Marriage counselors often say that the things that cause the most stress for young marrieds are sex, money, and the in-laws. But as time goes by, and especially when retirement looms, money problems tend to jump into the top spot in the marital strife department. It’s one thing to have misunderstandings about spending when both spouses are working and earning salaries, but in retirement, when spending control can be crucial, these “misunderstandings” can trigger all-out war – and, too often, lead to divorce court.
If you (or someone you know) have a spouse who over-spends, this article we found earlier this year on the Kiplinger website might provide some helpful food for thought. Written by reporter Alina Tugend, the article describes how spouses with different spending habits can find common ground to ensure a more secure retirement.
Differing Approaches to Money Can “Wreak Havoc”
“If one partner takes a less conservative approach to money, it can wreak havoc on a marriage,” Tugend writes. Plenty of movie scenes and comedy routines turn the old stereotype of the over-spending wife into a joke, but the truth, Kiplinger warns, isn’t so funny. “In real life, overspending by a partner—male or female—is often a serious problem that can damage relationships or, worse, lead to bankruptcy and divorce.”
It turns out that this “spending mismatch” is pretty common. In an early 2021 survey from CreditCards.com, nearly one-third of all partners confessed to spending more than their counterpart was comfortable with, and roughly one in ten admitted to carrying secret debt or having a hidden credit card. The issue of hiding indebtedness from a partner or spouse was more common among millennials, but even among boomers – who are now retiring in droves – 9 percent say they keep secrets from spouses about their financial dealings. When asked why, about one-quarter of respondents said they felt ashamed of their spending, but another fourth said they didn’t trust their partner with money.
Money Matters Keep Couples’ Therapists Busy
“Money comes up so often in therapy,” New York marriage therapist Sharon O’Neill told Kiplinger. “When two people come together, that is one of the things that is so often different—one person spending more than the other.” According to O’Neill, it’s far more unusual to find partners whose spending habits are compatible. But in her view, the place for couples to start is to figure out why your spouse’s overspending bothers you so much. As the Kiplinger article puts it, “If a partner’s spending is clearly hurting your finances, then the problem is apparent. But if these splurges don’t have an economic impact on your household, why should they matter?”
Another counselor told Kiplinger that frustration over money can sometimes mask something deeper. “Maybe it’s a lack of intimacy or feelings of not being seen or heard in a relationship, he says.” Over-spending can give people a sense of value and control. But because many people find those underlying emotional issues tough to address, they’ll choose to zero in on something simpler, like how much your spouse spends.
Because our upbringing shapes our view of money, each partner in a marriage brings a different perspective t0 the relationship, says Kiplinger. As Boston financial planner Jill Fopiano told Tugend, “It’s very important for couples to understand each other’s money type and respect [it]. Try to find a place of alignment rather than looking at this as a character flaw or a personality trait.”
Start by Identifying Financial Areas You Can Agree On
All the experts interviewed in the Kiplinger article agreed that the “thrifty” spouse needs to approach the “spendy” spouse carefully, without being accusatory or judgmental. Once you’ve stated your case, and maybe spoken about how your spouse’s spending is a source of concern, start laying out some shared goals. “Can you agree, for example, on big objectives, such as paying off a mortgage, funding a grandchild’s education, socking away for retirement or buying a second home?” the article suggests.
After you’ve settled on common goals, you need to go through what Kiplinger calls “the really hard part”: scrutinizing your income, your spending, your assets, your savings and your investments. “Research on retirement savers has found that they’re more likely to save if they can imagine their future self,” the article advises. If you can picture the lifestyle you both want, and forecast what your future finances will look like if the spending doesn’t stop, it might help both of you get on the same page and stay there.
If You Can’t Agree, You May Need a Third Party to Assist
What if the two of you simply can’t agree on financial goals? If you can’t arrive at a meeting of the minds when it comes to money, then a third party may need to be called in. “Typically, that means a financial planner, therapist or both,” says Kiplinger, “though not everyone is amenable to professional help or able to afford it.” Sometimes a couple will need regular meetings, quarterly or even monthly, until spending gets back on track.
The article offered a few other ideas to try:
- Have one partner manage the bills and the other manage investments. This keeps both spouses engaged and dependent on one another.
- Set a spending limit: anything above that amount requires mutual discussion. “The number you choose could be more or less depending on your budget, but don’t make it so ridiculously low that it’s meaningless,” says the article. One advisor said she has seen thresholds all the way from $50 t0 $500.
- Consider a separate spending account or allowance for each of you, keeping a shared bank account and credit card for mutual expenses.
What if the Spending Problem Persists?
If none of these steps work, the over-spending spouse may need professional help in the form of therapy, says Kiplinger. For example, compulsive spending after an argument may be a form of anxiety disorder, indicating that your spouse can’t find a healthier way to manage emotional discomfort. Setting some sort of spending limit may solve the problem, but only temporarily.
Boston planner Jill Fopiano said she believes there are two reasons why uncontrolled spending continues even after intervention: “[Either] the spender truly has an addiction, like gambling, and needs professional help, or the spending is a deliberate sign of a lack of respect for the relationship.” Such deep-rooted problems will be difficult to address, and if they’re not resolved, the marriage may not survive. The over-spending partner may be putting the financial future of their partner at risk.
“Unfortunately, when you’re a married couple, you’re on the hook for any debt that your partner incurs,” Fopiano says. “You need to get that person help, or you’re jeopardizing your own financial future.”
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(originally reported at www.kiplinger.com)