Most of us have strong feelings about money. Those feelings are actually based on our unique money personalities—the way we're wired, the influences of our parents, and/or our past experiences with money or employment. And those personalities play a significant role in marriage.
Some people hoard money, while others are carelessly generous. Some are responsible about financial tasks, others avoid them. Some invest conservatively, others take great risks, still others are afraid to deal with money at all. These deeply ingrained feelings and behaviors can make it hard to be rational about money, which can cause a strain on a marriage.
For example, take Bryan and Teri Smith. They're facing a serious marital crisis, in great part because of a clash of different money personalities. Their deepest needs, masked by money issues, continue to collide and paralyze each other from making progress into a healthier, happier marriage.
Bryan likes to feel significant. He excels in his work and wants to show off his success. Bryan and Teri live in a beautiful house in an exclusive part of town and drive a luxury vehicle. What most people don't know is that Bryan rents their home for an exorbitant amount and leases his car. But to Bryan, the costs are worth it. He's able to have the lifestyle he wants and not feel deprived.
Teri, on the other hand, appreciates the luxury, but has a stronger need for security. She'd prefer to own a home, but they'd have to move to a more affordable neighborhood, and she doesn't want to uproot their children from the local school. So they continue to live a flashy lifestyle—with no savings for the future, which creates anxiety and stress for her.
Marital conflicts arise not because of money itself, but because of a couple's differing emotions about money. The Bible supports this: "For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil" (1 Timothy 6:10). Behavioral psychologists agree that the two most basic human needs, beyond food and shelter, are for security and significance. These differences, although basically non-economic in nature, tend to work themselves out in economic terms.
One partner's need for significance drives him to "acquire," often by debt, thus threatening the other partner's high need for security. Such is the case with Bryan and Teri.
Ironically, spousal differences in "money personalities" are God-given. Left unchecked, these differences can spell trouble—or they can be a couple's greatest asset in money management if they understand and respect each other's "wiring." That wiring comes not only from God, but also from each spouse's background.
In 'Til Debt Do Us Part, author Julie Ann Barnhill makes this clear in a chapter titled, "The Crowded Altar." Barnhill notes that there are more than two people at the altar during a wedding. She writes:
"Propelling our actions and thoughts are patterns of behavior that we learned (both consciously and subconsciously) from our parents during our childhood and early adult years. Indeed, we are the sum total of various parts of our past. And that total adds up to some pretty interesting results in regard to money and marriage. All sorts of emotional needs and frustrations can build within a marital relationship when individual personality and its effect on our spending and money attitude aren't addressed."
That's just what happened in Barnhill's marriage. She and her husband, Rick, were faithful Christians who even attended marriage retreats. But a few years ago, they almost called it quits after ten years of marriage, three kids, and staggering bills. Julie Ann, a self-confessed compulsive spender, and Rick, a thrifty saver, were nearing bankruptcy and divorce. "When I was growing up," Julie Ann recalls, "my mom and I would shop—and Mom would say, 'You don't need to mention to Dad how much money your prom dress cost.' It was a 'don't ask, don't tell' policy. I took that pattern right into my marriage. My husband had the same approach toward money as my dad. I'd tell him, 'I've got it covered. Don't worry.' And he wouldn't. Until we finally hit rock bottom."
Julie Ann says many of the problems resulted from her upbringing. "I was never given a budget as a child; I was never told no. And I carried that into my marriage. So when Rick and I started to have financial problems, I really thought I'd just married the wrong person! For us, it took hitting rock bottom. I think the turning point came when I realized we could lose this marriage over money. I felt such an overwhelming sadness. But we felt stuck in an endless cycle."
As the Barnhills fought to save their marriage, they focused on the core of their problems. "Our problems were rooted in denying the truth, in lying to each other, in even deceiving myself," she admits. "In our case, with each lie I spoke, I was destroying trust and intimacy with Rick. And with each unrealistic expectation that he refused to budge on, our marriage suffered the consequences."
Overcoming the differences
"Often," says Barnhill, "the personality issues that become roadblocks to our communication as husband and wife were at one time the very things that attracted us to each other."
But opposites attract for a reason. Couples are drawn to each other's strengths, and they usually can see only the positive aspects of their partner. But each strength has a corresponding weakness that will appear . . . sooner or later. Just ask Kim Salch.
"I've always loved my husband's crazy sense of fun and generosity," Kim says. "Now those qualities drive me crazy. He buys odd things from all over the world. We have what I call a 'UTS' (Ugly Thing Shelf) for his collections."
A once endearing quality had become a source of friction. But God can use opposites in a marriage to balance the extremes, writes financial counselor Joe Shoecraft. "If husband and wife are identical in nature, undoubtedly the decisions will be unbalanced. Thus, a saver balances a spender. Unfortunately, learning how to balance this relationship can be difficult. What I see is that usually one personality will try to dominate the other."
What to do, then? First, recognize that "different" isn't inferior. God designed and placed different gifts and abilities in your marriage. Seeing your spouses' differences as a God-given blessing to create balance in your home, rather than an obstacle to your happiness, can transform your marriage.
Second, ask God to help you develop a healthy money personality—even by showing you where your attitudes have been unhealthy or sinful. That's what Julie Ann Barnhill did. "It wasn't until I called my deeds sinful—my selfishness and careless spending—that I sensed a softening in my heart toward Rick," she says. "Once I confessed, 'God, I want to think differently about money and stuff,' I recognized my weakness and embraced it. God gently reminded me, 'Without me you can do nothing.' We're a mess. But with God we're made right."
Accountability, not accountants
For the Barnhills, a lack of financial savvy combined with little or no communication proved almost disastrous to their marriage. But both were willing to take the right steps toward healing—and fiscal wisdom.
Julie Ann sought out inexpensive counseling from a local charity to learn basic financial skills and to improve communication with Rick. "I had to learn how to become a truth teller," she says. "The other day Rick asked me how much something cost, and then asked to see the receipt to confirm it. It's an accountability issue for both of us."
Meanwhile, Rick has taken on the job of being the family's money manager, even taking classes to learn more about long-range plans.
Today, Julie Ann says she's no longer a "chronic financial loser," as she puts it. And she says she and Rick are enjoying the kind of marriage they'd always hoped for.
"God's been so faithful to us," she says. "We certainly had repercussions from our years of financial mismanagement, but we didn't have to declare bankruptcy or head to divorce court. Even at our worst point, I discovered God's blessings never stop."
If you think your marriage might be suffering because of stress over money issues, don't hesitate to seek help. Turn to your church, trusted friends, recommended counselors, or a credit counseling service.
Don't be embarrassed to seek counseling from a professional. Many couples will need outside help to get on the right track. Seeking counsel for marriage and financial problems should be as normal as seeking medical help for medical problems.
Your differing money personalities don't have to be fatal to your marriage. It's what you do with those differences that determines the success or failure of a marriage. With good counsel, a strategic plan, mutual accountability, and prayer, you can experience the freedom of financial wisdom and enjoy the marriage God intended you to have.
Suzanne Woods Fisher, an author and contributing editor to Christian Parenting Today, lives with her family in California.
Copyright © 2002 by the author or Christianity Today/Marriage Partnership magazine. Click here for reprint information on Marriage Partnership.