(Hint: It’s Not Because You Don’t Have a Budget!)
It was only Orange Chicken. Or was it?
My husband Jeff and I used to have a recurring conflict over Chinese takeout. After a long day of meetings, I would offer to pick up dinner for the family on the way home, only to hear, “Um, that’ll probably be $35 . . . how about I grill the Costco chicken we already have in the fridge instead?”
Such a trivial thing, right? So why did it bug me? And why did it bug Jeff that I would call and ask the question? Why do you get frustrated with your spouse’s money quirks? Maybe they really want to use the envelope system, which you think is annoying, or they are totally willing to pay extra to avoid seeing the ads on Hulu, which you think is a character flaw!
And why do so many couples (hypothetical couples; I ask this for a friend) avoid talking about money whenever possible?
It turns out, the occasional friction so many of us experience around money is not really about “convenience meals,” the envelope system, or a reckless disregard for budgeting. It wasn’t until we conducted three years of research for our newest book, Thriving in Love & Money, that our eyes were opened to the truth that it isn’t about finances at all.
It’s Not About the Money
Here’s the one-sentence summary of the results of thousands of surveys: when we have tension with our spouse around money, it’s not about the money. It’s about how money makes us feel—and makes our spouse feel. It’s about how we process things. About a host of expectations, insecurities, and worries that we don’t even know are there. In fact, our unique perspective on money is so intertwined with how we handle it that it would be shocking if it wasn’t sometimes tricky to come together around finances.
That’s a main reason only 23% of couples can talk well about money. Which in turn is probably why we all think we should have a working budget but only 19% of us actually do! How do you decide on a financial plan if one or both of you gets defensive or is weighed down by feelings that your spouse doesn’t understand you or dismisses your approach to money?
Thankfully, as Jeff and I have discovered first-hand, there is a solution that is far simpler than we think.
Our research revealed that three actions dramatically reduce money tensions in marriage:
Step 1: Understand how you and your spouse uniquely respond to money (the “it’s not about the money” stuff).
Step 2: Then, using that knowledge, learn to talk about money with your spouse.
Step 3: Then, take the technical/budgeting steps necessary to build financial cushion.
The reason most of us have difficulty creating a working financial plan—or avoid talking about the plan to begin with—is that we’re taking actions in the wrong order. Unless you and your spouse are already on the same page about money (which two out of ten couples are), most of us simply have to be able to talk well about money before we can plan! And to talk well about money, we have to understand what is going on inside ourselves and inside our partner.
Once that happens, talking about money comes almost naturally—because each of you feel that your spouse has empathy, care, and a desire to honor what matters to you. And the kindness inherent in that approach lowers defenses that may have been up for years.
So What Was Going On With the Chinese Food?
Here’s what Jeff and I realized was going on under the surface whenever we had tension about takeout versus grilling at home.
For me, I was subconsciously calculating the takeout’s value in far more than just dollars, as a way of making our lives better: Jeff and I are exhausted, the kids have been going in all different directions, and if we grill the chicken there will be prep and cooking and clean up and then it’ll be time to start homework . . . so $35 to buy a precious hour of family time? You bet!
For Jeff, who is a classic saver, however, his value was also about much more than those particular dollars: If we spend that money now, that’s money we won’t have to pay for unexpected expenses or retirement, but if we use the Costco chicken, we already have we can still enjoy dinner and save the money—a win-win scenario!
Jeff was looking out for the long-term financial security of our family, while I was trying to create closeness for the family now. We were both seeking our family’s good, but our definitions of “good” were different.
How To Start the Conversation Around Money
And that is how it is for most couples. We aren’t at odds about wanting the best for the family, but our contrasting thoughts, feelings and approaches about finances can make it seem like we are pitted against one another. Thankfully, once we start seeing each other’s heart, everything changes.
So, the next time you find yourself having tension about money, stop and realize: This is not about the money. Look for what it is about—and respond to that. Suddenly, you’ll find money changing from being an opportunity for conflict, to being an opportunity for real connection.
It may feel awkward at first, but (trust us on this!) it gets easier as you go. And remember: whether you end up getting the Orange Chicken or opting for the home-grilled Costco variety, the most important thing is to enjoy it together.
For more tips on how to create unity around finances and thrive in love and money, visit our website thriveinloveandmoney.com to take the free assessment or read more in our book, Thriving in Love andMoney.)
This article was also published at Patheos.
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Jeff Keim says
That was some of the most realistic, usable, actionable advice I’ve ever heard on money. Although I found myself saying, “It’s not about the money a thousand times,” I never really knew what I meant by that.
Great blog post! I trust everything is well with you and Jeff and the kids. Take care.