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Why is it so hard to talk about money?
If you think differently about finances, things will get complicated.
Rare is the couple that doesn’t argue about money. Complicated feelings about independence, self-esteem, morality, and safety can all be aroused by a conversation about how much to spend on that new family car, or whether to splurge on a fancy new restaurant in town.
Throw in the fact that most contemporary families are battling huge amounts of debt and vertiginious utility prices, and you have a recipe for some blockbuster rows.
Money and relationships
We tend to believe our attitudes to money are stable and fixed, but in fact they change depending on the particular chemistry of each relationship.
For example, both of you might have been spenders in the past, but as you settle into a relationship, it’s likely one will come to occupy a spender role and the other a saver.
New circumstances in an existing relationship, like one partner getting a promotion, can also upset the money/power balance.
Our money personalities
It can help to zero in on how each of you think and feel about money issues. Here I’m sharing with you a light-hearted but somewhat useful typology of common “money personalities”.
Money Owl / Sensible Investor
These wise creatures are very industrious; buying a nice home, planning for a rainy day, and ascribing pension funds an almost sacred importance.
At first sight, this might seem the perfect attitude to money. However owls can find life rather dull. They have trouble spending money on pleasurable or frivolous things and their growing wealth can be a burden rather than a pleasure. They also sometimes find it difficult to take credit for what they have achieved.
Flashpoints: if your partner is an owl-type, you may find yourself having to battle for home improvements or an annual vacation that focuses on maximising enjoyment, not minimising cost. They may well squirrel any extra money you accrue into stocks and ISAs, causing plenty of arguments about whether you are really getting the most out of your lives together.
Who makes the best partner - an Owl will generally find a good equilibrium when paired with a Wild Spender, who can help them learn to enjoy financial success. They should steer clear of Hoarders, however, as that pairing will exacerbate each partner’s natural tendency to worry.
How to understand your Owl partner better - if your partner falls into this category, remember that money is never just about money. It is intertwined with self-esteem, power, security, freedom, dependency, and control.
Exactly what money means to your partner depends on how it was used when they were a child. Ask who controlled the purse-strings back then to get a greater understanding of how they operate today. This will allow you to tackle the cause of money issues rather than just the symptoms.
Take a look at my book The Happy Couple’s Handbook if you’d like to learn some successful strategies to manage conflict between the two of you.
Money March Hare / Wild Spender
It’s party time. They are forever buying gifts for themselves and other people. Although incredibly generous, these creatures find it impossible to save. Ill health or a family crisis can easily tip them into serious financial problems.
They have lots of debt on their credit cards and become very grouchy if reined in or asked to explain a bill. March Hare’s creative accounting allows them to save £50 on a dress and then easily justify spending the “windfall” on matching accessories!
Flashpoints: They will likely believe that their hard work has earned them the right to “little pleasures”, even if, from your perspective, this involves ridiculous sums on new hobbies that are dropped after a week or so.
Another common battleground comes up with March Hare parents - they will often justify overspending on the children as “making sure they have the best of everything”. This line of thinking may come into play with extended family and close friends, too.
Who makes the best partner? Although a Hoarder’s iron financial discipline can curb a Wild Spender, they will still search for ways to break-out. So probably the best option is the Sensible Saver, who might teach the March Hare different ways, rather than imposing them.
The worst choice is a Gambler, together these two animals are just a hop, skip and a jump from being declared bankrupt.
How to understand your March Hare partner better : A relationship with a March Hare is like sitting on a see-saw. The more you control all the budgeting, the more you are pushing down on the sensible end. What happens? They shoot into the sky, like a carefree child. Try to find a middle way which will balance both of your needs.
Money Porcupine / Hoarder
Money, for the Hoarder, is always about respect. Unless they are ‘in the money’, their quills full, these animals feel a failure. When they do spend, it is not necessarily in the bargain basement. Good quality bolsters a Porcupine’s self worth and durability appeals to their love of security.
Flashpoints: the Porcupine may find it difficult to spend money on themselves, and can turn somewhat Scrooge-like. Their favourite past time is wandering round switching off all the lights - normally while you’re in the shower!
A typical behaviour is to have multiple and often secret small accounts stashed around, so that they feel sure they have financial backup in an emergency. This can definitely be hard for partners to grapple with.
Who makes the best partner? They are happiest with a Sensible Investor, but in times of crisis they’ll drive each other mad with their warnings of doom.
The worst Hoarder nightmare would be a Gambler, but the chances of these two falling in love is slight.
How to understand your Porcupine partner better? It is tempting to try and side-step them - either by making your own little piles of money to pay for what they consider extravagances (like the dish soap that doesn’t leave you with a rash) - or by asking your parents for money.
However, they need to be challenged. Try making them accompany you on a shopping expedition with the kids, it will be stressful and you might even come back empty-handed but they’ll have a better grasp of your money pressures.
Alternatively, write all your current spending priorities on a set of cards and make one for them too. Both of you put them into order from most to least important and discuss them. This provide a platform to understand your differences and to discuss turning the top priority into reality.
Money Monkey / Worrier
“I’m never going to have enough,” is this creature’s constant fear. There’s always some distant time in the future, when the Monkey will feel secure-that’s if their employer doesn’t go belly up first!
Rather than finding new ways to generate more money, Monkeys just worry round and round in ever-decreasing circles. This is the type most likely to suffer from money stress - sometimes even when their bank account is in the black - and also the most likely to purchase every insurance policy going.
Flashpoints - Monkeys normally confide in nobody and retreat inside themselves. Efforts to have a calm conversation about money with them may be derailed by their extreme anxiety.
Who makes the best partner? Both Sensible Investors and Hoarders appeal to the fretting Monkey’s sense of security, but maybe this animal would be better with aWild Spender who will force them to stop worrying and take action.
The worst option is the Innocent Butterfly who will make them angry as they flit freely by.
How to understand your Monkey partner better? The Monkey needs to take responsibility for money - just worrying about it doesn’t count. If you have debts, refocus their energy onto coming up with solutions. This could be cost-cutting - even if it’s largely cosmetic they will appreciate it - or ways of generating more money.
Remind them that being financially successful is not just about working harder but thinking smarter.
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Money Fox / Gambler
They enjoy the thrill of risk taking. Security, planning, budgeting all seem terribly restrictive. Not all foxes put their money into slot machines; casinos; and the like; but all are interested in get rich quick schemes.
Flashpoints: Foxes don’t always take responsibility for a loss well. Instead they blame the boss, the government, bad luck and even you. For a short time this ruse covers up their feelings of failure, but does not stop them from feeling completely devastated.
Who makes the best partner? This animal will be least happy with a fretting Monkey, but will try to make any combination work by shutting themselves off from their partner and going their own sweet way.
How to understand your fox better? Foxes are superficially very charming, but under the “loveable rogue” act is a very cunning creature. They live for the moment, so it is pointless making plans. If your nerves are strong enough, enjoy their company. However never set up a joint account together, or believe a third of what they promise. Foxes are much better for a wild fling than a life partner.
Money Butterfly / Innocent
‘I have no idea where the money goes each month’ is most likely to drop out of a Butterfly’s mouth. Really it’s no mystery, they could go through their cheque book and bank statement and work it out!
However these creatures are afraid of what they’d find and would prefer to be in deep denial. Some of them think money worry is beneath them, other just don’t want to take responsibility for their bad habits.
The patron saint of Butterflies is the Dickens character Mr Micawber, who believed that ‘something will turn up.’
Who makes the best partner? Top of the list is the Sensible Saver, who keeps an eye on their wayward habits, and maybe even finds them funny. Humour is always a good way to keep money issues in proportion.
Bottom of the pile is a Hoarder, who makes them miserable by forever asking them to account for every penny and balance their cheque book. It’s like asking a cat to bark.
How to understand your Butterfly partner better: money should be a joint responsibility, so don’t let them get away with playing stupid. Find a small goal - like paying the bills on time - and make them stick to it.
It IS possible to help them understand that money does not move in mysterious ways, after all. They might take a while to get used to being money-smart, so don’t grab back responsibility after the first mistake. Some clever Butterflies even deliberately fail, so they can return to blissful ignorance. Don’t fall into their trap!
In other news, this week’s podcast conversation with Renee Mill on Practical Tools for Managing Anxiety & Stress has lots of very useful insights - including why you might benefit from taking a tool-based approach first, rather than diving into therapy to address your anxiety.
As always, if it feels like the right time to start marital therapy, send an email to Tricia (firstname.lastname@example.org) for a virtual or in-person appointment with one of my team of therapists in London, or with me here in Berlin.