In the 1960s-era suburban landscape where I spent my formative years, the atmosphere was much less structured than it is today. If we kids wanted to see our friends, it was routine for us to run to their homes, open the back screen doors and stroll right in.
But if their parents were fighting, as wasn’t uncommon, we beat a hasty exit out that same rear portal. With the potential of pots and pans and anything not nailed down being picked up and flung, you wanted to be elsewhere, and quick. To do otherwise was to risk stopping a flying coffee mug with your ear.
It was right around age eight or nine that I came to realize all wasn’t peaches and cream between married couples. The enclave sometimes reverberated with shouted oaths and bellowed accusations between two folks who had a few years earlier posed happily for photos, slicing into a multi-tiered cake.
Now they were throwing cake, and pastramis, and canned sardines.
What were most of those arguments, debates and battles royale about? In this fast-paced world, where change seems to come ever more rapidly, it’s comforting to know they were about the same thing couples argue about today: Money, of course.
One night, I was staying over at a friend’s house when his parents arrived home after a party where too many cocktails had been served. I’ll never forget us listening furtively to the row that played out downstairs between his mom and dad. The only line I recall decades later? “That was a $300 set!” one shouted.
A set of what? Didn’t matter, it was 300 smackers. My friend and I never learned what the set was. His parents were too busy applying ice bags to their craniums and avoiding sunlight the next morning to say.
My feisty Valentine
With Valentine’s Day soon upon us, it’s the right time to statistically verify this tendency for couples to duke it out over cash. A recent Fidelity Investments survey of couples with yearly total incomes of at least $75,000 or investment assets of at least $100,000 revealed almost four in ten couples fight about money occasionally or often, and about one in seven never resolves those debates.
There are big knock-down-drag-outs over retirement. For instance, almost a third of couples fail to see eye to eye on whether they will continue to work during traditional retirement years. Four in ten say they spar over what kind of lifestyle they can expect to experience in their post-work lives.
Just slightly more than one in three say they can’t decide where they will live in retirement, which as we know is usually influenced by financial assets.
One of the reasons married people often come to loggerheads with their spouses is the tendency not to be equal partners when it comes to personal finance decisions. Only 43 percent of couples in the Fidelity Investments survey reported being equal partners when it comes to retirement savings.
For instance, more than one in five (21 percent) of wives said they had only some or no input in daily money matters, and only 17 percent reported having a primary role in retirement planning. By contrast, 39 percent of men reported they had the primary role in preparations for the golden years.
The better news is that nearly one in four women now report being the primary financial decision makers in their marriages. By comparison, it was just 15 percent the last time Fidelity conducted the survey, in 2011.
More than money
Is there any hope for those instances when money issues turn lovebirds into angry birds? It is possible to resolve money disputes, says Kathleen Burns Kingsbury, author of the book “How to Give Financial Advice to Couples.” First, though, the factors underpinning marital money beefs must be grasped. Money squabbles, she says, are rarely just about money. They are really about the individuals’ personal feelings about security, power, respect and love.
Next, it’s essential to realize that in many marriages, couples come into the union with very different “money beliefs,” Kingsbury says.
“A money belief is a thought or attitude toward money that influences your savings, spending, investing and gifting every day,” she continues. “These beliefs tend to reside in our unconscious thought. Because we live in a society where money talk is taboo, we often don’t identify these attitudes.”
Money beliefs are generally formed between the ages of five and 15 while watching parents interact with greenbacks. So they are often oversimplified. After all, Kingsbury says, “They were formed in a child’s mind.”
Recognizing arguments over money are about more than cash is one step to more harmonious couplings and fewer money arguments. In addition, talking about each other’s money beliefs and acknowledging that neither one is wrong, but just different, can help people actually learn more about their partners and develop stronger, healthier and more open relationships, according to Kingsbury.
So next time you argue about retirement savings, whether to invest in index funds or ETFs, whether to go after zero-percent APR credit cards or a high-interest savings account and how much each spouse should be bringing home, try talking calmly and frankly about each spouse’s money beliefs.
It’s much safer than hurling a blender.