Can two financially incompatible people make their relationship work?

By: Lisa Coxon on May 3, 2019

There’s the old adage that in love, opposites attract. An introvert and an extrovert can help bring out each other’s best qualities; a night owl and an early bird can still get adequate rest; an artsy creative type and a corporate cog can learn to see the value in each other’s work. These seemingly polar opposites can complement each other in unexpected ways.

But what happens when those with opposing financial personalities become a couple? A spender and a saver. A debtor and a free agent.

Are they doomed — or can they find happiness along the way?

Money is an intimacy issue

“When you decide that you’re a couple and you’re going to move in together — the second that you blend your lives like that, you have to talk about money,” says Resa Shore, a money coach based in Napa, California.

“If you don't share your life around money, you’re eliminating a huge part of the intimacy in your relationship because you have to have shared goals.”

Your approaches to money might be wildly different, but there should be a shared strategy for how you both want to live your lives together. That might mean saving for a house, a vacation, retirement, and so on.

“In not blending your finances to some degree, you tend not to plan your goals together.”

That said, bringing money into the mix in the early stages of a relationship can be a little nerve racking. Are you ready to divulge your income? Are you prepared to be honest about how much debt you have? Do you trust this person enough to harbour such sensitive information?

“If somebody really wants to be together as a couple then they have to agree to a level of intimacy that comes with the game,” says Shore. “So if someone is absolutely not willing to share their information then they have problems that are way bigger than financial.”

Avoidance breeds contempt

When couples don’t get real about money (see: being transparent about what they have or owe, addressing their differing financial approaches and trying to reconcile them), it can lead to all kinds of unsavory feelings.

“Everybody has their own baggage and issues with money,” says Shore. “Everybody does. And then you come together with two people and try to be in a relationship. If it’s not discussed, it ends up being more of a crisis when it actually does come up.”

That’s when feelings of resentment, mistrust and financial infidelity can start to seep in.

“Say you want to save money to buy a house and your partner says ‘oh yeah’ but then spends the money on other stuff,” says Shore. “It limits your ability to save. And then that feels like a betrayal.”

These issues can cause serious damage to a relationship if left to fester. If you can’t trust your partner when it comes to money, the line starts to get blurred around whether you can trust them in other areas. Just like Shore says you can’t disentangle money from intimacy, it becomes challenging to disentangle someone’s financial habits from who they really are at their core.

“It causes an enormous amount of mistrust,” says Shore, “and it can even cause the demise of the relationship.”

Some might assume, then, that the best way to avoid any trouble in the financial department is to keep finances completely separate. But Shore says this can lead to conflict, too, since neither partner has a good idea of how much money or debt the other person has or what they’re doing or not doing with it.

If someone is absolutely not willing to share their information then they have problems that are way bigger than financial

“It sounds good but realistically it becomes very problematic,” she says. “For example, people don’t always make the same salary so there’s inequity in that and if it’s not discussed fully, then that can lead to resentment.”

According to a paper published in the Journal of Financial Planning that aimed to find out how a couple’s spending personalities contributed to financial conflict between them, “financial problems are consistently reported as a top stressor for Americans, contributing to marital conflict and dissolution.”

That same paper revealed that when it comes to top predictors of financial conflict, perception actually had a lot to do with it. For instance, in heterosexual relationships, husbands said that their top predictors of financial conflict included “perceptions of a spendy wife” as well as the wife thinking that the husband is spendy. The same predictors held true when wives were asked the same question.

In order to quash these perceptions and get to what’s really going on, a conversation needs to be had about where each partner’s financial beliefs stem from in the first place.

“Get in your partner’s shoes”

The first step to resolving financial incompatibility is for both partners to figure out where their attitudes about money come from and what emotions they’ve attached to money. For most, this will have a lot to do with what their childhood environment and financial situation was like.

“Everybody has to identify their own scripts around money,” says Shore. “Like any psychological issue, you develop a belief system based on survival as a child, but that doesn't mean that it still works for you when you’re 40.”

For example, maybe one partner is constantly fearful that the couple won’t have enough money, even though they’re earning six figures a year. That could be because growing up, money was scarce. Or maybe one partner grew up financially privileged. They might expect to be able to buy or do certain things that require larger amounts of money than their partner is comfortable with or able to spend. That might require a reevaluation of spending habits.

“That’s the conversation that people should have with each other,” says Shore. “How did you grow up?” Then you need to really try to see it from your partner’s point of view.

“Hear out the other partner, understand that their approach is coming from an emotional place, and get in their shoes for a while.”

Compatibility is possible

Even though two people might be coming at money from wildly different places, the good news is that it’s possible to find some common ground and even change their financial habits.

“I’ve seen people change dramatically with the way they do things,” says Shore, which has a lot to do with confronting your finances as a couple: looking realistically at what, together, you actually have, and tracking your spending.

That’s why, even though most people don’t even want to hear about it, Shore always recommends creating a joint spending plan.

“I do believe that everybody in a relationship should have some of their own money, but what is critical — and this is what most people don’t do, don’t want to do, don’t even wanna hear about — is creating a joint budget.”

If one person in the partnership is credit-card happy and the other has a laissez-faire attitude about when the next paycheck is coming in, chances are they’ll have a skewed view of their fiscal reality. A joint budget can help solve that. “Credit cards and consumer loans give people a really false sense of their earning power,” says Shore. Creating that joint spending plan gives both partners the chance to confront their basic living expenses, income, and the things they like to spend their money on.

In other words, you can have different approaches to money, but you need to have joint goals: things like buying a house, taking a vacation, and saving for retirement. You have to find a way to come together on these — even if it means compromising some of your individual wants for shared needs. And if you can carve out the space to have a transparent discussion around your internalized beliefs about money, you’ll be set up for life, Shore says.

“Every young couple should start out by having an open conversation about money. And they have to accept that things don’t have to be equal. You can decide in a relationship what works for you. There aren’t rules on how to do it, but you do have to communicate about it.”