SALT LAKE CITY — Couples who desire financial and marital harmony may want to check their judgments of each other's spending habits — and be charitable in their view. New research from BYU and Kansas State University finds that a husband's view that his wife is too "spendy" is the greatest predictor of conflict when it comes to money.
It doesn't even matter if it's true, according to the study "Tightwads and Spenders: Predicting Financial Conflict in Couple Relationships," which was published in the peer-reviewed, scholarly Journal of Financial Planning.
The wife thinking the husband viewed her as being too free with money was also a portent of strife, as was a woman who perceives her husband as too loose with money, though to a lesser extent. Conversely, one spouse perceiving the other as a "tightwad" did not predict financial disagreements, said study co-author Ashley LeBaron, a graduate student in BYU's Marriage, Family and Human Development master's program.
"Perceptions are reality," said E. Jeffrey Hill, professor of family life at Brigham Young University and one of the study authors. "It's very important as a couple to be on the same page as far as finances go if you want to have a happy marriage. Communication is key."
Researchers found the importance of perception held true regardless of whether couples had large or small incomes.
Money arguments are often more about disagreements regarding how money is spent than about the amount of money available to a family, according to the study.
"Previous research has found that people are attracted to others who have different personalities than their own, but only when they are dissatisfied with themselves," the researchers wrote. "Those who are satisfied with themselves tend to have partners who are similar to them. Couples who marry based on dissimilar spending personalities tend to have increased financial conflict, which is a predictor of marital dissatisfaction."
The researchers used the second wave (2008 data) of the Flourishing Families study, which has been gathering data annually from a nationally representative sample of families in Seattle since 2007. They linked the responses of each husband and wife together to analyze its effect on the relationship when it came to marital or financial conflict. Respondents were on average 45 to 46 years old and had been married for 18 years.
What predicted conflict for husbands and wives varied somewhat. Top predictors for husbands were the perception the wife was a spender, followed by financial worries, lower income, having three or more children or being perceived by his wife as being too spendy.
For wives, financial conflict was predicted by having a husband who thinks she spends too much, then by lack of communication between spouses, having financial worries, having a husband with low income and by her perception of her husband as spendy.
People can't typically control their spouse's spending, said LeBaron. They can control their own. They can also — and she said this is very important — control how charitably they view each other.
"I can ask, am I viewing my spouse unfairly and, if I am, how can I change my perceptions and my attitudes and actions toward them? The take-home message for me is it's so important to have a view of good intentions in other people and look for the good, especially in a spouse.
"It's not that surprising that if we don't think well of them, we're not going to get along very well," she said.
Hill said good communication between partners is critical to clearing up misperceptions or dealing with issues.
"Couples need to communicate about finances, especially early in marriage. Don't think that financial problems will magically go away when circumstances change," said Sonya Britt-Lutter, an associate professor of personal financial planning at Kansas State University, and the study's lead author, in a written statement. "The study showed that circumstances weren't the issue here, perception was, and perception doesn't always change when circumstances do."
Couples should also be open to outside help if they need it, including financial counseling or marital therapy, LeBaron and Hill agreed. An outside expert could help couples strengthen their finances and their marriages.
The study noted that financial planners should encourage couples to openly discuss their finances, but also their perceptions of each other's spending or saving behaviors.
Among study subjects, 85 percent of the husbands and 90 percent of the wives said they had some type of financial worry, said Hill. "The good news about money is they are numbers and you can objectively see progress," he added.
He recommends couples take basic steps, like setting a budget they can live within, then reviewing it and their progress weekly. If they do those things, "money problems are really solvable," he added.
Transparency is of great help within a family, according to Hill, who teaches personal finances to about 1,000 BYU students each year. Couples who review their finances together regularly don't have misperceptions and can resolve or prevent problems.
He said teaching students about money has taught him how "integral the way we use our material resources is to a successful family." Yet many of his students are clueless how money can impact marriage and family life. Other research he's done suggests just 25-30 percent of families are doing a good job of preparing their kids with financial knowledge and skills.
As for the ways people spend, Hill suggests couples consider "mad money," a concept that the study included, too. "A lot of times, insignificant expenses cause conflict. So when a husband and wife each have a set amount they don't have to account to each other for and can use for personal preferences, it really eliminates a lot of strife," Hill said.
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