Research confirms that money tops the list of reasons couples fight. Why recognizing your own shortcomings and biases around money -- financial baggage, if you will -- will lead to a happier, more successful relationship or marriage.

My husband came home the other night and asked me if I’d heard it.

“Heard what?” I asked.

“That car ad. It’s like they were listening in to one of our old fights.”

He was right. Here’s the scenario: A couple has agreed to buy a new car. The guy comes home excited because he bought one with all the “bells and whistles.” As he is recounting all of the extras the new car has, his wife is getting angrier and angrier. She finally yells: “I thought we agreed to save money and get the base model!”

As she rants, he, sounding defeated and dismayed, tries to tell her he did, in fact, buy the base model; the car was a deal that included the extras for the base price. She can’t hear him, though. She’s too busy ranting.

When it comes to money, we all have baggage

The ad nails one of the most common conflicts every couple must face. Someone wants or needs to purchase something and his or her partner is worried about how much it will cost. It could be a big ticket item like a car. It could be something small like new towels for the bathroom. It could be an experience like a vacation. It doesn’t matter what “it” is. All of us bring different experiences, material wants, and financial philosophies to our relationships. When it comes to money and relationships, we all have baggage.

I wish I had understood this when I got married oh-so-many years ago.

My husband was the first in his family to go to college. He managed to do so thanks to a hefty scholarship and lots and lots of loans. At the dinner table, his family discussed money — and the frustrating lack of it — all the time. Now, he jokes that his parents played Russian roulette with the past due bills. To this day, whether he has it or not, my husband hates to spend money. He calls himself a “conservationist” … others might call him a  “tightwad”.

In my childhood home, we never talked about money; it just wasn’t considered polite conversation. My father was a lawyer and my mother a homemaker. He made the big financial decisions, she made the little ones. They both valued education and gave me the gift of a college degree with no debt at graduation. But for all that love of knowledge, they didn’t teach me a thing about how to manage money. It took years for me to learn to budget, plan, and eventually invest the money I (or rather, we) have. My husband is too kind to call me a “spendthrift,” but that label used to apply.

Love:marriage:Money:fighting

According to study after study, money is on the top of the list of issues couples fight about. A research report in the journal Family Relations found conflicts about money are “more pervasive, problematic, and recurrent, and remained unresolved, despite including more attempts at problem solving.” In short, relationships are fraught when it comes to money.

Take the couple in the ad. She was like my husband used to be. He was so busy worrying about money, he couldn’t hear when I had actually found a bargain. To be fair, I rarely spent time looking for bargains, so when I did bring home a shiny new purchase, my husband assumed the worst. It’s taken work — a lot of work — but now we rarely fight about money. We finally understand both our own and each others’ financial personalities. While we’ve worked hard at it, many couples have divorced over it.

But there are ways to preempt the conflict. According to a 2006 study on marital happiness, premarital financial education “was associated with higher levels of satisfaction and commitment in marriage and lower levels of conflict, and also reduced odds of divorce.” If only I had known how much money would be a source of tension and discord for us, I would have come to our relationship with more knowledge, training and compassion.

Read more

Read more of Money Under 30’s Love & Money articles, or pick up a good book about money and relationships. Here are some I recommend:

The Couples Guide to Love and Money by Jonathan Rich
Yep, that really is his last name. Of course, someone named “Rich” has to write about money.

First Comes Love, Then Comes Money by Bethany and Scott Palmer
Wife and husband financial advisors. When they got married, they decided to share what they knew with others. Now, they call themselves the “Money Couple”.)

The Secret Meaning of Money by Cloé Madanes
She’s a psychotherapist and writes about getting at the root issues of conflict around money. She says, “we use money as a secret weapon in manipulating the myriad of underlying, unresolved conflicts about sex, love and power.” Heavy stuff, but worth it).

Financially Ever After by Jeff Opdyke
The original Love and Money columnist for The Wall Street Journal. The writing is informative if a bit stiff. Lots of useful advice.

Photo: NovaleePhoto.com.

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About the author

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Lisen wishes she had money under 30, but she didn't. She had credit card debt, a husband with nearly $200k in school loans, and a job that barely covered the rent. Today at 50, she's made some, lost some, and learned a lot along the way. She had a successful business career, started and ran a non-profit, opted out and then opted back in. Now, she's an award-winning writer who focuses on issues important to women, men, and families. Read her personal blog.