Share your dollars with sense

I have spoken to so many people—married couples, families, even friends—who tell me they fight over money more than anything else. If you dig a little deeper, though, it’s clear that the fighting isn’t just about money. It’s more about expectations and priorities. If differences in opinion about these things are not resolved BEFORE people begin dealing with their money, hurt feelings and anger can be the result.

Money isn’t simply a piece of paper. Money is a clear representation of the fruit of your labors. No matter whether you earned minimum wage performing physical labor or made millions by taking investment risks (or anything in between), your money represents what philosopher Ayn Rand called ‘a frozen form of productive energy.’ In a way, when you look at your money, you’re viewing the sum total of your efforts to date. Of course you’ll feel possessive about it—it’s yours, and it represents your accomplishments and labors so far in life.

There’s a lot of self-help information out there about how to avoid fights over money. A lot of it has to do with sitting down, talking and being willing to compromise. Though these techniques can help, the results are often short-lived because they don’t get to the heart of the matter. suggests that you ‘Find out what values you hold as individuals, and exactly what money represents to each of you. Share childhood experiences. See where you agree and where you disagree. Come up with some common ground.’ How do you do that? First you have to find that common ground. What do you value? Why is it important to you? For example, an acquaintance of mine recently spent several thousand dollars on an antique slot machine. Now, I would never do this. I’d much rather take a trip, buy some books or improve my house. But, when I asked him why he made this purchase, I immediately understood his logic. He loves to collect rare and unusual things (especially things that light up’). In addition, he has warm and pleasant associations from his childhood with the way the old-style slot machines used to sound. Still not my cup of tea, mind you, but I appreciated his motive after he explained it to me.

The same applies to people who buy expensive cars. Try as I might, I just can’t get excited about a big name car. Others, however, are willing to work a little harder to have the enjoyment of a BMW, a Mercedes or the like. Good for them. You should do what makes you happy.

I will, however, venture one caveat here: If you’re not really concerned about your own pleasure, and you’re spending your money solely to impress other people, then I have some questions. If you’re living beyond your means and expecting others to pick up the slack, then likewise I have some questions. Barring that, most healthy people can be happy living within their means. Money may not buy happiness, but it’s a good way to convert your efforts into personal fulfillment. Again: You need to do what makes you happy.

Unfortunately, this ‘live and let live’ attitude gets a little trickier in a familial or marital relationship. Now, it’s not only a matter of simply respecting someone else’s priorities, but also having to live with those priorities as well. Communication and prior understandings become crucially important. Some experts even recommend pre-nuptial agreements, even for people of average incomes. I believe that the key is to get your priorities clear—maybe even in writing—before entering any kind of important relationship. Should it be made legally binding? Maybe, maybe not; it depends on the individuals involved. But what is crucial for everyone is to state in blunt, realistic and honest terms: ‘This is what’s important to me and this is what I think is mine.’ Get it out in the open before it spirals down into conflict, arguments or worse.

Some people enter a marital relationship with the belief that ‘what’s mine is mine, and what’s yours is yours.’ Others enter that relationship (often, regrettably, the same one) with a belief that ‘what’s mine is ours, and what’s yours is ours.’ When these two viewpoints clash, the proverbial honeymoon is over. If only they had discussed their philosophical differences early on! They might have been less surprised when the subject popped up, say, in the context of whether to spend thousands on an R.V. or on a cruise. Nothing can take the sparkle off a new relationship like, ‘It’s MY money anyway, so what I say goes!’

I’m not defining a successful relationship as one that subscribes to any particular philosophical view. It can work with either one just fine—as long as that view is mutual and each individual sticks to it.

I define a thriving, happy relationship as one where both partners are equally satisfied. It’s really important to be compatible, especially about money. More than a piece of paper, plastic, or a pile of statements, it’s a concrete manifestation of what you do in your life. As such, it becomes part of your pride, your sense of control over your destiny and, in many respects, who you are. Though it’s surely worth fighting over, there will be no need for that if the ground rules are clear and both parties are honest from the start.