Couples argue about money a lot — here’s how to stop

People fight about money all the time. It has been quantified. A third or more of all arguments in marriages are about money.

Usually this falls into one of two categories:

1. Spouse A thinks that Spouse B spends too much money.

2. Spouse A thinks that Spouse B doesn’t spend enough money.

I advocate for married couples to keep their money separate. My wife and I have always kept our money separate — for 21-plus years. And it works great for us.

Some people agreed with that, and lots of people didn’t, mostly on religious grounds.

This essay isn’t strictly a personal finance essay. It’s more of a relationship essay about how to work together toward a common goal because you are on the same team. The irony is that people tend to work better as a team when they are two individuals, not Siamese twins.

Read: This is what it takes to be counted among the wealthy in America

Common sense

I was reading some personal finance blogs recently, and I came across something called “the 0.1% Rule.”

The idea is that neither partner has to get permission from the other partner for any expense under 0.1% of their combined net worth.

So if the couple has a $100,000 net worth, you don’t need permission for a $100 expense. If you had a $1 million net worth, you wouldn’t need permission for a $1,000 expense. And so on.

The theory is that if you rack up enough large expenses, it will eat into your retirement savings over time. So you should first check it out with your spouse.

I have another description for the 0.1% Rule: common sense. For example, I recently bought $6,000 worth of DJ equipment. Even though we keep our money separate, I told my wife about it first, as a courtesy.

She was cool with it. It’s kind of a big expense, and it would have been weird if I kept that a secret from her. It wouldn’t have been a secret for very long, anyway, when all the boxes got delivered to the front door.

Even if you keep your money separate, don’t go out and buy a new car on a whim. That’s not good for the marriage. Again, it’s common sense.

Keeping each other in the loop

I also don’t much like the idea of getting “permission” from the spouse to make a purchase. That bothers the hell out of me. My wife doesn’t own me, and I don’t own my wife. My wife doesn’t need my permission to go out and have drinks with the girls. I don’t need permission to fly to Vegas with my brother. As a courtesy, we’ll keep each other in the loop — but that is the extent of it.

Apparently, there is a new term in the lexicon for not keeping your spouse in the loop. It is called “financial infidelity.” This is when one partner goes out and makes a big purchase, or takes out a loan, or opens a separate account without the knowledge of the spouse. It is dishonest behavior.

Dishonesty about money can be just as bad as dishonesty in sexual relations. And it’s easier than ever to do, because there are no longer any paper statements being delivered to the house. You’d want to keep your spouse in the loop on a big expense like you’d want to keep him/her in the loop about anything else.

If you are at the point in your relationship where you are sneaking around to buy stuff, this isn’t a money problem. It’s a relationship problem, and it’s bad.

It helps to marry someone who has the same attitudes toward money, but it’s not necessary. In my marriage, I’m the risk-taker who spends a bit and my wife is the cautious saver. We make it work because we communicate. Sometimes I get my way, but not always. Sometimes she gets her way, but not always. If one person got their way all the time, it would no longer be fair. We’re a team. If it’s not fair, then there’s no team.

Don’t argue about the small stuff

Life is too short to fight about money. Especially trivial amounts of money. If you are getting (or receiving) crap for making small purchases, it’s perhaps time to take a step back and evaluate the relationship. For two reasons:

1. Your standard of living in retirement is not the product of millions of small decisions; it’s the product of one or two big decisions.

2. You shouldn’t sweat the small stuff. Almost everything is small stuff.

The funny thing is that people will go to the mat on $20 purchases. But when it’s time to take out a high six-figure mortgage, groupthink takes over and the married couple walks into a giant spinning blade. If you’re going to argue about something, argue about the thing that could blow you sky-high, not the bottle of wine you picked up from the grocery store.

I watched a lot of people tomahawk themselves financially in 2006. And it was usually because one partner fell in love with the “dream home” and the other partner just couldn’t say no.

Most people can resolve most disagreements with sincere communication — unless one partner has severe pathological spending (or lack of spending) issues hard-wired from childhood trauma. Those people are unlikely to change unless their behavior causes them a great deal of discomfort. If you are married to a person like this, and you love them, make do the best you can. These are not easy issues to deal with.

Figure out a system that works. Do more of what works and less of what doesn’t — not the other way around.

Jared Dillian is a former head of ETF trading at Lehman Brothers. Get his free report: Five key ETF trading strategies every investor should know about.

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