For Richer or Poorer

Money has always been a divisive issue in Christina and John Barton’s 19-year marriage. John “nearly broke out in a sweat” when he saw the $60 dinner bill. “I call him the original tightwad,” says Christina, 47, describing herself as more free-spending than her husband.

Recently, the Bartons bought their first new car in 10 years; they still don’t have matching furniture. “I had to introduce him to motorized tools,” she says, “because he was using cheaper manual ones.”

It is common to find couples with different, and even conflicting, attitudes toward spending money. One partner agonizes over purchases; the other buys impulsively. One spends an entire paycheck on holiday gifts; the other gives only inexpensive homemade presents.

While people in a relationship don’t always begin as financial opposites, it isn’t unusual for them to end up in those roles, says Olivia Mellan, co-author of “Money Shy to Money Sure: A Woman’s Road Map to Financial Well-Being” (Walker Publishing).

Dating couples can avoid fights over those kinds of disparate spending habits by keeping their finances separate, according to Mellan. A man may dislike the fact that his girlfriend buys expensive handbags, or a woman may think her boyfriend spends too much on high-tech gadgets, but neither can tell the other what to buy. Disagreements are limited to issues such as how much to spend when the couple goes out: The woman wants box seats at a Dodgers game while the man wants to pay only for bleacher seats.

But once a couple are married or living together and have a shared stake in their assets, disagreements can escalate. Partners feel they have a right to comment on how the other person spends money.

Divergent attitudes toward bigger money issues, such as how much to spend on a car, a house, or care for an elderly relative, can cause serious rifts in relationships. In fact, in the United States, where half of all marriages end in divorce, disputes over money consistently rank among the leading causes of breakups. In second marriages, the number of arguments over spending habits often increases because the couple bring more financial baggage to the altar, including obligations such as debts and alimony payments that can cause resentment or distrust.

The birth of a child can exacerbate these money differences. As the child grows, a couple may argue over whether to enroll him in an expensive private school. When a child is in college or announces an engagement, the couple may disagree over how much financial support they should offer.

Having more money does not necessarily decrease the disputes, experts say. Earning some disposable income can reduce stress, especially for couples living on the edge of poverty, but it can also lead to more fights over how to spend the extra money.

Keeping the Peace

What strategies can help couples with different spending habits keep peace in their marriage? Many spouses avoid marital turmoil by not revealing every detail and dollar they spend to each other. Those who use that strategy confide that, by not mentioning certain purchases or not announcing the price of a new shirt or haircut, they avoid fights.

David Bach, author of “Smart Couples Finish Rich” (Broadway Books, $25), recommends “he, she and we” accounts.

Bach, a financial adviser, recommends that couples wanting to reduce or avoid money fights plan for the future — for emergencies and for fun. Some of his money strategies include:

  • Before marriage, forge a consensus on what to do with income, including the amount that should go into a retirement account and the amount to put away in a security basket.

  • Open up a dream account, where spouses contribute money for short-term dreams, such as a vacation or a boat, or for long-term dreams, such as a summer home.

  • Hire a financial adviser who can help manage and invest money, and be blamed if something goes wrong.

  • For second marriages, sign a prenuptial agreement if spouses bring unequal assets to the marriage.

  • For unmarried couples living together, draft a letter of agreement as to what will happen financially in the case of a breakup.

Appreciating Differences

With communication and compromise, couples can learn to grow together in their spending styles.

Christina and John Barton have frequent talks about money, which helps them focus on their priorities rather than get angry about their different spending patterns. They don’t keep secrets or separate accounts, though John knows better than to ask what some purchases cost. He’ll now agree to go out for an ice cream splurge with their children, and over the years she has become more conscientious about impulsive spending. They have come to realize that they share the desire to retain a lifestyle in which she can be a homemaker, and that they don’t want to own any material things so much that it would require her to go back to work.

At the same time, distinctive styles of spending can serve a useful role for couples. They can balance one another’s excesses: Two big spenders can spell financial ruin, while two tightwads can mean a sterile, miserly existence. Partners in healthy relationships become less rigid in their spending modes and “learn to acknowledge and appreciate each other’s spending styles,” says Mellan, who is also a psychotherapist. Experts suggest that couples regularly discuss their values and goals in order to understand and appreciate each other’s spending habits. Rather than fight over the cost of a cleaning person, they should talk about how much they value having a tidy house. Rather than criticize her husband for wanting to spend too much on a home renovation, a wife can talk to him about how she’s always dreamed of taking a cruise. “Most couples never talk about their values,” Bach says, “but it’s important and fun to ask, ‘What are we working for? What do we care most about? Are we using our money to follow our dreams?'”

Both spouses gain by working with each other’s existing spending habits, rather than trying to change them, which isn’t so easily done, according to Mellan. Spending habits form from a combination of parental influences and societal messages, she says.

Gender issues also affect how people spend money. Men tend to be risk-takers while women avoid risks, Mellan explains. A man may wish to spend more on a home that can potentially be a good investment, while a woman may rather keep the money in the bank. When a woman goes back to work after being home with her children, her spending habits may change as well. That happened to Barbara Selter, 51, when she returned to work as a consultant after staying home to care for her young daughters. While at home, she mentioned every little clothing purchase to her husband, even though he didn’t expect it. Going back to work changed her mind-set: “I work hard,” she figured, “so I’m entitled to spend on an extravagant item if I want it.”

Successful relationships require a certain level of acceptance of different spending styles. A wife may not understand why her husband buys so many music CDs and he may not comprehend why she wants to own 30 pairs of shoes, but so long as they are saving enough for their future, spouses should respect each other’s spending desires. Mellan recommends that to reduce anger or resentment, each partner should put himself or herself in the other’s place and try to understand why he or she spends in a particular way.

People can sometimes inadvertently enjoy their partner’s spending mode if they yield to it. Christina Barton still remembers her first vacation with her frugal husband. They went to Massachusetts in February to take advantage of low rates at a bed-and-breakfast. “We were the only ones there,” she says. “It was New England in winter, we were young and in love, and it was incredibly romantic.”