What Sparks Money Arguments?
by David Gibson
What do couples argue about most? Money.
Couples argue an average of three times a month about money matters, the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants said May 4 when it released the findings of a March telephone survey of U.S. adults.
It is hardly surprising that financial matters are “the most common source of marital discord” among couples, since, according to the institute, some 55 percent of them “do not set aside time on a regular basis to discuss financial issues.”
For couples, money is “the most volatile topic, ahead of arguments about children, chores, work or friends,” the survey showed.
Why do couples argue about money? Unexpected expenses often spark arguments, it seems. Nearly half of those surveyed said this had happened for them.
Couples also argue over their savings. Apparently concern that their savings are insufficient motivates many such arguments. About one-third of those surveyed reported having this type of argument.
But the principal reason couples argue over money is that they disagree when it comes to distinguishing “needs” or necessities from “wants” or non-necessities. Almost six in 10 adults surveyed said they argue over their “differing opinions of ‘needs’ versus ‘wants.’”
One tip shared with couples by the institute’s Financial Literacy Commission encouraged them “at least once a month, and preferably weekly,” to set time aside “without other distractions to meet about family finances.” Following that advice assures “an ongoing, open dialogue about money” for couples, the commission said.
Jordan Amin, who chairs the commission, called money a “lightning rod for conflict in relationships.” Money is a highly “sensitive topic,” Amin said, and when money is the topic, individuals bring their different perspectives based on past experiences to the discussion.
So it is “critical for couples to communicate openly and regularly about financial matters in order to establish a common language around money and move toward shared goals,” Amin said.
Making Time for Money Talk
I assume no one is shocked to hear that couples in great numbers do not schedule time to discuss their money in peaceful, positive ways, even though it is critical to do so. But when a wife and husband do not carve out time to work together on the financial side of life, the likelihood appears to increase that they will argue about money.
It all reminds me of Mary Carty’s view that money issues basically are inescapable for couples. In her book “PMAT: The Perfect Marriage Aptitude Test” (Glitterati, 2009), Carty said that though spouses attempt to push their money issues into the background, these issues eventually find a way to move “to the forefront.”
Money “plays such a major role in everyday life” that it just makes sense for a couple to take a look “at all details related to money, share their goals and expectations, and work together to create a successful financial plan,” Carty wrote.
Tim Maurer, a journalist who writes on finances, recently suggested that couples might be more willing to work together on a household budget if they thought of the time this requires as quality time to spend alone with each other.
Multitudes of married people find themselves pulled in many directions at once by their commitments to work, the church, the larger community and children’s school activities, Maurer noted in a Forbes column titled “10 Ways Budgeting Saved My Marriage.”
For these people, “adult conversation and genuine collaboration” may tend to be “in short supply.” Working together on a budget could provide not only a rare opportunity for a couple to converse as adults but also to work together, Maurer proposed.
Secrecy and Hidden Purchases
A money problem in marriage that I rarely hear discussed is the temptation of some spouses to hide purchases and financial decisions from each other. This problem comes front and center, however, in the AICPA’s survey report.
The survey revealed that “three in 10 adults who are married or living with a partner” either made purchases without first talking with their spouses or hid purchases from their spouses.
In addition, 7 percent of these adults kept silent about “an unexpected financial gain, such as a work bonus,” and 4 percent took “a significant sum from a joint account without” first talking it over with the other person.
These actions were described in the survey report as “potentially deceitful.” At the same time, it highlighted the reality that a significant majority of those surveyed, 70 percent, had “not engaged in any of these” secret behaviors.
Finally, while the survey found that married adults between the ages of 45 and 54 argue a little more often than others, it also indicated that 37 percent of married seniors “do not argue” with each other at all.
About the author
David Gibson served for 37 years on the editorial staff at Catholic News Service, where he was the founding and long-time editor of Origins, CNS Documentary Service. David received a bachelor’s degree from St. John’s University in Minnesota and an M.A. in religious education from The Catholic University of America. Married for 38 years, he and his wife have three adult daughters and six grandchildren.