When I was a child, my father used to joke with me saying, “Nancy, remember, it is just as easy to fall in love with a rich guy as a poor one.” There is always some truth in a joke and looking back on this saying as an adult, it is obvious that he was steering me toward what he hoped was a happy life rather than a life of what he perceived would be a struggle. He is old fashioned and didn’t think that a girl could create her own financial security (that is fodder for another blog) but his intentions were good. In my career as a financial adviser turned financial educator, I have worked with hundreds of couples and have seen firsthand how money problems, worries and other financial issues can lead to unhappy marriages. If left unchecked, financial problems can ultimately destroy a marriage.
Money and marriage is an age old problem. I’ve seen many societal and economic changes over my 25 year career: incredibly high interest rates in the 80’s, a raging bull market in the 90’s, the stock bubble bursting in 2000, the rise of 401(k) plans replacing defined benefit pension plans, as well as the most recent financial crisis. However, during good or bad economic times some things never change–couples are still fighting about money. In many cases, they are the very same things couples were fighting about 25 years ago. According to research as well as my own experience working with couples and money, here are the top five money conflicts that lead to marital strife and ultimately divorce.
Materialism – valuing “things” or money over the relationship. Research on marriage has shown that couples who are materialistic rate at the bottom of the happiness scale. A recent study by BYU and William Paterson University found that spouses who were BOTH materialistic were worse off on nearly every relationship measure they looked at. It wasn’t the lack of money that was the culprit; the authors found that it was materialism itself that created much of the difficulty even when couples had plenty of money.
I saw this firsthand with a former client of mine named Yolanda who unknowingly fell into the materialism trap and nearly destroyed her marriage because of it. She is a first generation American with immigrant parents from Guatemala. She had a misguided notion in her head that if she had a beautiful home nicely decorated with a formal dining room and a landscaped yard for her family to live in then she would be happy. It was almost as if she had a picture of the American Dream and she had to step into that picture and become that person to be happy.
She insisted her husband buy a home they could barely afford along with Ethan Allen furniture and a landscaped backyard – going into debt to do it. This may not seem like materialism because we are not talking diamonds and furs here. We are talking about a dining room table but none-the-less, her focus was on accumulating things instead of on her marriage and family. Fortunately for her, this story doesn’t end tragically. When her mother passed away, something triggered in her that completely changed her outlook on her values. She got a much needed wake-up call about what was really important in life before it was too late.