Couples and Money Wars


When couples fight about money, it is often a much deeper argument than about who bought an iPad or designer shoes.

Granted it sometimes may be as simple as, “We just can’t afford it” or “Our credit card bills are out of sight.” But when the arguments reach potential divorce proportions, it becomes about priorities and values.

Let’s start with the obvious. We do not want someone to spend money on a love interest outside the relationship because that is financial betrayal and economic adultery. But even within the family there can be priority battles: does my mother or your father get subsidized monthly? Do our children go to college even at the cost of our secure retirement? Do we sacrifice our present in order to leave money to our children in the future or even our favorite charities, or do we only give away what we do not need?

Even more importantly, how do we define what we really need? For one person, the answer may be three country clubs and two homes and a yacht. For another, everything above the basics is frivolous or too self-indulgent.

There are no wrong answers to the questions of wants and needs, but it is difficult when two people would answer the questions differently and fight to the death of the relationship over the rightness of their particular answer. What is really interesting is that short of divorce, how do you actually stop or at least control what you feel are the economic excesses of someone you love?

There is, of course, the old shame game, but usually accusations and guilt do not breed love. “We really have to talk” sessions may work for awhile, but if someone fundamentally disagrees with your saving or spending philosophy, those talks are going to get more and more heated and less and less effective. You can put your head down, put on some blinders and just look forward and hope that your partner does not crash both of you into the economic wall, but that is a stressful way to live!

The best solution really does lie in communication and compromise…and no lies! As divorce lawyers, we have seen prospective divorcing couples successfully solve their money wars. Here are some of their solutions:

  1. Full Disclosure. What we have, what we owe, what we want, what we love and what we dream are all important parts of who we are. If we cannot be economically naked with the ones we love, then something is wrong. And revealing even to ourselves what we would do if money were no object – whether it be world travel or world peace or something else – is an important exercise.

Respectful Resolution. Since there are no right or wrong answers about how we save or spend money (though obviously some choices seem more admirable than others), the next alternative is to put all our options “on the table.” Talk through the pros and cons of a vacation versus a club membership versus IRA’s or a cruise or remodeling or support for your favorite relative or charity. Usually what people find is that some “deal” can be reached where neither spouse or partner is perfectly happy but feel heard and respected.

  1. Occasional Tune-ups. No matter what the first round of money decisions was, times change, people change and their priorities and even their loves change. Everyone gets more sentimental about his or her alma mater when their children are approaching college age. Most get more conservative as their best earning years seem to be in the rear view mirror; investment opinions ride with the markets. Therefore, the disclosures and choices are never final.
  1. The good news is that a couple can really get through the money wars, identify their financial “loves” and buy themselves financial peace. The bad news is that the money wars are like international disputes and likely to flare up again from time to time in hot moments. However, if a couple has had some practice at economic peace talks, they are less likely to need the radical solution of a divorce division.

About Gemma Allen

Gemma Allen is a partner in Ladden & Allen, Chartered, and has practiced family law for most of her career. Ms. Allen has written more than 50 articles and lectured on topics that include divorce, child support, maintenance, mediation, cohabitation, women and money, and reconciliation. She co-authored The New Love Deal: Everything You Must Know Before Marrying, Moving In, or Moving On! and helps you navigate modern relationships in “Relationship Gems.”