Money is a well-known source of conflict among married couples, but new research shows that the use of a simple-though-unpopular financial tool may help dial down financial fights. A national survey of over 600 married people I commissioned from the market research firm Synovate found that couples who use a budget to manage their money have fewer financial arguments than couples who do not use a budget.
Nearly 40 percent of all respondents said they have financial disagreements with their spouse either often or sometimes. However, those who use a budget that guides how much they save, invest, give, and spend -- in detail -- are less likely to have financial fights. Take a look at some of the numbers.
Percentage of couples who report financial disagreements "often" or "sometimes":
All Respondents: 39%
Detailed budget users: 32%
General budget users: 38%
Don't use a budget: 43%
About 44 percent of respondents said they seldom have financial disagreements. Another 17 percent said they never fight about money.
Of the people who come to the financial workshops I teach throughout the country, most don't use a budget. And that's pretty consistent with the population at large. The Synovate survey found that just 12 percent of married people use a detailed budget, 50 percent use a general budget (a somewhat misleading figure -- I've discovered that people interpret "general budget" to mean everything from balancing one's checkbook to trying to spend less than they make), and 38 percent do not use a budget.
When I first bring up the topic of budgeting in my workshops, people are usually not very open to the idea. They tend to think of a budget as something one goes on like a diet, as in: "Poor Joe and Lucy, they're on a budget."
However, looking at the specific financial topics couples argue about, it's easy to see how a budget can help.
Disagreements by topic (among respondents who report financial disagreements):
How much we should spend on various items: 49%
How much debt we should carry: 33%
How much we should keep in savings for emergencies: 26%
How much we should invest: 15%
How much or where we should donate money: 10%
With a budget, couples pre-determine how much they will spend on cars, clothes and coffee with their friends. It's a plan for using income that enables people to live within their means, give generously, save and invest adequately, and accomplish their goals. Plus, tracking your use of money takes some of the subjectivity out of financial arguments ("Oh, you're right, I really did spend too much on golf last month").
Another fascinating finding in this research relates to what I call the issue behind the issue. When a couple argues about how much to save, for example, it's helpful to understand what's really at the source of the upset. The tension may have to do with how each partner was raised. Maybe the husband came from a family that lived paycheck to paycheck and somewhere along the line he vowed never to live with such stress. Without that insight, an innocent question from his wife about tapping their emergency fund to remodel a bathroom could lead to a heated argument. With the insight, they may both be able to agree on an appropriate amount to keep in savings for true emergencies while avoiding fear-based hoarding.
Temperament differences, as couples apparently realize, play an even bigger role behind many financial disputes.
Factors that "often" or "sometimes" play a role in spousal financial disagreements (among respondents who have financial disagreements):
Our different temperaments: 39%
Our different family backgrounds/upbringing: 33%
Our different levels of financial knowledge: 31%
Our different spiritual beliefs: 7%
Understanding each other's temperaments enables couples to maximize the money management strengths each person brings to the relationship while minimizing the weaknesses.
Not surprisingly, another factor that drives up the likelihood of financial disagreements among married people is the presence of children in the household.
Breakdown of couples who report financial disagreements "often" or "sometimes" by presence of children in the home:
All respondents: 39%
Children in the household: 50%
No children in the household: 32%
While children bring many joys, they also tend to add more financial pressure. There are simply more expenses such as school supplies, sports programs, friends' birthday gifts, and for some, college. A budget helps minimize the strain.
One bit of good news from the survey is that as couples are married longer, financial disagreements become less frequent.
Breakdown of couples reporting financial disageements "often" or "sometimes" by number of years married:
All respondents: 39%
Married <1 - 5 years: 43%
Married 6 - 10 years: 50%
Married 11 - 20 years: 43%
Married 21+ years: 31%
Married couples face a lot of changes and challenges in their first 10 to 20 years together - from raising children, to buying a home, to establishing their careers. So, it makes sense that financial pressures would diminish as they get past some of those milestones. However, you don't have to just wait it out. No matter how long you've been married, the use of a detailed budget will help you manage money as a team.
February 19, 2010
As you might have guessed, Matt Bell is a passionate advocate for the use of a budget. He offers a free "Budget Quick Start Guide" at www.mattaboutmoney.com. Matt is the author of two books published by NavPress: "Money, Purpose, Joy" (September 2008) and "Money Strategies for Tough Times" (April 2009). He speaks at churches, conferences, universities, and other venues throughout the country.