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How do you deal with financial stress in a marriage?

Couple in the kitchen using credit card
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Managing finances well as a unit is part of building a successful marriage. Since personal finance is not always taught in school, married couples may find themselves with money problems as they navigate joint finances. Learning about the common causes of financial problems in marriage can reveal answers about how to solve them and the best way to prepare your financial plans.

How do you deal with financial stress in a marriage?

The first step is to identify the root cause of financial stress in your marriage so that you and your spouse can apply the appropriate strategies and monitor your progress. Whether you're looking to prevent future stress or dealing with an ongoing challenge, these three simple steps can help improve your finances in marriage.

1. Identify common causes of financial stress in marriage

There are many potential causes of financial stress in a marriage, but many financial challenges stem from a handful of common sources.

Common causes of financial stress in marriage may include:

  • Separate accounts. When you and your partner have separate accounts, you establish a divide between your money and theirs. For some couples, this may create a mentality that finances are "mine or yours" rather than a shared commitment.
  • Poor debt management. Bringing debt into a marriage or growing debt to an unmanageable level can lead to financial stress, especially if one spouse carries more debt than the other.
  • Money personality differences. Everyone has their own money personality. For example, one spouse may be a saver while the other is a spender. Without identifying and planning for these differences, it's easy to see how problems can arise.
  • Income differences. Resentment can arise when one spouse earns significantly more than the other or if one earns an income and the other doesn't.

2. Apply strategies for addressing causes of financial stress

Once you've identified the financial problems in your marriage, you're in a better position to solve them. Whether you're looking for when financial strategies for newlyweds or you're decades into your marriage, many of the same solutions apply to common problems.

  • Establish accounts that work best for your relationship. While some accounts, such as IRAs or 401(k)s, are always an individual account, bank accounts and taxable brokerage accounts can be individually or jointly held. Keep in mind that some accounts, such as checking, may work well from some couples to share, but this is a general guideline. There certainly is a case for and against spouses having joint accounts. For example, the right combination of money personalities may align with separate accounts. What's best for the marriage is what's best for your account types.
  • Get debt under control. A general rule to manage debt is to keep maximum housing debt under 28 percent and total debt under 36 percent, which is a guideline referred to as the 28/36 rule. Methods to pay off debt include the debt snowball (pay off lowest balances first) or the debt avalanche (pay off highest interest rate first).
  • Accept differences. People are different in many ways, including how they handle money. A smart first step to take in recognizing and accepting these differences is for both spouses to take a money personality quiz. After identifying your money personalities find ways to make each side happy and compromise where necessary.
  • Share financial goals. Having one financial plan brings all of your financial goals together and can become the guiding force in all of your financial decisions. This helps to clarify your goals but also removes individual personalities from the financial decisions.
  • Communicate: It's generally best to talk about problems while they are small, which can prevent them from turning into larger problems, such as resentment, secrecy, or revenge shopping.

3. Maintain best practices and monitor the plan

In many ways, addressing financial stress in marriage mirrors the initial financial planning process itself: setting goals then implementing the plan's tactics and strategies. This doesn't stop with implementation, though.

Monitor the plan so you can make adjustments over time. Revisit any challenges you face together—but, rather than bringing back the same differences that caused problems in the past, allow your shared financial goals to influence your decisions.

Bottom line

How do you deal with financial stress in a marriage over the long term? As new issues arise, use the same process: Identify the problem, apply the strategies and monitor your plan. Harness your shared knowledge, skills and goals to collect strategies that keep your finances in a good place. With shared goals, even spouses with opposite money personalities can come together to reach the goals.

Another solution to keep in mind is to enlist the help of a financial advisor. Financial advisors are not marriage counselors, but they can help to make sense of financial challenges that commonly affect married couples, show you how to shape your goals into a unified plan and provide solutions to make the plan a reality.