The statistics are cited often: Money is the No. 1 issue couples fight about and a top reason for divorce. Tracy Brockman, licensed professional counselor with Integrative Recovery Therapies, says it's one of those "biggies."
"I don't know why it is, but we're so ashamed when it comes to money," Brockman says. "It makes us very vulnerable. It's an enormous source of shame and fear. Money is our biggest symbol — we put a lot of meaning behind money."
"It can be difficult to talk about because people have different views of money," says John Zollinger, New Orleans market president at Home Bank. "It's a possession. It's yours. You want domain and control over it."
When a couple sets up a household budget, all the moving pieces can cause chaos. Joint financial responsibility offers a level of transparency that can be comforting, but the downside is it's difficult to track spending if you're both drawing from the same account. It also can cause tension if one person earns significantly more money than the other — the imbalance can leave the lower earner feeling less empowered and the higher earner feeling a loss of financial independence.
Brockman says it's important to treat the financially vulnerable partner with compassion and to assign a value to what that partner brings to the picture, whether it's shuttling the kids around, cooking meals or taking care of the yard.
If a joint account doesn't work for you, Zollinger poses this hypothetical question to help couples decide who should take the lead on engineering household finances.
"When you get in the car with somebody else and you have the choice to (be a passenger) or drive, which one do you take?" he asks. "It's the same with finances — it's very difficult for both of you to drive."
Mixing love and money may seem as compatible as seafood gumbo over potato salad — it works for some people, but it leaves many struggling to not be critical. Brockman, an expert on the heart, and Zollinger, the boss of the bank book, offer poignant and practical advice to couples trying to minimize money woes in a few specific scenarios.
"You have to make it about 'us' and not about 'me.'" — John Zollinger
Going out — who should pay?
Brockman: "Before you go on a date, if you don't like the terms, don't go. If you can afford to go Dutch and it doesn't bother you, go. On a first date, who pays isn't usually discussed until the end. If one person is adamant about paying, let them. You can offer to pay next time. Being unable to receive could be an early sign of money issues."
Zollinger: "It's 'old school,' but I think whoever is doing the courting should pay for the date. When you get further into the relationship and you get more comfortable, then you can discuss and decide beforehand what the rules of engagement are."
Splitting household expenses — what's "fair"?
Brockman: "It's whatever the individuals can afford, but balance out on other household tasks. Pick up the ball in other areas and assign value to what you can do that's missing from the money. Discuss payments if it doesn't seem fair to you."
Zollinger: "Fair is not 50/50, unless both sides make exactly the same amount of money. There's equitable though, based on each other's income."
"My partner spends too much money on ..." — how do I address my mate's spending habits?
Brockman: "Gently and honestly say how you feel, how their overspending in some way threatens your security or makes you feel upset. Come up with a game plan to resolve the issue. But, to get someone to hear you on that kind of level, you have to say it in a way that doesn't make them feel horrible. If a person is out there recklessly spending, there's already an underlying problem. It's important not to shame them. Make sure you're not [bringing it up] in a state of anger."
Zollinger: "If your partner is doing something that you just don't agree with, you need to say something. You don't need to say it in a way that's antagonizing or threatening. ... Just say, 'Let's talk about this.' Don't do it in the heat of the moment. If you make your partner defensive ... you're not going to get anywhere."
Brockman: "Have an honest discussion (about money) when it feels right. If the relationship is healthy, even though it may be uncomfortable, it will come easily if there's honesty on both parts."
Zollinger: "If you're making a true commitment to someone, it's important for people to use that as a basis for moving forward. You have to make it about 'us,' and not about 'me.' If the other partner is approaching it the same way, you will come to a really good solution."