Til debt do us part: 5 strategies to reduce financial friction with your spouse and disagree better

We’ve all been there. Your partner wants to prioritize a new roof for the house, but you feel strongly that accelerating the mortgage payments is more important, and neither of you feel comfortable spending on both.

Most people think of relationship conflict as being inherently fraught with risk. However, when viewed as an opportunity to unpack the emotional baggage that we all bring into our partnerships, occasional conflict can be a means to better understand and address the underlying issues and experiences that shape our outlooks.

One of the main sources of conflict in relationships is financial disagreements. Money plays an integral part in our lives and many of our most important decisions have a financial component. It’s no wonder that nearly three quarters of Americans say that financial decisions are a source of tension in their relationships.

In my experience, even couples with a high degree of financial compatibility don’t see eye to eye on every monetary decision. And that’s perfectly normal. However, communicating effectively during financial disagreement is a behavioral skill that simply takes practice.

The good news is that there are several techniques to reduce financial friction before and during conflict.

When those inevitable moments of discord occur, couples can call on these tools to handle them with understanding, grace, and patience and reframe financial arguments as opportunities for greater alignment.

1. Unpack your financial feelings

Financial habits and behaviors are often a result of the emotional ties to money formed during our upbringing. As a result, decisions that are nominally about money are often proxies for something much deeper. For instance, you might feel a sense of urgency to accelerate paying down your mortgage because you saw your parents falling behind on debt payments and experienced the feelings of stress that resulted. People can benefit from exploring how their approach to money was developed and how that influences their behavior.

Bringing this understanding into a relationship is a sign of maturity and allows us to convey to our significant other how finances make us feel. When we can identify in the moment when financial decisions trigger feelings about our hopes, fears, and sense of self-worth, we can step back and reframe the conversation.

Couples can get to know each other better by digging deeper into the formative experiences that shaped how money is approached. Understanding where each other come from allows for mindful, supportive conversations that deepen your emotional bond.

2. Create a common understanding

Establishing a shared approach to finances can reduce many of the predictable arguments about money. For example, both parties can build a clear sense of the family finances — even if one person is responsible for managing them. That includes knowing how much you have in savings and investments, your debt level, and input into establishing your shared financial priorities. Financial transparency will ensure you’re both working off the same understanding when you discuss specific situations.

It’s also useful to determine who is responsible for paying routine bills and how you’ll handle any unexpected costs.  This may seem simple, but these issues can be a major source of contention when not explicitly agreed upon.

3. Consider ways to build some space

One of the most important questions is how you will manage your financial relationship as a couple. Will they be entirely separate, all co-mingled in the same shared accounts or primarily co-mingled with some separation?

Read: Should couples combine finances or keep separate accounts? One option leads to a happier marriage, study finds.

No one likes to be micromanaged and questioning each other’s minor purchases can often lead to unproductive conversations. For many couples, one of the best ways to avoid this is to set aside a certain amount of money — or a separate credit card — that can be used for discretionary spending. Provided you establish ground rules up front, both parties can agree not to question the purchases their significant other makes.

Similarly, establishing a limit for household purchases from shared accounts that need to be discussed in advance is a good way to keep each other on the same page. New cars, furniture and even major household repairs are good examples of more costly decisions that usually warrant a discussion upfront.

4. Balance the short-term with the long-term

Even couples who are compatible in their day-to-day financial management can find they’re not aligned on some of the important decisions that will come up later in life. These include:

Do we plan to pay for our child’s college education?

Do we plan to sell the family home, or pass it down?

 Should we purchase long-term-care insurance for ourselves?

These are profound, emotional decisions that can have an outsize impact on how finances are managed day to day and saving and spending decisions are prioritized. Addressing them upfront in a deliberate manner can ensure you’re both keeping your eyes on the same horizon when going through your daily lives.

5. Respect the conversation

One of the most important things I learned while earning my degree in counseling is that conflict itself is not necessarily a bad thing. When disagreements are hashed out under calm conditions, conflict can be productive and reenergizing. However, most of us associate conflict with hurt and negativity. A lot of this stems from how, when, and why disagreements come up.

Due to the emotional nature of conversations about money, how we introduce them is particularly important. We have the power to acknowledge this by having respect for the conversations — including our disagreements — around finances and trying to reduce the friction they have on our relationships. Scheduling time to discuss financial issues is substantially more likely to have a positive outcome than bringing them up during an overly emotional moment. 

Even couples with strong financial relationships can benefit from assessing the techniques at their disposal and practicing these skills. Continued communication is key, as financial situations are fluid and priorities will shift as life evolves. Speaking regularly will encourage greater compatibility and deeper connection while helping ensure that periodic disagreements about money take the form of mindful conversations, not fights.

Heather Robertson Fortner is chief executive and chairwoman of SignatureFD, an integrated wealth management firm. Fortner believes that every person has a purpose in life, and wealth should be a vehicle to achieve one’s goals and live in alignment with one’s values.