Couples in cash conflict: Is your partner a spender or a saver?

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  • | by Keith Kendrick

What’s your attitude towards money? Are you a Buy-Now-Pay-Later type of person? Or a Save-Until-We-Can-Afford-It personality? Just as importantly, what type is your partner? A spender or a saver?

Because if you’re one, and he/she is the other, then listen up: the noise you can hear as is a klaxons sounding warning you that you could be heading towards the relationship rocks.

Money is a worry – especially if you don’t have enough of it, and how many of us do these days? Arguments over money are the number one reason for conflict in relationships and one of the biggest factors cited in divorce. Recent research by esure suggested that some couples bicker over money, overspending and bills more than 300 times a year.

Another survey found that couples are twice as likely to end a relationship because of disagreements about money as for any other reason. This potential for cash conflict preys on my mind all the time.

My wife is the major breadwinner and I am primary carer to our three children, aged ten, seven and four. Each month, my wife deposits a certain amount into my bank account by standing order and out of this I run the household budget, paying the bills, buying the shopping, giving the kids pocket money, and so on. But the temptation to spend more than I can afford can be almost irresistible at times, especially on nights out, or birthday presents for the children.

What stops me getting in over my head is partly due to a healthy fear of losing everything, and thus ruining my children’s lives, but mainly down to upbringing. My mum and dad never had a penny of debt their entire lives because they believed in the principle that if you want something, you have to save for it first. How times have change, with easy credit. Fortunately, my wife has the same attitude towards money as me, and thus it is rarely a source of conflict.

But for other couples, the damage caused by their differing attitudes towards money proved fatal. Take Alan Johnson*, 37, a mobile phone shop manager in London. He left his wife, Janice, of nine years for another woman – but it wasn’t the affair that caused the rift. “My wife stayed at home to look after our two young children and I would give her an allowance each month for housekeeping,”

Alan explains. “Then one day my brother told me Janice had asked his wife for a loan – to pay off her credit cards. She’d run up £5,000 debt and I didn’t have a clue about it. “When I confronted her, she told me she was worried about how I’d react. But it wasn’t the amount that bothered me – it was the secrecy and the fact she’d lied about it. What got me is that she had pretty much nothing to show for it. She didn’t live a frivolous nor luxurious life – she was just living beyond her means. She didn’t budget: she just bought what she fancied. And over about two years, the debt grew and grew until it became unmanageable.

“For me, that killed the trust between us,” admits Alan. “ It’s an extreme example of what money issues can do to a couple, and Alan readily accepts that his attitude towards having cash in his pocket might be an indication of a controlling nature.“If I’d known she was going short, we could have talked about it,” he says.

But hindsight is 20:20 and he now appreciates why his ex-wife might have been concerned to raise it with him. “I would have gone ballistic. That’s fair enough to say,” he confesses. So what can you do if your romance is being rocked by cash concerns?

Relate relationship counsellor, Denise Knowles, advises people who are concerned about money to consider doing the following.

• Remember there are things you can do straight away if you are experiencing money problems – talk about the reality of the situation. Acknowledge that your relationship is being squeezed by outside pressures and discuss how you can manage this as a couple. For example, you may need to make some life style choices and if your children are old enough explain the situation to them so they can understand. Also seek independent financial advice.

• Recognise that as a family and a couple you can have fun together without spending money doing things such as going for walks, or having special nights in – where you get dressed up as if you are going out but just stay-in and have simple meal together.

• Now is a really good time to build-up your ‘emotional bank balance’ by spending more time together. Perhaps instead of putting on the telly, play a board game together, or put some music on and chat. Think about thoughtful gestures – such as running a bath for your partner. These little things can help you feel closer.

• Also be really open with each other, this isn’t the time to have financial secrets. Be honest so you can share the problems and talk them through. According to Katherine Yost, a marriage and family therapist, spenders vs savers can make relationships difficult – but not impossible.

And she has a solution: let the spender spend and the saver save – in small doses. She says that people who are told "No" to everything begin to feel resentful and deprived, and sooner or later - after a fight or on a bad day at work - they'll break out with a spending binge. If everybody gets at least a little discretionary cash—and with it a sense of freedom. Similarly, she says, allow the saver to save.

Putting some money away for a rainy day is fiscally sound, yes. But people who keep a tight rein on spending need to continue doing so to ease their sense of helplessness about what's in the news or what's happening at work. Most important, though, is to make new couple rules. "When financial guidelines are explicit," says Vost, "the whole family does better."