withholding information about your finances?

7 kinds of financial dishonesty 

  1. Secretly saving because you're planning to end the relationship
  2. Spending more money on yourself than you care to admit
  3. Spending money on 'another' man or woman
  4. Securing your future financially because you're concerned that your partner is spending too much
  5. Creating a 'safety net' because you worry your partner may be leaving you
  6. Not disclosing how wealthy you really are
  7. Getting more and more into debt without telling your partner

Ideally you should be honest and upfront, so that the two of you can openly discuss your finances. Financial infidelity is devastating when it's discovered - your partner can rightfully think you've been leading a secret life.

You may get away with it for a while, but the chances are that he or she will find you out. At some point things will just not add up, with suspicions about either your behaviour or the finances themselves.

Your partner might become suspicious because of...

  • a chance comment from someone
  • a 'hidden' receipt a strange entry on a bank statement
  • a suspicious email or letter that doesn't make sense
  • an accumulation of 'stuff' that just doesn't add up

Your partner will most likely go on the hunt until they find sufficient evidence to confirm their suspicions. The discovery of your 'omissions' or outright lies will never come at a convenient moment!

Are you the victim of your partner or spouse's financial infidelity?

Financial infidelity can potentially be just as devastating as any other type of cheating, including adultery.

However, there's another layer of suffering when your partner has lied about money. Depending on the amount of money involved, it can jeopardise your emotional well-being as well as your financial security, which is even more worrisome if you have children.

Clearly, I'm not qualified to give you financial advice. But in this article, I'm going to help you understand the emotional impact of your partner cheating on you with money. I'm also aiming to help you to get back some control over the situation, because I so understand how out of control, scared and angry you must feel.

So, why am I interested in financial infidelity?

How finances are linked to other aspects of your relationship

I know, from my professional experience, that money, sex and control are often linked. Sex and managing finances both require an ability to control, maintain, negotiate - and having respect for - your own and each other's boundaries. When these boundaries are absent or insecure, you'll find yourself dealing with things such as disagreements around discipline, all sorts of addictions, infidelity, jealousy, domestic violence and sexual problems.

So, let's first see how serious the problem with money is...

What are the signs of financial infidelity?

Discover the extent of your partner's financial dishonesty by answering these questions:

9 Signs of financial infidelity

  1. Has your partner or spouse applied for loans in your name, without your knowledge?
  2. Have you discovered evidence of a secret joint loan, from which they've siphoned off money?
  3. Have you discovered 'secret' credit card accounts?
  4. Have they opened credit card accounts in your name, without your knowledge?
  5. Has he or she made 'secret' purchases on credit cards?
  6. Have they failed to pay bills as agreed?
  7. Have they been saving money without your knowledge? (This may be done in preparation for ending the marriage OR a special treat for you!)
  8. Have they been dishonest about existing assets?
  9. Has your partner or spouse been 'borrowing' from joint savings?

Do you recognise these other signs of financial dishonesty?

There are other types of misdemeanours that can lead to a loss of trust. Here are another few examples which perhaps cannot be strictly classed as financial infidelity, but can nevertheless challenge clarity, honesty and transparency:

  • keeping you short of money if you're a stay-at-home mum or dad or a low earner, but spending liberally themselves
  • secretly spending more than their fair share
  • not allowing you an insight into his/her finances, either tacitly or overtly not disclosing their income

Did you play a role in your financial difficulties?

To what extend the above are a problem to you depends somewhat on:

  • your attitude towards money
  • your values and beliefs
  • your expectations based on your implicit (asking for trouble!) and overt agreements

Maybe you're only too happy for your partner to deal with all your finances because you don't want to be involved. I can totally understand that, if money and numbers are just 'not your thing'. You may not have had any reason to mistrust your partner and/or the two of you may have made what you thought were solid agreements.

There is an inherent problem with this attitude, though.

What if there's a calamity, such as your partner falling ill and becoming unable to attend to the finances; a relationship break-up; heaven-forbid: a death; or one (or both) of you becoming unemployed, etc.?

Under those kinds of unfortunate circumstances you'll probably find it hard to catch up and get a grip of the situation, particularly because your emotions will be all over the place.

Which scenario fits your situation?

The extent of the emotional impact of your partner's financial infidelity depends to a large degree on what state your relationship is in.

Here are just a few different scenarios:

  • you met, fell in love (at least you did) and you were happy to help your new beau out with some debts
  • you're suddenly deeply in debt, with outgoings outweighing income due to unemployment, retirement or death
  • you're slowly slipping into debt, even though you appear to have a reasonable income
  • you at least don't have joint financial obligations such as a mortgage, loan or investment
  • you've been together for a long time, you have children, a mortgage, loans or run a business together
  • you've brought up a family and have finished paying your mortgage
  • you've headed for the divorce courts

You can see how the discovery of financial infidelity would affect you completely differently in each of these situations.

The emotional fall-out is, however, much the same as if your partner had cheated on you with your best friend (see Related Articles) - or anyone else for that matter.

Have you 'helped' your partner to settle their debts?

Financial infidelity may feel even more devastating if you trustingly helped to pay off your partner or spouse's pre-existing debts.

So many people end up feeling ashamed for having allowed themselves to be 'tricked'. They feel 'stupid' and on discovery are often reluctant to seek help from advisers, professional or otherwise.

However, there really is no need for you to beat yourself up. Here's how it might have happened:

  • You fell in love and only when you were smitten and deeply 'into the relationship' did your partner reveal (or you discovered) that they were in debt.
  • Possibly you were already contemplating a future with your partner, and you didn't want the debts to stand in the way of your setting up home together.
  • You decided to clear debts so that you could start with a 'clean slate', perhaps oblivious to the fact that he/she has never been 'good with money'.
  • You were happy enough to 'help out' with big purchases, when your partner actually contributed very little.
  • You may be the victim of a scam

What is your reaction to adversity?

How you actually deal with the discovery, depending on the level deceit and the resultant debt, also depends on how you generally tackle problems in life.

  • Do you tend to blame yourself for everything?
  • Do you feel that everybody is out to get you, and you can't trust anyone?
  • Do you tend to become depressed and anxious under the weight of life's inevitable blows?

OR...

  • Do you accept you mistakes and 'mess ups', act naively at times, neglect to inform yourself fully of all the facts, but then you just learn and move on?
  • Do you simply expect that you're going to survive, however miserable you feel and however hard life feels at the moment?
  • When you look back, are you able to see the positives in adverse situations?

Whatever your usual response to adverse circumstances, it all becomes more complicated when your financial security - and perhaps that of your children - is compromised.

On top of that, you're having to deal with the shock of being so let down by someone you trusted and believed in. The financial infidelity may go hand-in-hand with your partner's adultery, and the knowledge that the other man or woman has had your money spent on them, by the very person you were supposed to be able to trust, can make the emotional turmoil even worse.

All of this is really tough on you and it's completely understandable that life feels pretty rough right now.

So, here is my advice...

5 steps to getting over the shock of discovering your partner has cheated on you with money

  1. Accept that you're going to be in shock - I promise you it won't last. Give it 10 - 14 days and you'll begin to feel a little more in control again of your emotions.
  2. Get help! Speak to someone at your bank, a debt counsellor or a financial adviser. Or talk to an online counsellor at the very least. Don't forget to ask for names and keep a record of who you spoke to, together with dates, what was said and what action was to be taken.
  3. Accept that your partner will also have an emotional fall-out on account of the discovery. Be aware, though, that you may be on different time scales in terms of responding to the crisis. However, you need to communicate. Arguing in itself is not a problem, as long as you come to some understanding and agreement of how to move forward. Have a look at my page on anger management counselling to learn what kinds of responses will impede your ability to have a decent conversation.
  4. Take action as soon as you can - taking into account the time needed to get over the initial shock. Debts only accumulate, with potentially huge consequences for your emotional and marital stability too.
  5. Continue dealing actively with the situation. It's the only way that you'll gain a measure of control (I don't mean abusively 'controlling'!). Having a sense of control over your destiny is an essential emotional need. It is vital for your emotional well-being.

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Related articles

Stop Arguing, Start Talking
How to End a Relationship
Common Relationship Problems

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