Most committed couples are on good terms with each other when it comes to family finances. But a new survey for Credit Karma found 1 in 10 consider their spouse or partner to be a "financial bully." It also said young couples are more likely to feel bullied about money than older respondents.
"The overall message is good news because the number that feel financially bullied is pretty minimal," said Bethy Hardeman, communications manager at San Francisco-based Credit Karma.
For those age 18 to 34, the number doubles to 20 percent who say one partner is domineering when it comes to money. And more than one-fifth of those younger respondents said they'd actually get a divorce if they could afford it.
Of those 55 and older, only 6 percent described themselves as financially bullied.
The survey, conducted by Harris Interactive in June, found virtually no difference in whether males or females bully concerning money. Men were slightly more inclined to hide accounts or bills than women. Among the younger couples, more men felt bullied financially than did women.
The survey didn't tell respondents what it considers financial bullying. "We left it up to the respondent to make that determination," Hardeman said. "The way we talked about it is a financial bully uses his or her influence in a committed relationship to intimidate the partner in a monetary fashion. For example, your partner makes you feel guilty about your shopping habits. We all feel guilty, but this is placed upon you by someone else."
Other examples might include someone demanding receipts for all purchases or giving a partner an allowance or forcing the use of coupons, she said. Lots of people do those things voluntarily. The bullying comes in when there's "forceful implementation."
Avoiding budget discussions
Hardeman said couples are sometimes seen where one has no credit history on record. Having a record for having paid bills can be important. "We see it time and time again, where people come in and try to sign up to get something and find they have no credit at all. They have allowed a spouse or partner to apply in his or her name and have a thin file, and if they needed to do something fast, they couldn't do it," she said.
When couples talk to Will VanderToolen about their financial challenges, it's not usually about bullying at all. However, the director of counseling services at Fair Credit Foundation in Salt Lake City has seen enough financial bullying to know that one partner's dominance sometimes spills over into other types of domination, sometimes including abuse.
Still, "It's much more common to see couples that have disagreements about how money is spent or who are hiding money or are not truthful about the debt in their lives," he said.
Visiting a credit counselor typically sets couples "on a path of discovery" that includes disclosure of debt one partner didn't know about. Sometimes a partner will hide how much services truly cost or how many credit cards one possesses, VanderToolen said.
"Quite often, they've been avoiding the discussion. They both know their financial situation is bad and just don't want to face up to how bad it actually is," he said.
Waiting until the mail contains shut-off notices or the phone is ringing with collection calls is a mistake, he noted.
Fixing financial relationships
Hardeman said it's very important to deal with money-related bullying early on if one sees it. Hardeman and VanderToolen both recommend that couples talk though their finances — including the pieces that are hard.
"Talk about your finances and be open," Hardeman said. "Have monthly conversations about where you stand. If the bullying feels more serious, get your partner to go to counseling with you, because it can be helpful to talk to someone with an outside perspective. If it's more severe, extreme, take back some of the control. Make sure you have a firm financial standing and know what's going on in your own finances."
One of the hardest things sometimes is getting couples to agree on what expenses to cut to dig out of a hole. VanderToolen said couples sometimes work individually toward good goals, like mom saving for a family vacation and dad for a needed vehicle. If they don't talk about what they're doing. and find common ground and a way to split their resources to work toward both goals, it can lead to disagreement and misunderstanding.
"It is vital couples take a financial inventory and establish a plan that can be agreed to by all," VanderToolen said. "If one person forces it on the other, there is likely to be some resentment and strain in the relationship."
The survey also found those with children under age 18 at home are more likely to classify their mates as bullies than those that don't live with children (18 percent versus 7 percent).
"When partners lie or hide money concerns from another, it can have a major impact on their financial future," said Ken Lin, chief executive of the counseling service Credit Karma. "Many big financial decisions, like applying for a mortgage or saving for a child's education, are made more easily with transparency and communication."
The survey was conducted online in June among 2,021 adults, of whom 1,036 were married or living with a partner.
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