For richer or poorer: How your family’s money habits can influence your relationship.

As the holiday season gets closer, you might be facing some extra expenses—and the related stress. Financial issues are one of the leading topics that couples argue about and are a top source of stress for military couples. Between traveling to see family and friends, hosting get-togethers, and buying gifts, the bills can add up quickly. To get through the extra holiday costs and thrive through the rest of the year, explore your attitudes, beliefs, goals, and expectations about money with your partner.

Money, marriage, and the military

Between PCSing, changes in spousal employment, and changes in pay during deployments or other special duties, military families often face more financial strain than their civilian counterparts. Financial stress is often linked to relationship conflict and dissatisfaction. Arguments about money tend to be more negative and get more heated than arguments over most other topics.

Money often holds deeper meaning than just numbers in a budget. For many, it symbolizes emotional needs around security, freedom, and even acceptance. Money can also be a measure of equality, success, and control.

To learn more about the meanings you and your partner place on money, ask yourself what role you expect (and want) your finances to play in your life and relationships. One way to start the conversation is to explore what you and your partner have learned about finances from each of your families.

Map your “financial genetics”

Your views around money might not be as hardwired as your genetic makeup, but they’re probably closer than you think. A major factor that guides how adults communicate about, respond to, make meaning of, and manage money is how their parents did it. One way to really explore what you and your partner learned growing up is to map out your family’s history and stories around money.

Start by thinking about your generation and the generations of your parents and grandparents. Write down your observations on a family tree to really visualize the topic. By creating a family financial map, you and your partner can more clearly see the patterns in each other’s families. Try some of these questions to guide your exploration:

Financial management

  • How did your parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and other significant adults handle money? Who was in charge of managing the finances?
  • What was your sense of money growing up? Did you grow up well-off, without much money, or somewhere in between? What about your parents and grandparents?
  • What were spending habits like when you were growing up? Were adults in your family frugal, or did they spend freely?

Communication

  • Did your family members discuss finances openly, in private, or not at all? What types of financial topics were discussed and what topics were not?
  • Were financial decisions across the generations of your family made jointly, or did certain individuals take them on?
  • Were there conflicts around spending or financial decisions?
  • What “rules” did you learn about money? Did your family discuss strategies around financial management? What were they?

Contextual factors

  • Did any historic events play a significant role in your family’s financial history, such as the Depression or another economic recession, war, moving to a new country, etc.?
  • Are there any cultural factors that affect the financial views of your family?
  • What did your parents, grandparents, and other adults in your family do for a living? Who was employed, doing what jobs, and in what types of career fields?
  • Did your parents or grandparents experience financial problems? What were they and how were they addressed?

Reap the rewards of your research

This holiday season and beyond, compare your financial attitudes, beliefs, goals, and expectations with those held by your partner. No matter where you are in your relationship, communicating clearly about your financial histories and doing some healthy problem solving will get you closer to building your financial future.
 


Adam and Lisa: A financial history comparison

Adam and Lisa seem to constantly disagree about who should manage their finances. Adam’s upcoming deployment has forced the issue, so they decide to map out the financial history for each of their families to help guide their conversation.
Adam Lisa
  • Grew up with financial stability.
  • Grew up with financial uncertainty.
  • Mother and both grandmothers were stay-at-home moms.
  • Father was financially well-off but died when Lisa was 13.
  • Father was a real estate agent and kept track of the money (giving Adam’s mother an “allowance” to meet household needs).
  • Mother was a stay-at-home mom until she started working as a check-out clerk after Lisa’s father died.
  • Father often bought extravagant gifts for Adam and his mom when business was good.
  • Maternal grandparents had owned a local business but lost it when Lisa’s mom was a baby.
  • Mother frequently talked about what a good provider Adam’s father was and how much it showed he loved her.
  • Mother frequently discussed financial hardships and stressed to Lisa the importance of being financially independent.
Once Lisa and Adam reviewed their family histories, they started to realize why they argued about financial control. Adam had learned that his responsibility as a husband was to provide financially for his family and viewed it as a symbol of love. Until now, he didn’t understand Lisa’s anxiety. Meanwhile, Lisa realized that the financial hardship and economic shift she had experienced after her father’s death left her feeling insecure and powerless. She viewed managing their money as a means of independence, safety, and control, while Adam viewed it as a symbol of care.

Resources

Archuleta, K. L., & Burr, E. A. (2015). Systemic financial therapy. In Financial Therapy (pp. 217–234).

Dew, J., & Dakin, J. (2011). Financial disagreements and marital conflict tactics. Journal of Financial Therapy, 2(1). doi:10.4148/jft.v2i1.1414

Nelson, R. J., Smith, T. E., Shelton, V. M., & Richards, K. V. (2015). Three interventions for financial therapy: Fostering an examination of financial behaviors and beliefs. Journal of Financial Therapy, 6(1). doi:10.4148/1944-9771.1058

Papp, L. M., Cummings, E. M., & Goeke-Morey, M. C. (2009). For richer, for poorer: Money as a topic of marital conflict in the home. Family Relations, 58(1), 91–103. doi:10.1111/j.1741-3729.2008.00537.x

Ross, D. B., O’Neal, C. W., Arnold, A. L., & Mancini, J. A. (2017). Money matters in marriage: Financial concerns, warmth, and hostility among military couples. Journal of Family and Economic Issues, 38(4), 572–581. doi:10.1007/s10834-017-9522-y