My parents will be celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary this year, and while they’ve had their ups and downs and challenges, one thing they’ve never fought about is money.
Bravely navigating the many mortgages and overdrafts while scrimping and worrying about affording three kids at university at the same time, not once did they resent, blame or provoke each other.
They saw money as a necessary evil and stood united against the trials they faced during the lean times and triumphant through the years of plenty. Naturally I thought it would be the same for me.
Boy was I wrong. And it took the better part of a decade and one amicable but painful divorce for me to realise that.
I knew that couples fought about money, but growing up I never understood the reasons why. I simply assumed one of them was being unreasonable.
You hear stories about the mad wife who buys R5000 worth of shoes every month, or the shady husband who siphons money away into an account for his mistress and you think, well, no wonder they fight!
But the truth is, these people are few and far between. A lot of us seemingly reasonable people have the same fights about money over and over again without any of us being the “goodie” or the “baddie”. Because money is not just a functional thing – there is a huge emotional aspect to it, and until we examine how things like earning, spending, saving and splurging make us feel, it will be difficult to understand how to break the cycle of disappointment.
Where does your spending style come from?
A person’s spending style or money personality is often something they are barely even aware of – simply because it feels natural and normal to them. Yet different people’s approach to handling money varies drastically. Your spending style is rooted in something deeper than your upbringing, your income bracket, or your financial education. Just look at how differently siblings manage money, and you’ll see that this money personality is not something a person is taught. It lies in our specific psychological makeup.
This immediately means two things:
1) Because it’s tied in with your personality, your spending style is very difficult to change and;
2) Chances are you might fall in love with someone who’s spending style is very different to yours. In fact, research done by Wharton’s School of Finance and Northwestern University suggests that opposite financial personalities often attract each other.
So how do you know where you fit in?
The four main spending styles
A host of books, papers and articles have been published identifying the financial archetypes. The names vary, and some are more nuanced than others, but four major types keep surfacing. (If you’re interested in more in-depth study you can do this quiz created by financial advisor Brent Kessel).
The Big Spender
Big spenders have no qualms parting with cash. The love living it up and will spend money on fun experiences and lavish items they don’t really need. Retail therapy makes them happy and while they are generous with money they also tend to be rather careless. (According to this study there seems to be a correlation between feeling a loss of power and overspending.)
The opposite of the spender is the penny-pincher. These folk even find it painful to pay attention. They are compulsive hoarders and squirrel away money instead of spending it. They are constantly comparing prices and looking for bargains, and while this means they are hardly ever in debt and they have nice rainy-day funds, they often refrain from spending even on items that they need. (According to Psych Mechanics the root of stinginess lies in fear.)
Gamblers are either very successful or bankrupt. And they don’t really mind either way. The thrill for them lies in living a high risk, high reward lifestyle. They will make dangerous investments and believe in getting rich quick. And when their exploits work they won’t think twice about risking the capital yet again for another exciting venture. (This study explored different people’s neural patterns and how they’re associated with pleasure when taking financial risks.)
The hippy is an idealist who doesn’t believe that material wealth can buy happiness. They don’t spend much emotional energy or time thinking about money and don’t really care whether they have a little or a lot of it. Instead, they focus on the things in life which they find meaningful. While they are a refreshingly non-materialistic bunch, they often find themselves in a pickle, because hey, you can’t eat idealism.
So what do you do if your spending styles are in opposition?
As with all other points of contention in a relationship, communication is key.
Identify your money personalities
If you understand that your partner actually feels emotionally threatened or fearful when you dip into the savings account, you might think twice before doing so for something frivolous. Conversely, if you realise that your partner finds it truly thrilling to invest their bonus into a new business while you wanted them to top up their retirement fund, you might be more open to compromise. Maybe they can invest a percentage into the high-risk option and safely save the rest?
Make planning and budgeting a joint effort
Often in a relationship, one partner tends to bear the brunt of the financial responsibilities. This can sometimes turn out to be unfair to both parties. Why not try working together towards a common goal? Many couples find that saving together for something both want makes the process much easier and the payoff much more rewarding.
Have separate, but not secret, savings accounts
If your partner’s spending makes you anxious, or you have goals that he or she has no interest in, why not think about starting your own savings account? Who knows, you might even inspire them to do the same.
Get outside help
If you realise that your spending styles are just too different to resolve, and that it’s eating away at your relationship, consider getting an objective financial advisor. Like a marriage counsellor, a financial advisor can give you impartial, practical advice without choosing sides, getting personal or hurting anyone’s feelings.
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