Here's what to do when you and your partner have different approaches to money
How we grew up around money can affect us—and our relationships.
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You might’ve heard this tale before: Rich man marries poor girl, shows her a new way of life. Or conversely, rich girl marries poor farm boy. Boy learns etiquette, gets some fancy tailored clothes, and manages to fit right in.
If only being partnered with someone of a different socio-economic status were that simple—and idyllic. In reality, couples who come from different backgrounds often have different money scripts—or the narratives we develop around money.
These perceptions and ideas we hold around finances usually live in the subconscious, and are passed on from one generation to the next. With different approaches to handling money, tension and conflict may flare up in a relationship.
It often comes down to what money means and what each person values, explains Lindsay Bryan-Podvin, a financial therapist and founder of Mind Money Balance. “If a person of a lower socio-economic status believes that you have to work really hard for money and each dollar should be given a task,” she says, “they may struggle to be partnered with someone of a higher socio-economic background who has internalized that money will just sort itself out.”
Such as the case with Andrea R. and her husband. Andrea grew up solidly middle-class. Her father had a steady job working for the state, and together her parents earned about $120,000 a year. Her dad saved for her college education, and Andrea graduated college debt-free. Her parents paid off their credit cards in full each month, and they could afford to take family vacations each summer.
Her husband, on the other hand, came from a lower-income household. His family lived in a mobile home until he was a teenager. His father juggled multiple jobs, and their ability to buy extras waxed and waned, depending on the state of their finances. When in a pinch, his parents borrowed money from him and his brother when they were young adults in their late teens and early 20s.
In their relationship, while Andrea is focused on paying down her debt, she’s not as stressed about money as her husband. Her husband tends to have more anxiety around money, and is concerned about having enough to retire. He recently went back to school, and had a hard time letting go of his part-time job.
Andrea and her spouse’s script reveals the conflicts that may crop up among couples who grew up in different socio-economic households. According to studies by experts such as financial therapist Sonya L. Britt and financial psychologist Bradley T. Klontz, one’s socio-economic background can have a major influence on one’s money script.
If you and your partner have different backgrounds, how can you sidestep potential landmines and manage money together? Here are some tips.
Understand each other's money script
As one might imagine, a money script forms in the “growing up years,” and can drive behaviors as an adult. According to Britt and Kontz, when an individual grows up in a lower-income household, where there might be higher amounts of revolving credit and lower net worth, the following negative beliefs might form: money avoidance, money worshipping, or linking money to one’s status.
On the flip side, “protective” money behaviors such as anxiety, frugality, and being secretive are developed to ward off these negative beliefs and patterns.
Generally, if someone grows up with a lower-income background, they’re typically more stressed and anxious about finances.
Those who grew up middle class tend to lean toward being more goal-oriented. And (surprise, surprise) those raised upper-class are generally more relaxed about their money.
Learn to communicate about money
We hear it again and again, but open communication really is key to a successful partnership. And when you come from different socioeconomic backgrounds, you’ll want to be especially sensitive when you breach the topic of money.
Have empathy. Understand what triggers joy, fear, anxiety, worry, resentment for your partner. For instance, for Andrea and her spouse, it took some time to unpack why he experienced anxiety around money when she did not.
Focus on each other’s values. Along the same lines, determine which values are most important to your partner, and spend accordingly, recommends Bryan-Podkin. “If spontaneity and learning new things are important to your partner, they may want to spend more on reliable vehicles that can take them on weekend getaways,” she says. “If they value education, they may want to spend more money saving for their children's future learning.”
Don't make assumptions. People might have drastically different ideas of what money represents to them, and what to do with that money. Again, it ties into one’s money script, and involves clear communication.
For example, if your family never really struggled with money, and stashing away six months for an emergency has never been a problem for you, be careful not to assume that your partner feels the same way. For those who grew up in a lower socio-economic status, having a robust cushion could seem like a pipe dream.
Schedule money dates. Set time aside to have regular money check-ins. During these dates you can review your spending plan, and talk about your money goals. Andrea and her partner chat about money issues they see with other couples. It serves as a helpful way to breach conversations on how they want to approach a similar issue in their relationship.
“Sometimes it's easier to start the conversation about an outside thing,” says Andrea, who is 30 and works as a psychologist in Michigan. "For instance, ‘Susie was telling me she and John started doing this with their money. I don't think I would care to do that. What do you think?’ There’s less pressure when it’s not directed at you specifically, but can start the needed conversation moving forward.”
Discover ways to navigate your shared finances
Merging money in a relationship is a tall order indeed, but there are a few tips that will help you get on the right track.
Start small. Before you jump in with both feet and open a joint account, start by saving for a shared goal—one that’s attainable and won’t take long to achieve. For instance, a camping weekend, or maybe ordering dinner from a fancy restaurant.
Offer a safe space. Be open to offering your partner the space to work through money scripts and emotions and beliefs around money. Depending on how comfortable the other person feels baring all, this could take some time.
Like Andrea and her partner, you could start by talking about situations from other couples, or ask “What would [insert name of famous financial expert] do?"
Come up with a system that works for you. Just as each relationship is different, how you approach money pertains to your histories, personalities, and dynamics. Andrea and her spouse can access each other’s accounts, and they use an app to help them budget.
To start, they kept a calendar for several months with due dates of upcoming bills, and they sat down to suss out which account money was being pulled from. “We’d discuss each purchase,” Andrea says. “For instance, since we have goals to pay down our debt and my student loans, we don’t have ‘allowances’ right now.”
Keep the bigger picture in mind. To stay in sync with your shared money goals, it’s important to take the long view, and remember the reason and purpose behind each one. “What's the ‘why’ behind their financial goals?” Bryan-Podkin says. “If the couple can continue to remind themselves of the reason for their shared financial goal in the first place, it’ll help them stay aligned.”
When you and your partner stem from different socio-economic backgrounds, go for a deep dive into your money stories. Take the time to learn about how you and your partner’s early experiences and personal history with money influences present behavior, and how it ultimately impacts your relationship.