Want to ruin a perfectly good evening with your significant other or spouse? Try striking up a conversation on your household budget or spending priorities. For many, the results can be like when a character in an old Looney Tunes cartoon throws a match on a box of fireworks.
Why is money such a difficult topic for couples? The answer isn’t surprising to those who study human behavior. Money and financial issues tend to put us under stress. We’re worried about not having enough money, not knowing if we have enough, not knowing what to do with it, fear of losing it, and so many other things, that money is for most a sure-fire on ramp to the highway of stress.
Stress matters because when we are put under stress or pressure, we tend to revert to our instinctive, hard-wired behavior. It triggers that part of our brain called the amygdala, which governs our “fight or flight” behavior – what we do when we’re under stress.
It’s a mistake to assume that we all approach money the same way and view it through the same lens. And doing just that is the most common reason couples tend to fight about money. We all have unique financial behaviors that are based on a combination of our instinctive, hard-wired behavior, most of which is set by age 3, and our learned behavior that is based on experiences from around ages 3 through 15.
When a money issue causes conflict, it’s most often due to differences in our behavior, not the actual dollars and cents involved. Put it down to our tendency to see the world through our own lens and assume others approach things the same way.
Here’s how this unique behavior comes into play. Let’s say your spouse tends by nature to be strongly inclined to seek out new ideas and to take on financial risks others might find unacceptable, whereas you personally value security first and foremost and aren’t quite so aggressive. When it comes time to buy a house or to discuss a common investment, your spouse may be up for taking a risk on a fixer upper in a neighborhood that has been described as being “in transition” whereas you are dead set on the neighborhood that has the best schools and historically steady property value appreciation. Neither of you is “right” in an objective sense, but it sure feels like you are right and they are wrong, doesn’t it?
Knowing why your spouse or significant other behaves the way he or she does is the first step toward de-escalating the tension and conflict around money conversations. When you understand and accept that you’re coming at the issue with a unique point of view, it’s easier to anticipate the differences in your reactions to money issues and to find ways to better communicate. And you may find it easier to strike compromises as a result of feeling understood and understanding your spouse.
 Hugh Massie, Financial DNA, (Hoboken, Wiley & Sons, 2006) p 126
 Hugh Massie, Financial DNA, (Hoboken, Wiley & Sons, 2006) pp 37-39
Ready to take some action? Here are three steps you might find helpful in improving your conversations on financial issues:
- Know thyself: Take a behavioral profiling assessment and have your spouse or significant other do the same. I use one from DNA Behavior and find it to be of immense help both to myself and to clients when it comes to understanding their natural behavioral differences.
- Don’t judge: Talk about your differences without assuming you’re right. No one has a “superior” natural behavior when it comes to money, in part because strong behavioral characteristics tend to have both positive and negative elements to them. For example, your iron stomach for risk may allow you to whether storms in the market while sleeping like a baby, but it may also lead you to take on more risk than you need to in order to reach your goals.
- Modify your approach: When you encounter a money issue you need to talk about, first remind yourself of the lens through which your spouse or significant other sees things. The more you can both modify your communication style, the better the conversation is going to go.
Understanding your own behavior and the differences between yourself and your spouse is a great place to start finding common ground in your financial decisions. It’s not easy to be aware of what we’re doing in these conversations and to keep in mind the perspective your significant other, but you may find that putting some effort into this makes a real difference for you.
Please remember that if you have broader issues in communicating with your spouse you should consider engaging the help of a licensed professional such as a marriage and family therapist (MFT), licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) or psychologist who specializes in couples counseling. You certainly should share your behavioral profiles with your financial planner so that she or he can develop recommendations not just based on what he or she sees on the surface, but on the whole of you. And while we can help you work on a common vision for your financial future, we aren’t certified mental health professionals.
About this post:
Fifteen years ago, I was fortunate to meet up with Hugh Massie, the founder of DNA Behavior. At that time, his was a young company that had developed the first profiling tool that was designed to help investors understand their own hard-wired behavior and how it influenced their financial behavior specifically. I spent a lot of time on the road with Hugh as we worked on educational seminars for financial advisors and was fortunate to have the opportunity to learn more about financial behavior from him. The concepts I address in this post are based on what I’ve learned from working with Hugh and the research he and his company have done in this space.