Erin has a confession to make. She’s committed financial infidelity.
In 2019, Erin’s husband went on a whitewater rafting trip with their two older kids for Father’s Day. So Erin*, 39, an executive based in Savannah, Georgia, went to the car dealership and bought herself a used Mercedes SUV. It cost roughly the same as a Subaru Outback, Erin rationalized, and fit her 6-month-old daughter’s car seat better. Safety first, right?
When he returned from his trip, Erin’s husband was too shocked by the purchase to say anything at first. But at dinner that night, as he was opening presents from his kids, he said, “Thank you so much for the new pair of boots. Do you know what your mother got for Father’s Day? She got herself a Mercedes.” The couple is still together, but the purchase has never been fully forgiven. “It still comes up any time Father’s Day is mentioned,” Erin says.
Most—if not all—couples fight about money, even the ones who describe themselves as happily partnered. According to a 2011 survey by the British insurance company Esure, the average couple bickers 2,455 times a year, or seven times a day. Among the top 10 things they fight about? Overspending, money and bills. Couples argue more about finances than they do about sex or household chores, and money is the second leading cause of divorce after infidelity.
The COVID-19 pandemic only exacerbated this situation, with almost 3 million women dropping out of the workforce in 2020, many to take care of young children or elderly adults. A 2020 survey by researchers at Indiana University found that this disrupted the power balance in some relationships: 30% of couples surveyed said that because of the shift, they are arguing more than ever.
But here’s the strange thing: Arguing about issues like money, if it’s done a certain way, may be healthy for your relationship. According to a 2019 study published in Family Process, happy couples didn’t necessarily have fewer conflicts than unhappy couples, they just “argued” about them better—that is, they took a solution-oriented approach to conflicts.
To improve your ménage à trois with money and your partner, the editors at Millie conducted a survey to better understand your relationships and money habits. We then asked three financial therapists to analyze the data and weigh in on the most troublesome (but fixable) responses. Here’s their analysis.
“I don’t talk about money with my partner because it’s stressful.”
When asked “what prevents you from talking about money with your partner,” more than one-third of respondents said, “It’s stressful.” Another 11.5% said “I don’t feel well-informed enough on the topic” and about 9% said “It always leads to a fight.”
Nearly one-third of participants gave “Other” answers, such as:
- “He’s not engaged or realistic about money.”
- “We have different attitudes about money.”
- “I care more than she does so I want to avoid the ‘we’re talking about this AGAIN???’ look”
- “He trusts me to handle the finances. It’s a lot of pressure”
- “So many distractions and other priorities.”
- “I can come off as nagging.”
You might be thinking, “Well of course talking about money is stressful.” Money can be, literally, a matter of life or death.
Maria*, 38, a social worker based in Florida, often avoids talking to her partner about money because of stress. “I feel like I’m carrying both of us right now,” she says. From working full time to managing the household, she’s already tapped out emotionally and mentally. “If something doesn’t change, we’re going to have to break up,” she says. “It shouldn’t also be my job to initiate a discussion on top of everything else.”
To Erika Wasserman, CEO of Your Financial Therapist, a financial therapy resource for individuals and companies, the sentiment about money being a stressful topic is problematic.
“It’s a fixed statement,” she says. “It’s an excuse to ignore conversations about money. You need to start putting steps in place to reduce the stress you feel.”
The first step is asking why money conversations stress you out. Maybe your parents fought about money when you were a kid. Maybe you feel guilty about accruing credit card debt or taking out a student loan for a program you never finished. Maybe you just don’t know enough about money to tackle the topic and that gives you anxiety.
Next, tell your partner how you feel and that you’d like to work as a team to make finances less fraught. Then, get organized. We often get stressed about things that feel out of our control, Wasserman says. So take back control. Don’t have enough money to pay the bills? Revisit your budget and decide what is a “need” and what is a “want.” Feel lost when it comes to understanding your student loan payments, investing, retirement accounts or other money matters? Don’t be ashamed or embarrassed. Educate yourself. There are tons of resources out there that can help.
“I’ve hidden purchases from my partner because I think they’ll disapprove of my spending.”
Some forms of financial infidelity are likely unforgiveable. For example, if your partner has a secret bank account that he uses to support his secret family.
But there are other forms that are more common, and less appalling. For example, according to Millie’s survey, about 15% of respondents have hidden purchases from their partners, including items from Amazon, skin care products, expensive clothing, junk food and Botox. In addition, about 8% have secret bank accounts—citing past financial abuses and a sense of control as some of the reasons why—and nearly 10% suspect their partner hides purchases from them.
Most worrisome to Jennifer Dunkle, a financial therapist based in Fort Collins, Colorado, is that 10.5% don’t know what their partner’s salary is, which is ultimately a form of financial infidelity because it’s an integral fact about their partner’s life. “It’s just such a basic thing to know,” Dunkle says. Note: 87% of respondents had been with their partners for more than 10 years; if you just started seeing someone, salary is probably not something you need to discuss right away.
Tara*, 39, who is based in New York City and works as an elementary school teacher, often lies to her husband about how much she spends. “It just seems easier than dealing with that face he makes or his negative reactions,” she says. Plus, “He buys stupid crap all the time that he doesn’t talk to me about,” she adds.
“People don’t just have money secrets in a vacuum, they come with lots of other issues,” Dunkle says. Financial therapy for couples committing financial infidelity is always a good idea, she adds. “Ideally, the neutral third party will be able to get to the source of the problem and help you explore each other’s underlying history with and beliefs around money,” she says.
If you can’t afford financial therapy (the average therapy session costs $100 an hour) or are not sure you’re ready for it, there are other steps you can take to develop a healthier relationship with money, Dunkle says. First, set a firm limit on what you can spend without discussing it with your partner first. Then, work toward setting a shared household budget—that includes how much you’ll spend together on things like groceries and eating out—and decide how much each of you will contribute to those expenses.
Even if your partner doesn’t feel comfortable sharing their salary, at least you know that you are working toward common financial goals and will have enough money to pay your bills.
Dunkle also suggests starting difficult financial conversations with a “soft startup,” which means talking to your partner as if they are a welcome guest rather than a lazy person who can’t do anything right, ever. This removes judgment—and any suggestion of a nagging tone—and will most likely inspire your partner to open up more.
“I need alcohol to talk about money with my partner.”
There were many things that our survey respondents said would make money discussions with their partner easier, like having a set date or time to have financial talks (26%), having a discussion guide or reference materials (24%) and having the discussion in the presence of a trained financial expert (20%).
And nearly one-fifth of participants said that having alcoholic beverages during the talk would help.
“If people are depending on alcohol to get them through money conversations, it tells me there may be some avoidance going on,” says Mariah Hudler, a financial therapist and financial health consultant based in Sacramento, California. Sure, it can serve as a little liquid courage and might lighten the mood, but it shouldn’t be used as a crutch and might hinder the importance of the topic.
Maria, for one, found that alcoholic beverages helped her to broach the topic of money with her boyfriend. “I can only say what I want to say when I’m drinking,” she says. But … her boyfriend didn’t take anything she said seriously.
Hudler doesn’t necessarily think that you need to forgo an adult beverage every time you have a difficult financial conversation with your partner. “Having regular money ‘dates’ that involve a glass of wine are not unhealthy,” she says. “You just don’t want to depend on it.”
Many survey respondents noted that having these types of discussions in a “relaxed setting”—like on a walk—would relieve some of the pressure, and others noted that also talking about the fun aspects of money would help, such as creating a list of “fun stuff” to save for.
Furthermore, Hudler recommends not talking about money if you are experiencing a mood that falls under the acronym “HALTS”—hungry, angry, lonely, tired or stressed. “Doing so will help set you up for success,” she says.
“I’ve tried to talk about finances with my partner while in bed.”
Sure, money can be sexy. But there are good times to bring it up—and bad times. More than one-third of survey respondents said they’ve tried to talk about finances with their bae while in bed. Maybe you were about to go to sleep and it was on your mind, or maybe you were trying out some new foreplay material—in the latter case, props to you for getting creative. Just maybe don’t take the phrase “talk money to me” too far into the bedroom.
Interestingly, about 30% of participants said that talking about how to improve their sex life was easier than talking about money, while 20% said that both topics make them equally uncomfortable. And nearly one-fourth of participants said that financial tensions negatively affect other areas of their relationship, like their sex life.
Talking about money is obviously important, but you don’t want it to become the focal point of your relationship or a stealth saboteur of your most intimate moments.
“People can be activated by loaded topics, especially if there is a history of trauma,” Hudler says. “For example, if you bring up money concerns first thing in the morning, it may make your partner feel attacked during a moment of vulnerability.” Presetting a date and place to talk helps create a safe environment and gives each person time to prepare, Hudler adds.
“The pandemic has affected the tone of our money conversations.”
Hudler was not surprised that more than one-fifth of survey respondents said that the pandemic made them approach money talks with their partners with more openness and mutual respect—while 5% said their conversations have been more heated.
Indeed, some people fared much better during the pandemic than others—39% of upper income families said that their financial situations improved while 74% of lower income families said that their personal finances are now in fair or poor shape, according to the Pew Research Center. This disparity alone could explain why some couples might have experienced more tension during the pandemic than others.
But it’s also likely that couples who already had healthy communication patterns in place were able to continue relying on them when the world fell apart.
If you weren’t one of these healthily communicating couples, don’t despair. It’s never too late to become one of them. The first step? Start talking about money.
Millie content is licensed from Meredith Corporation, publisher of Millie, Real Simple, InStyle and more.
Brienne Walsh is a writer based in Savannah, Georgia. She contributes to Forbes, MarketWatch and more.