Whether you’re deep in credit card debt or on the road to early retirement, you’ve probably spent time worrying about money.
A study from the American Psychological Association found that money is the leading cause of stress for Americans, which could have a significant impact on an individual’s health.
Also, nearly a third of adults with partners say money is a major source of conflict in their relationship.
Read more: 30 easy ways to make extra money each month
How money can wreck a relationship
For some perspective, we turned to Dr. Andrea Bonior, a licensed clinical psychologist and psychology professor who has spent more than 15 years helping people live their best lives.
She wrote an entire book that takes an in-depth look at why people do what they do.
When it comes to money and relationships, Dr. Bonior says there are five things that can cause the most trouble, but there are also strategies to resolve these issues without breaking up.
1. Financial infidelity
When you hear the word infidelity, you likely think of sexual infidelity in the form of having an affair.
However, financial infidelity can be just as devastating to a marriage or relationship, and it’s much more common than many people imagine.
“A financial betrayal can often start off small and seem meaningless at first, like claiming that certain items were on sale when they weren’t, or dipping a little into the joint savings account to pay off a purchase that you didn’t mention,” Bonior said. “Over time, though, trust begins to erode, and both partners may become suspicious and uneasy, no longer working toward the same goals.”
Ask yourself this:
- Do you routinely use deceptive means to hide purchases, like stashing shopping bags somewhere before your partner sees them?
- Do you have debt that your partner doesn’t know about?
- Have you invested money in risky ventures, co-signed on a loan or lent a large amount of cash to a friend or family member without your spouse knowing about it?
“You may think it’s easier to keep it under wraps, but if a pattern of secrecy develops, then you threaten the trust and emotional intimacy of your relationship — and you and your partner’s financial security,” Bonior said.
2. ‘Keeping up with the Joneses’ syndrome
A lot of people go into credit card debt in the first place because they’re not honest with themselves about what they can actually afford to buy.
We all know someone who tries to live like a Kardashian on a retail clerk’s salary, right?
These bad spending habits typically develop over time, but they can also creep up when your financial situation has changed — like after a job loss.
“When you’re in a relationship, it’s far too easy to let these habits become solidified, with both people helping the other stay in denial,” said Bonior. “It can come from a place of love — like you don’t want to have to ask your partner to rein in spending on their favorite hobby or scale back a dream vacation — or out of fear of conflict, like worrying they will be angry and defensive if you bring up how you both need to watch the bottom line.”
Bonior also points out that if you’re in a new relationship, there might be embarrassment or fear that your partner won’t stay with you because you can’t afford a lavish lifestyle.
But living beyond your means is never a good idea and could have serious consequences, including bankruptcy.
3. Being too cheap
Some people have the opposite problem and refuse to spend money, even when the purchase is reasonable or justified. This can create tension if you’re a saver and your partner is a spender, or vice versa.
Ask yourself this:
- Do you have unrealistic goals about how little should be spent on household necessities?
- Do you have compulsive anti-spending habits that are extreme enough to cause stress to a partner trying to conform to them?
- Do you judge your partner harshly because they don’t think the same way you do about money?
- Do you threaten or punish your partner, or treat them “less than” or like a child when they don’t follow the rules that you’ve set up and they didn’t even agree to?
“Spenders and savers can exist in harmony, but only if there is a willingness to talk through issues honestly and respectfully, and work toward compromise,” Bonior said. “Even the best financial habits can turn sour when they’re taken to such an extreme that they make it difficult to co-exist with a partner.”
4. Financial jealousy
Like infidelity, the word jealousy is often assumed to be about sex. But jealously over money can wreak havoc as well — whether it’s with a spouse, friend or even a close co-worker.
For example, maybe your partner comes from a wealthy family or is more successful than you.
“When you start feeling yourself being envious or resentful, the temptation will be strong to try to ignore it and hope that it will go away,” Bonior said. “If the difference in your financial situations is persistent, then the feelings are bound to persist as well if you don’t deal with them.”
5. Your money baggage
How honest are you about how your upbringing influenced the spending and saving habits you have to this day? Your core beliefs about money didn’t develop overnight.
Maybe your parents’ obsessive frugality turned you into a rebel and you spend too much.
Perhaps growing up in a situation where food wasn’t certain to be on the table has made you hoard money and live in fear of spending anything at all.
Or maybe you’ve always been brand-obsessed and your kids are the same way.
“If you can’t take a step back and see how some of your habits — for better or for worse — have come to be, it will be much harder to be objective and self-aware when money issues arise, like they do in even the healthiest of relationships,” said Bonior.
How to have difficult conversations about money
Now that we’ve identified some of the issues that can trigger financial stress in your relationship, how do you begin to deal with them in a calm, cool and collected manner?
This can be a difficult conversation to start, but it’s so important that you do it.
In the video below, Dr. Bonior shares her best advice to help you talk about money issues in a way that will not exacerbate the situation that you’re going through.
1. Context matters: Start the conversation at an appropriate time. If you’re really angry in the moment, wait until you cool off!
2. Don’t generalize: If you’re upset about something specific, don’t blow it out of proportion. There’s a big difference between saying “I’ve been upset about your spending” versus “You’ve never been able to save money.”
3. Think about feelings: Start the conversation with an “I” message instead of saying “you,” which immediately puts your partner on the defensive because they feel like they’re being attacked.
- I have been feeling upset…
- I have been feeling scared…
- I have been feeling anxious…
- I have been feeling angry…
4. Be willing to compromise: Before you start a conversation about money with your partner, brainstorm some possible solutions to the problem.
5. Listen: When you’re done speaking, listen. A lot of people know exactly what they want to say, but they’re not prepared to truly listen in the difficult conversations. Both sides should feel like they’re being heard.