Why money can make or break your marriage

It’s the number one reason why marriages split and the subject many couples find most difficult to talk about.  Katharine Hill looks at the issues and outlines principles to help keep both your finances and your relationship in good health

Since Angie and Mark married five years ago, both their salaries have been paid into their joint account which they used to pay the mortgage and the household bills. They had a credit card for emergencies, and Mark paid off the balance at the end of every month.

Then Angie discovered that for six months Mark had used credit at the end of the month “just to make ends meet”. The individual expenditure wasn’t huge - the occasional shop at Tesco, tickets to see the new Bond film, or a family meal out at Pizza Hut, but the borrowing had gradually increased, until he could only afford to repay the minimum monthly payment. Mark didn’t want to worry Angie and hid the statements from her. With an interest rate of nearly 20% they now had little hope of paying the amount due.

“It’s not the money that’s the problem,” says Angie. “It’s the fact he didn’t tell me about it and I found out by accident.”

Almost two in five couples say debt and finance are significant factors in the breakdown of their relationship. For one in four couples debt is the biggest single cause of arguments. According to relationship guidance organisation Relate, over 44% of couples argue over the issue of finance.

During my time as a family law solicitor, conflict over finance was high on the list of reasons cited as contributing to the breakdown of the marriage. The company director, the newly qualified surveyor and the check-out assistant all told the same story. I learnt debt doesn’t respect status or income. In each case financial difficulties had put stress on the marriage relationship, and then feeling the weight of guilt, people retreated into silence and secrecy.

Setting a foundation of trust

Healthy marriages that last a lifetime need to be built on a foundation of trust and honesty. Like any other potential conflict in marriage, a disagreement over finances can either be an issue that drives a wedge between us, or it can be a problem that we work at together, drawing us closer and ultimately strengthening the relationship in the process.

Working through a disagreement is never easy, but disagreements are normal – they can even be a good thing. To make a success of your marriage you need to tackle your problems together and overcome them, particularly in the area of finance.

Most arguments about money come down to spending priorities, and this has certainly been true in my experience. My husband and I have very different definitions of what items we would class as ‘luxuries’ and ‘essentials’. We’ve learnt that we needed to recognise and understand our personalities, which were shaped by the different attitudes to money in our family backgrounds.

Some people enjoy spending their money. Others prefer to save and enjoy seeing their reserves grow. One personality is not necessarily ‘better’ than the other. However, if a saver is married to a spender, it can obviously cause arguments. On the other hand, it can be an advantage to have both character traits represented when budgeting.

To avoid money becoming an issue between you the best approach is to talk about your attitudes, and plan your approach accordingly. Whatever your personalities, it’s important to be honest.

Opposite attitudes

In the early years of their marriage, Ben and Sue found the one thing which caused tension between them was money. Ben was a natural saver, but Sue was the exact opposite. Looking back, Ben comments: “Whenever the bank statement came I would be frustrated that we had no money left, or we were overdrawn. We didn’t even seem to know where the money had gone, which made it worse. I had always been careful with money, and I felt resentful towards Sue because of her spending.”

Sue reflects: “Money had never been an issue for me. I usually knew roughly how much I had in my account, and enjoyed spending what I earned. I love being able to buy little extras, being able to treat people on occasions and to give spontaneously. I had an overdraft facility which gave me a bit of a buffer. Ben didn’t seem to understand that, and I would then feel guilty about spending, and began to feel that I was hopeless with money.”

Advice from another married couple helped Sue and Ben work through their difficulties. Together they worked out a budget and paid all their money into a joint account to pay for the household expenditure. Then they agreed a sum of money that they were each free to spend or save however they wished.

“Just facing the problem and working out what to do was of huge benefit,” says Ben. “It brought things out into the open, and we found working through the issue brought us closer together.”

Towards a better financial future

Open communication about finances is important between couples, particularly if there is debt. Whatever your financial situation, the following principles will help you talk about your finances, and prevent money becoming a source of tension between you.

1. Starting point: share everything.

Most couples’ wedding vows include the promise to share everything you own with each other. The fact that you share everything is the starting point to discuss how you manage your money.

2. Seek to understand each other and communicate.

Opening a joint account reflects the fact that everything you have is shared. Agreeing a limit on the amount you spend from this account without consulting your partner will help you avoid disagreements. 

Many couples also have individual accounts which they use, for example at Christmas or birthdays, or for expenditure that they consider their responsibility. Some couples transfer an agreed sum of money into their individual accounts at the beginning of the month – it doesn’t have to be very much.

3.Work out a budget.

The process of working out a budget together has a number of benefits. It will give you a clear picture of your financial position and can be a catalyst for frank discussion. Calculate your monthly income and expenditure and discuss any planned giving.

If your expenditure exceeds your income, the solution usually is to reduce your expenditure. Check that you are claiming all benefits to which you are entitled. Then cut down on expenditure until the figures balance. Agree to review your financial situation regularly.

4. If you are finding managing money difficult . . .

* Buy a notebook and write down everything you buy.
* Cut up your credit card.
* Go back to using cash.

Following the publication of Rob Parsons’ book The Money Secret, Care for the Family ran an initiative called ‘Cash for a Month’. One family who took part said: “By taking part in ‘Cash for a Month’ we found thinking through what we really need has been a liberating and guilt-free experience. By using cash only we have saved almost a third of our income and we have been able to give financial support to our family. We are more aware of how we spend our money and we are not by any means living a frugal life style.”

These simple principles will help any couple get their finances straight, and hopefully avoid arguments about money. With increasing pressure on family finances, it’s important for couples who are worried about money to start addressing it now. As Angie discovered, hiding the bills and pretending there isn’t a problem will cause even more difficulties later on.

Taking your finances further

Care for the Family offers a number of helpful resources for couples who want to get their finances straight.
* Sign up for Cash for a Month at and get to grips with your finances.
* Rob Parsons’ ground-breaking book The Money Secret (Hodder & Stoughton £6.99) is an interesting, easy-to read introduction to the world of personal finance. The Money Secret is also available as an audio CD. A companion workbook is also available. Call Care for the Family on (029) 2081 0800 for more information.