How to Get on the Same Financial Page as a Couple

Starting with knowing where your significant other is coming from and why can help you address your money differences as a couple.

A young couple sit on the floor in front of their sofa and look at a laptop together.
(Image credit: Getty Images)

In elementary school, we learned that opposites attract and had fun seeing that principle in action as we played with magnets in science class. The same level of delight is often experienced when we meet someone who is different from us — the further they are from our end of the spectrum, the more interesting we find them. What we do not expect is the challenge that presents in our approach to finances. Everyone has their own views and tendencies surrounding money, some innate and some learned. Understanding each other is paramount to a couple’s success in this area, and the discipline of behavioral finance is the key.

What is behavioral finance? Investopedia defines behavioral finance as “an area of study focused on how psychological influences can affect market outcomes.” But it is more than that. Have you perhaps wondered why one person is aggressive in their investments, while another is conservative? Or why one is a spender and one a saver? These behaviors, among others, are innate and come from our experience with money, stemming from our childhood.

The way we make financial decisions, our spending habits and even our goal motivations are all driven by automatic behavioral biases, such as herd following (mimicking the financial behaviors of the majority) or familiarity bias (such as investing in what you know). This does not mean that we always behave in the same way. Indeed, education, experience, environment and different situations will cause us to act differently from our “hard wiring,” but that natural side of us never leaves.

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The key is to understand it so we can work from our strengths and remain aware of our blind spots. In order to achieve a happy and healthy partnership, it is equally important to have insight into those of our significant other.

How perspectives and priorities can differ

As a wealth manager, I serve many couples who come to the table with extremely different perspectives on money. There are many different ways in which your financial perspectives and priorities can differ. Here are just a few:

Relationships vs. information. A person who is oriented toward relationships will want to focus on a balanced life, keep the conversation easygoing and maintain flexibility, whereas another will have a great need for details, logic, structure and rules. This difference is seen in the overall approach to financial planning.

While not always the case, an individual geared toward relationships can sometimes focus more on the present than the future, not giving as much attention to how current spending, for instance, affects the long-term plan. Conversely, one focused on details and structure can get buried in analysis and have difficulty moving forward with investment decisions.

Desire to delegate vs. desire to control. When one wants to delegate everything to a third party, like a financial adviser, and the other wants to maintain control, decisions can become one-sided. The person who wants to delegate to the adviser may abdicate to the partner and withdraw from the financial planning process altogether.

It is always optimal for both individuals to be fully aware of their financial circumstances and have an equal voice in decision making. Too often, a surviving spouse finds themselves ill-equipped to navigate the details of the couple's financial landscape or, worse, learns that there are not enough assets to carry them through the rest of their lives.

Desire to spend vs. desire to budget. This is one of the most common causes of friction between couples, especially if there is also a desire to spend on lifestyle items. Lifestyle spending does not necessarily mean an extravagant lifestyle, although it can. However, something as simple as buying coffee on the way to work every day is a lifestyle spending decision that may quickly deplete the budget.

If it is important to one spouse and not the other, one may feel that his or her needs are unimportant. The same is true for everything from date nights to vacations to where you choose to live.

Content vs. ambitious. When one person has ambitious goals, and the other is bent toward contentment, it can be interpreted as a lack of concern for the future. Neither is right and neither is wrong, but this can be another form of financial conflict in the relationship, especially if one partner is bringing in significantly more money than the other.

Impulsive vs. planned. From a spending standpoint, this simply means impulse spending vs. following a set budget. From an investment standpoint, making emotional decisions as markets ebb and flow typically leads to a loss of assets more often than staying the course.

Conservative vs. aggressive. The issue of risk tolerance (the degree of risk an investor is willing to endure) can be challenging to navigate when creating an investment strategy. It is not sufficient to simply implement a moderately aggressive portfolio, because then neither party will be served well. One will worry about market volatility, while the other will be worried about missing out on growth.

It is best to begin with agreed-upon goals and let the plan dictate the strategy. Also of note is the difference between risk tolerance and the propensity for taking chances. Occasionally, I see a client who has a high propensity for risk but a low tolerance for living with losses, further illustrating the need for self-awareness.

What you can do to manage differences

In the above examples — and in virtually every interaction — communication is key. Coming to an understanding of how each person was raised and what their experiences are with money will empower you to celebrate your differences and enable you to work together on your financial plan, rather than work against each other.

As Valentine’s Day approaches, consider what you can do to enhance your financial relationship with your partner. Begin with self-awareness (get your complimentary natural behavior profile here) and be ready to embrace your unique profile. Be open to accepting feedback from your partner about your blind spots. Last but not least, consider working with a financial adviser who is well-versed in the discipline of behavioral finance.

Securities offered through LPL Financial, member FINRA/SIPC. Investment advice offered through Merit Financial Group, LLC, an SEC registered investment adviser. Merit Financial Group, LLC and Merit Financial Advisors, are separate entities from LPL Financial. The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual.

Kelly Gallimore is solely an investment advisor representative of Merit Financial Advisors and not affiliated with LPL Financial. Any opinions or views expressed by Kelly Gallimore are his/her own and are not those of LPL Financial. This information is not intended to be a substitute for individualized legal advice. Please consult your legal advisor regarding your specific situation.

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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.

Kelly Gallimore, ChFC®, CES®
Wealth Manager, Merit Financial Advisors

In July 2021, Kelly joined Merit Financial Advisors, bringing 19 years of experience in the financial services industry, as well as human resources and team development. A student of Behavioral Finance, she incorporates various tools to provide insight into clients’ own financial views and how their innate strengths and struggles can influence decision-making and ultimate success in reaching goals. In addition to traditional tenants of wealth management, Kelly specializes in estate planning and administration, guiding families as they consider personal and financial legacies.