Reconciling Couples’ Money Differences

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Mars and Venus

I read with interest Roy Diliberto’s article in Financial Advisor Magazine entitled “Reconciling Couples’ Money Difference” in which he writes:

One of our clients is a psychologist and specializes in couples therapy. Unlike many others in her profession, she addresses money issues. As she indicates in an article she wrote for a professional journal, “Couple therapists have not been trained to ask about money.”

She goes on to write: “It is important to recognize that one’s relationship, ideas, feelings and behavior with money are derived from life experiences, influences from family of origin and one’s social historical context. Money is a thing, an inanimate object—like food. How we use it, perceive it and feel about it and how it impacts relationships is not due to the inherent properties of money itself. The meaning and power of money in childhood has a powerful impact on how money is viewed as an adult. Usually, couples have not discussed this in any systematic way. How money was discussed or fought about in one’s family of origin is important to talk about in therapy. Was money used as a reward and/or punishment? Was money thought of as a tool to get what you need and to add pleasure to life, or as an end in itself and an important status symbol?”

Money is a placeholder not only for values but also for everything from unresolved issues to life goals. This the principle behind the financial idea of “Life Planning“. While financial planners are not therapists, Diliberto goes on to explain why we engage clients in such endevors:

While financial life planners are not trained as therapists and shouldn’t attempt to solve marital problems, it is also true that most of our clients are not having relationship problems, but may be having significant issues about money. And since money is our specialty and we need to help our clients make intelligent financial decisions, shouldn’t it be our responsibility to discover the factors that affect those decisions, including their histories around money and how they are affected by their backgrounds? We all know that two married people often disagree with each other about how to handle their finances. While this may not be so serious that they require professional therapy, it is useful for them to understand the genesis of those differences.

This process of self-discovery is not just futile introspection. I’ve found case after case where people’s beliefs are holding them back from enjoying life to its fullest potential. Sometimes it takes a financial planner asking strange questions in order to spark an important realization. One of the highest complements I can hear is, “That’s a really good question. No one has ever asked me that question before.”

Diliberto has had similar experiences. He writes:

As I’ve said on these pages before, there is power in asking the right questions.

According to a Money magazine survey, “71% of Americans admit that they keep secrets or lie to spouses and significant others about their money.” While this may be interesting information, how should it affect how financial life planners interact with their clients?

Of course, we have no way of knowing why so many people lie to each other about money, but I do know that an open and frank discussion about the genesis of their feelings is extremely productive. A conversation can have a liberating effect on the future of money relationships, as it did with our client couple. And if that leads to our clients making smart financial decisions, then we have fulfilled our mission. If not us, then who?

Life planning is certainly the fuzziest of reasons to engage a comprehensive financial planner. It is rarely a stated need for consumers, but I’ve seen cases where I think it brought a significant value.

Make sure someone asks you the right questions.

Follow David John Marotta:

President, CFP®, AIF®, AAMS®

David John Marotta is the Founder and President of Marotta Wealth Management. He played for the State Department chess team at age 11, graduated from Stanford, taught Computer and Information Science, and still loves math and strategy games. In addition to his financial writing, David is a co-author of The Haunting of Bob Cratchit.