Treating dollars with sense

It’s a fact of life that everybody needs and wants money. However, dollars and cents can often symbolize a lot more than just the basic necessity of legal tender. In a marriage or family relationship, for example, money can sometimes be the means through which conflicts play out. Many fights and disagreements between couples seem to be about money, but are actually about other issues entirely. Spouses quickly learn about their partner’s true priorities (both good and bad) when it comes time to decide what to purchase and what to forego.

Money is powerful because, by definition, it objectifies and concretizes values, priorities, and needs. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that. But, when preparing to enter into a marital relationship, attitudes about money can become an important clue to help identify a future spouse’s priorities, values and ideals.

Before you can feel good about being married to somebody, it’s important to come to a general, informal agreement regarding finances. What kind of budget will exist, given both incomes? How much will be devoted to house, cars, vacations, savings, etc.?

Contrary to what your first impression may be, it’s not shallow or materialistic to face these things ahead of time. You both deserve to know, up front, how your interests match up. It can also help avoid countless heated discussions, disappointed expectations and painful misunderstandings down the road. After the wedding, the pressure is on to make things work. But beforehand, at least there’s still time to break up (without putting some divorce lawyer’s kid through college), if you realize that money issues just can’t be resolved without constant battle and conflict. The best surprise is, indeed, no surprise.

If you don’t know what your spouse-to-be spends, and why, then you probably don’t know what his or her deeper priorities and values are. Day in and day out, I see couples, who, back when they put on the rings, hadn’t given these matters a second thought. All of a sudden, there they are, in my office, bickering over money.

If you’re already married, and you’ve discovered that there are some real differences in how you both want to handle finances, try to sort it out rationally and calmly. Attitude is everything. Don’t be angry that things aren’t exactly what you imagined they would be. Nobody misled you, and everyone’s priorities and desires tend to change over time. Now it’s time to clear things up, if you can—and it’s important to assume that you can.

If this sounds familiar to you, here are some suggestions that might help resolve arguments over spending, making, and/or saving money:

Don’t look at these disagreements as conflicts over money; look at them as differences in priorities. You’re not really fighting over money itself. You’re fighting over how soon, or how much, money should be spent on something. Maybe you feel that a vacation is more important right now; maybe your spouse feels that remodeling the house is more important right now. Look for compromises; maybe a less expensive vacation will be acceptable to help get some of the work done on the house sooner, rather than later.

When discussing, don’t focus on control; focus on finding a solution that pleases you both. Say things like, ‘How about this plan? It helps get us started on the remodeling, but also helps us have a vacation before the end of the year.’ Don’t say things like, ‘We always do things your way. I want to do them my way, for once!’ It might feel good to say things like this (and, you might even have a point), but that’s no way to motivate people, especially somebody you love. When more than one person is involved in any big decision, mutually acceptable solutions have to be uncovered. Unilateral control won’t work. Maybe this means taking turns getting some of what you want in the short run, and maybe all of what you want in the long run. Not a bad trade for having a more harmonious relationship, is it? If you can’t get anywhere, maybe an objective third party, such as a good counselor, can help you figure something out.

Approach discussions thoughtfully, not emotionally. If you disagreed with your next-door neighbor about something, you (hopefully) wouldn’t charge into their house screaming, ‘You always get your way. Now it’s my turn!’ Even though family relationships are, naturally, the most important and emotional, why inflict that hysteria on the one you profess to love?

Precisely because your relationship is so important, keep this in mind: When money matters, and cooperation is the key to your happy life together, treating your partner with care and consideration can trump the value of a dollar every time.