5 Causes of Marital Money Stress (and How to Fix Them)

Financial frustrations can be major sources of tension in any marriage. Here are some practical tips and strategies to work through the most common money issues together.

(Image credit: Skip ODonnell)

Are you and your spouse burdened by financial stress?

You’re not alone. According to Marriage.com, money fights are the second-leading cause of divorce, behind infidelity. Below are the main culprits of money tension in couples and strategies to fix them.

1. Money temperament.

Are you naturally inclined to spend, save or give money away to charity? Money personalities emerge in childhood. My oldest son is not quite 10 years old, and I am already aware of his money personality: spender. It doesn’t matter where we are. He will find something he wants to purchase, and it is my job as a saver to remind him of wants versus needs.

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When you self-identify as a saver and your spouse identifies as spender (or vice versa), relationship friction will likely ensue. People who are naturally inclined to spend are not bad people. It is simply how they are wired. Gently reminding your spouse of long-term goals versus short-term desires is more helpful than yelling after he or she makes another frivolous purchase.

The Solution: Love. When different money temperaments cause conflict, remember why you fell in love in the first place. You were attracted to your spouse for a reason and must have had some inclination of his or her spending habits prior to tying the knot. Honor and celebrate the wonderful aspects of your mate’s personality rather than looking for flaws.

2. Secrecy.

If you have a bad habit, do you want to bring it to the forefront? No. According to CreditCards.com, about 20% of Americans in a committed relationship have spent more than $500 without telling their significant other. Additionally, 6% of surveyed couples have a hidden bank account or credit card. Sexual infidelity is often cited as THE leading cause of divorce, but what about financial infidelity?

The Solution: Communicate. Engage in open, honest conversations about money on a regular basis. It becomes far easier to hide something when there is no built-in accountability. It will become much more difficult for your spouse to hide a credit card charge or open a new account if you are having weekly money talks.

Regular meetings with your spouse are encouraged by most marital therapists, and they needn’t revolve around money all the time. In Marriage Meetings for Lasting Love, author Marcia Naomi Berger highlights four basic steps to a successful meeting: 1) express appreciation, 2) coordinate chores, 3) plan for good times, and 4) resolve issues. Berger suggests that couples begin with at least three meetings that skip the fourth step (resolving issues) so that you can focus on the positive aspects of marriage.

Once you are ready to incorporate resolving issues into your weekly meeting, remember to lead with step 1: appreciation. You could reinforce your enthusiasm for your spouse’s wise spending decision or express gratitude that your spouse monitors the family budget each week. Discuss any money conflicts at the end of the meeting along with other issues.

3. Debt.

When two young people marry, it is typical for the couple to have some level of debt. Student loans, credit card balances and car payments are common. Problems are likely to form when one spouse carries significantly more debt than the other. However, it’s not all doom and gloom. I have witnessed success when one spouse carries loads of student loan debt and the other spouse has none, as long as the mindset is right. Both spouses come together and craft a budget where they can still save for retirement while aggressively paying down student loan principal.

The stickier situation happens when one spouse cannot adhere to a budget and accrues credit card debt. Frugality, or living below your financial means, is essential if you want to build long-term wealth as a married couple.

The Solution: Empathize. Your spouse is not perfect. Acknowledge that we are all flawed and sometimes make mistakes. A person deeply in debt may have a money mindset issue that she cannot tackle alone. If your spouse’s spending habits (relative to your family’s earnings) are out of control, consider working with a money coach who can help him overcome mindset challenges. Money coaches replace their client’s limiting beliefs with thoughts of abundance.

4. Earnings disparity.

Farnoosh Torabi’s book When She Makes More highlights the challenges faced by couples when the traditional gender stereotype in a heterosexual couple is reversed and a woman earns more than her husband. If the marriage began in a conventional manner (i.e., the husband earned more than the wife), it’s especially hard for married couples to navigate a time when the wife out-earns her husband. Reversing roles in the middle of marriage could make a man question his masculinity, leading to feelings of shame and regret.

On the other extreme, assume you have a stay-at-home mom and a father who is the sole breadwinner. The wife might feel bad “asking” for money that she didn’t technically earn — even though both spouses agreed that this arrangement would be most successful for the family.

The Solution: Consolidate. Shift to joint checking and savings accounts if you have historically held separate bank accounts. Not only is this easier from an estate planning perspective, but it also allows you to budget as a family unit.

One of my first client families maintained separate accounts. The husband had relatively low living expenses and thus was able to contribute more to savings — even though he had a smaller salary. The wife earned nearly double but saved less. When they consolidated into a joint account, it changed the landscape of their finances dramatically. Both of them had a common vision for the future, and she eventually transitioned to a part-time role, earning less than him. They made massive progress to pay off student loan debt, all while welcoming their first child.

For those couples with joint accounts already, take a deeper look at your household budget. Identify areas where you can increase income, decrease nonessential expenses, or both. This is an excellent time to discuss your individual values and uncover shared values that will influence joint purchasing decisions.

5. Life gets expensive as your family expands.

The average cost to raise one child from birth to age 17 exceeds $230,000, according to a 2017 report from the Department of Agriculture. That excludes the cost of college. Raising three children will be more expensive than raising one child. Period. Prior to marriage, many of us spend money on things we want or need with little regard for others. When we get married and have children, our priorities must shift. We should consider the best interest of family members, and that may entail a personal sacrifice.

Or, let’s suppose your mother moves into your home for health reasons and you must quit your job or reduce working hours to care for her. Not only has your income decreased, but your family’s overall living expenses have also increased.

The Solution: Be Prepared. Before you have another child, discuss potential financial implications. Will one of you need to reduce hours at work? How will you jointly manage the expense increase and simultaneous income decrease? Also, assess your parents’ and in-laws’ financial stability. Will a parent need to move into your home for health or financial reasons? Waiting to have the discussion until the baby is born or a parent moves may be detrimental to your marriage. Plan ahead.

Forge a New Path

Regardless of prior or current financial mistakes, you and your spouse are worthy of a brighter future. With these suggested strategies, you are equipped to forge a new path — but we’ve only scratched the surface. Read my book Redefining Family Wealth: A Parent’s Guide to Purposeful Living for step-by-step guidance on building a financial plan in alignment with your personal values.


This article was written by and presents the views of our contributing adviser, not the Kiplinger editorial staff. You can check adviser records with the SEC or with FINRA.

Deborah L. Meyer, CPA/PFS, CFP®
CEO, WorthyNest LLC

Deborah L. Meyer, CFP®, CPA/PFS, CEPA and AFCPE® Member, is the award-winning author of Redefining Family Wealth: A Parent’s Guide to Purposeful Living. Deb is the CEO of WorthyNest®, a fee-only, fiduciary wealth management firm that helps Christian parents and Christian entrepreneurs across the U.S. integrate faith and family into financial decision-making. She also provides accounting, exit planning and tax strategies to family-owned businesses through SV CPA Services