What to do when your Spouse has a Spending Problem

My heart rate went up just thinking about this situation. I have sat with many couples who have been there. I can talk about some of the “research” you have already heard such as half of US couples argue over finances (the latest statistic is 48%), 60% do not like their partner’s spending habits or a recent Kansas State University study found when new couples argue frequently about money, they are 2.5 times more likely to be less satisfied in their marriage. But none of that is going to help your dilemma.

Based on the experiences of the couples I work with, many of us are massively avoidant and bad with money, a bad combo. When things start to go wrong and our spouse has a spending problem, we shut down and get protective. Financial stress isn’t something you and your partner can fix overnight. But while the cause of financial stress might not go away, you have the power to change how you communicate about that stress. 

What NOT to do when your spouse has a spending problem: Criticize, show contempt or put your husband on the defensive. This is way harder to do when our own emotions are spiked. 

What TO do when your spouse has a spending problem: What your husband needs now is understanding and empathy. I know. I know. This is probably even harder to do than not be critical or show your anger.

What to do when your spouse has a spending problem

It starts with a calm conversation. In The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, Dr. John Gottman states that 69% of problems in a relationship are unsolvable. These are things like personality traits your partner has that rub you the wrong way, or, yes, long-standing issues around spending and saving money.

Gottman’s research found that couples must learn to manage conflict rather than avoid or attempt to eliminate it. Got that? It begins with not fixing something but learning to manage the problem. Trying to solve unsolvable problems is counterproductive, and no couple will ever completely eliminate them. Ever. However, talking it through together provides a positive opportunity for understanding and growth.

Sex is like money. The two things couples generally fight about the most. Differing financial resources can establish dominance or submission, just as sexual behavior can. Money, how we make it, save it and spend it are highly personal – just like sex. Everyone else has an opinion or judgment about what we should do with our money. Some people have a lot of unhealthy behaviors and neurosis around money. Just like sex. Not everyone has an easy time having a healthy relationship with either sex or money and everyone has regrets. Most importantly, people feel shame about sex. Just like money. Which leads me to shame. 

What does shame have to do with money? 

Brene Brown, in her book, Men, Women and Worthiness defines shame as the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging – something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy. To simplify that for you: shame is feeling that we are bad. She points out that shame decimates self-esteem, and, if deep enough, shame turns into self-contempt.

Shame comes up a lot when it comes to money. In our society, we equate our value with money, compare ourselves to others and tend to blame ourselves if we aren’t keeping up with our peers, or in your husband’s case the Joneses.

According to Brown’s research, men live under the pressure of one unrelenting message: Do not, under any circumstances, be perceived as weak. 

When you point out your husband’s reckless spending, you are poking his raw spot, his shame. The natural response is anger – like a hissing cat backed into a corner, he protects himself.

How to help when your spouse has a spending problem

Solving this dilemma begins with approaching this problem with understanding and empathy. Letting your husband know that it’s OK to share mistakes or concerns. It is OK to ask for help if something is out of control. He needs to know that it’s OK to get fired or make a bad investment or be unable to pay the mortgage. He needs reassurance that you will still love him when he is collecting unemployment. He needs to know that you don’t need him to pretend to keep it all together when they feel like falling apart. Let him know it is safe to share, to have hard conversations without shaming him or making him question whether your love might be withdrawn. Let him know you are in this together. I imagine this sounds all well and good but you are now wondering what is this empathetic, calm loving, non-shaming conversation about?

Explore and share your Money Story together. We all have one and it determines our money behaviors. Our preconceived notions around money, many of them unconscious were learned a long time ago – but this isn’t a post about the damage our parents did to us. If we can understand our money beliefs we can begin to change the behaviors that hold us back financially. 

How to CREATE A MONEY STORY When Your Spouse has a Spending Problem

  • What do you believe about your ability to earn money?
  • What did you learn from your family about money?
  • How old were you when you first purchased something on your own?
  • What was the context of that purchase?
  • Did you get an allowance from your parents?
  • Did your parent’s argue about money?
  • What means did your parents use to teach you about money, and why?

Now create a new perspective on your old beliefs – re-frame them in a positive way. Take the lesson if it’s negative and not working for you and turn it to the opposite to find three specific examples of how that could be true or truer than the negative thought or belief.

Now bring this understanding to your Monthly Business Meetings. Yup, business meetings. I tell all my couples that they are the Chief Executive Officers (CEOs) and Chief Financial Officers (CFOs) of their family business. Running a family, whether there are 2 or 12 of you, is akin to running a business – buying a home(s), buying and maintaining cars, retirement, college funds, health insurance etc. If you want your business to be successful, you need to have regular meetings. Create monthly meetings to take review your budget and the state of your financial health. Relationship check ups, family meetings or whatever you need to call it – Just. Do. It.

If your husband is still unable to curb his spending, get help. Whether it’s a therapist, a coach, or a financial planner, sometimes you have to hire a professional. Getting involved with a professional can help you both gain a deeper understanding of what’s going on in your relationship as well as your finances. It doesn’t matter how much money you do or do not have. If you want to focus on moving forward and identifying and implementing solutions, a coach might be best. A financial professional can help you and your spouse better align with money goals. If your husband is resistant, there may be a bigger reason behind it and a therapist is your best bet.

Both of you should be comfortable speaking with financial advisers or accountants about money.

Bottom line: Work With a Professional.

To sum up (no pun intended), approach the conversation with calmness and an eye toward managing the problem not solving or fixing your husband. Understand the dynamic of shame that underscores how we behave toward money and that most people avoid feeling shame by reacting in anger. Explore your Money Story, your behaviors toward money and what it means in your life. Make time for monthly meetings about budgets and how you spend money as a couple or family. Finally, if there are still problems, get professional help.

Talking about money is hard, but, you can set your fears aside, avoid shame and live happily ever after. Good luck!

I first wrote this article Blissful Blue Jays. You can read the original here.