How Fighting About Money Saved Our Marriage
"What are you doing?" he blurted. I remember staring at him like he was crazy. I wanted Doritos, so why did he care? He also found it odd that I insisted upon wheeling the cart up and down every aisle, with no shopping list or plan about what to buy—just picking and choosing as I walked along. It was then I discovered that Mark bought about six items a week, and knew exactly where they were in the store. That was no way for a princess to eat, so I got my Doritos despite his disapproval. Looking back, we can laugh about that now, yet in some ways it was a tiny but important blip on a radar screen that we ignored. We never realized we handled money so differently and how huge a role this issue would play in our relationship and future.
Three years into our marriage Mark and I still had never really sat down and made a budget or talked about our money personalities. Spending habits can be a reflection of so many other personality traits. Impulsive people tend to spend more money, whereas hesitant people tend to be tightwads. The tightwad likes to save money, but gets frustrated because the Spender is always spending their savings. The Spender gets mad at the tightwad because he "never likes to have fun" and spends the money despite the partner's wishes. It continues as a source of contention. This is exactly where Mark and I were stuck, in the endless cycle of spending, saving, spending, saving, which turned into anger, resentment, ignoring, fighting…and on and on.
I can tell you from experience: When you are talking with a Spender, she may already feel terrible about her spending, but she may have no idea how to control it. That was certainly true of me—between my spending addiction and my work with a multilevel marketing business, I had gotten us into $40,000 worth of debt.
When I first sat down and told Mark just how much debt we were in, I expected him to yell, cry, or just walk out of the room. His reaction was exactly what I needed in order to start the recovery process. He said, "I forgive you. Let's get out of this together." I cried tears of joy that day, tears of relief. My secret was out, and it didn't ruin me as I thought it would. Those words allowed me to have the confidence to heal and move forward. I shudder to think what would have happened if he had said, "Yeah, right, you've been like this forever, and I don't know how you are going to fix this." I look back on his reaction, and believe his support was the main reason I was able to have the confidence to start on my path to recovery.
One thing that a Spender will need every month is a budget meeting. At our monthly budget meeting we sit down with an agenda. Our goal is to work together to plan out the month before it happens. Mark is the one taking care of the monthly bills and organizing the month using a budgeting program that we created. I am the one who has my finger on the pulse of what is going on with the family. I typically know what birthday parties we have to attend, how much I need for groceries, and other family needs. When we work together, we actually budget successfully. If one piece is missing, the budget falls apart for the month. In this instance, our differences with money are actually a blessing, because they complement each other. Because I am a Spender, I know where I have to spend money. Since Mark is a tightwad, he prefers spreadsheets and numbers. It works amazingly well, but only because we are both on board.
Did the ability to take responsibility come easily? Heck no! It took many months of screwing up, and going to Mark to confess my overspending so he could rearrange the budget without any bounced checks. I would come to him with my head hanging low, feeling ashamed that I couldn't stay within our budget.
When we first started learning how to work together with our money, I went to him even though I didn't want to. Why? Because I made a commitment to him and to our future. With every purchase decision I made, I checked it over with Mark. I wanted to make sure I wasn't acting rashly and that he agreed with the purchase. This meant I had to learn to stay out of certain stores, because they were a huge temptation for me to overspend.
In one conversation after that fateful evening talking about our credit card bills, I remember giving him permission to tell me when I was making a bad financial decision. If you are a Spender and you want to change, you need to give one person the power to say something to you about it. It is not comfortable, but Mark's willingness to tell me when I am making a bad decision has helped me realize what my triggers are and how to stop my spending in its tracks.
Our marriage was in trouble. From the outside it could have looked as though it was all because of our financial struggles. The truth was, we were broke, but in a real way, not a monetary way. A way that could have led to divorce down the road. But because we learned how to communicate about our money in a way that was healthy, we saved our marriage.
Lauren Greutman is the author of The Recovering Spender published by Center Street Books.