It's not just an old saying: When it comes to couples and money, opposites do attract. In fact, researchers at the Wharton School and Northwestern University found that while people hope to marry someone with a money style similar to their own, they more often than not marry their financial opposite.
Why? Well, consciously or subconsciously we're living out that sappy line from Jerry McGuire: "You complete me." We seek balance. We seek complementary skills. The problem is that with the benefits of being different come inevitable disagreements. In other words, what so often makes your spouse appealing around money is also what drives you nuts.
One of the classic pairings is a saver who marries a spender. If you don't have this pairing - or some incarnation of it - in your marriage, chances are you've seen it in other couples. When a couple is thinking of forging a life together, they can see that they're different with money, even if they haven't sifted through each other's 1040s. If he's a saver, he may seem sensible and judicious, which appeals to her. On the other hand, as a spender, she may seem fun and spontaneous to him. Each likes the other's traits. (And, of course, whether one is a spender or a saver is independent of gender.)
But actually living with someone with a different style around money can be a great challenge. Indeed, money disagreements are the top reason that couples fight and those fights about finances are the best indicator of divorce. Therefore, it's important to recognize, understand and be able to work with different styles of money management for a marriage to be happy and healthy. It's not surprising that so many premarital education workshops and marriage enrichment classes now key on helping couples communicate about this difficult topic.
Although the spender-saver pairing is well known, let's look at how it might manifest itself in a typical situation: planning a vacation.
First, it might never occur to the saver to take a vacation. If it weren't for the spender's spouse reminding him to take time to rest and recharge, he might go years without stepping away from work because working makes money and vacations deplete money. And if the saver does think about going on vacation, the process might get mired in research: "If I'm going to spend money for a vacation, I want to make sure we're not spending too much and we're getting a good deal," the saver might say. Therefore, he might spend weeks researching travel deals and destinations - but then the good prices and available tickets may have evaporated, leading to a belief that the trip just wasn't meant to be and it never happens.
On the other hand, spenders often push to use money to make memories, have fun and enjoy the fruits of their labors. Unlike the analytical saver, a spender might see a deal in the newspaper and want to call that very day to make a reservation for next week. The downside to this enjoy-life mentality is that it often needs to be filtered so the decision to spend money is rooted in realities like still being able to pay the mortgage.
Without understanding the relative benefits of each personality, it's easy for this complementary set of habits and attitudes to only be seen through a lens of disagreement. Instead of the saver seeing his spender wife as adding joy and excitement to his life, he sees her as being impetuous and irresponsible. Instead of the spender seeing her saver husband as well intentioned and cautious, she sees him as boring and cheap. The reality, of course, is that when they work together, they get what's best for each other and for the relationship.
Taking the example a bit further, imagine that while on vacation, you need to decide if and when you'll go out to eat. The saver might argue that it's best to always pack a lunch and get a hotel room with a kitchenette so you can boil some pasta for dinner. It may sound cheap, but it's important to realize what the thinking is behind this. Maybe it's because the saver thinks that cutting corners on food will mean you can afford another day of vacation or do more exciting things during the time you have. On the other hand, the spender might want to eat out for every meal, saying, "If we only have a few days of vacation every year, let's make the most of all of those hours, which means not slaving away over a stove or eating PB&Js." A compromise might look like bringing a brown bag or a picnic basket during the day to economize and then be able to afford some nice dinners out to enjoy the time off.
Excelling as financial opposites can be tricky because our financial habits and attitudes are so ingrained in our lives - but it's not impossible. Try the following tips to make your opposite pairing work:
* Know what your persona is around money - and what your partner's is - and what your respective challenges and strengths are around money. Just identifying who's the spender and who's the saver may be enough, but a deeper, more nuanced understanding can pay greater dividends. We find that couples have great success using Money Habitudes cards for this purpose.
* Be proactive - talk about money when you're calm, not when you're already upset. A more casual conversation may help you and your partner better understand your individual motivations with money.
* Don't just see the negative side of how your spouse handles money and be sure to share your appreciation during the good times - maybe when your saver partner pays the bills or does the taxes or when your spender spouse insists you celebrate a memorable occasion or just go out on a date.
* Don't resort to name calling like "cheapskate" or "spendthrift" and don't make assumptions about your spouse's behavior. Instead, if you don't like the way your partner is acting, ask questions such as "Why don't you want to go on vacation?" or "Why do you think we should go out to dinner?"
* Compromise so you're both happy. Remember, you like your partner's personality for a reason and money is part of that.
Originally posted April 15, 2010.
An expert on the psychology of money and a popular speaker on the topic, Syble Solomon won the Smart Marriages Impact Award from the Coalition for Marriage, Family and Couples Education in 2009 and was formerly named Educator of the Year by the Association for Financial Counseling and Planning Education. Often used in marriage and premarital programs, her Money Habitudes™ cards help people start the conversation about money and are often used in financial and relationship skills programs including premarital counseling and marriage enrichment.