Finding Common Ground

Take these three steps to help you and your partner resolve money conflicts.

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By Donna Hein • Photos by Hartman Benzon

In the early years of their marriage, Mike and Cindy Parker were on opposite ends of the spectrum when it came to money.

“Mike was brilliant with wisely handling our money, and I was brilliant with spending it,” Cindy says. “He’d have the budget, and I thought that as long as we had the money, we should be able to spend what we want.”

The Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, couple isn’t unique when it comes to having different opinions about how each spends money. Many couples struggle with getting on the same page with finances.

So as a couple, how do you figure out the steps to take, even the questions to ask, to find agreement on money issues?

Step 1: Identify Your Values

It’s nearly impossible to talk about money without talking about values.

“It sets the foundation of how your decision-making process works,” says Erich Lehmann, a Thrivent Financial professional in LaGrange, Texas. “I like to ask questions like: What brings your heart to life? What’s important to you?”

How you answer those questions often ties back to how you were raised.

“We all grew up in an environment that shaped how we think about money,” says Jamie French, the Parkers’ Thrivent Financial professional in Camp Hill, Pennsylvania. “What was your experience with money growing up? How did your family make decisions, and how is that forming your decisions about money?”

Couples need to talk about their experiences, and it may help to talk with your financial professional. These conversations can be tough, and there may be disagreement, but they’re important and healthy.

“A financial professional can set up the questions and help you deep dive into your faith and values,” Lehmann says. “When talking to couples, we help look for common ground and agreement, and we can start to build from there.”

The Parkers had different childhood money experiences. Based on his experience, Mike believed in having a little fun after the bills were paid, but the majority of his money should go to savings and investments. Cindy thought the money left over from bills was OK for spending.

They were several years into their 21-year marriage when a tough conversation helped them begin to understand one another’s money perceptions. Mike shared with Cindy his hopes for retirement and what he felt the couple needed to do to get there. “

He was patient, and he presented the facts,” Cindy says. “I realized it wasn’t fair he was working so hard and I was going out spending money on things we didn’t need.”

Step 2: Prioritize

Once you’ve identified what’s important to you, it’s time to prioritize. It’s clear that things like food, clothing and shelter top the needs list. But even within these needs, there can be wants: hamburger or prime rib, rent an apartment or buy a house.

“It’s really hard to say that any category is an indisputable need when there are so many options within it,” French says.

And where do spending categories like giving to church, buying a vehicle, taking a vacation or caring for a loved one fit in?

“It’s also very important to understand our own tendencies,” French says. For example, both spouses may be more savers than spenders, but they may differ in how they spend. One may prefer material things, while the other prefers experiences.

“These are important conversations to have,” he says. “Our powers of rationalization are amazing; we can justify a want as a need so easily.”

French uses a resource from a Thrivent workshop for teens with his kids to help them prioritize needs and wants. But it also can work for adults. Called the “Gotta-Have-It Gauge” (see sidebar at left), it suggests you create a list of things you want or need. Run each item through a list of questions, including: Do I need this? If not, do I at least really want it? When you’re done, rewrite your spending list in order of priority.

A written budget is essential for the Parkers, who also try to have monthly budget meetings. “Cindy’s now beyond where I am when it comes to sorting out needs and wants,” Mike says. “We’re not cheap, but we do prioritize what we really want.”

For the Parkers, tithing, insurance and retirement savings, for example, are needs. Money is always set aside for these items.

But there is also a list of wants, and sometimes, Cindy needs to transfer between categories to meet an unexpected need. But they’re firm about living within their means. “When the money’s gone, it’s gone. We’re not going to put it on the credit card,” Mike says. “And sometimes it really stinks to not get what you want.”

Step 3: Compromise

What happens if your priorities change, for a season or forever? Or if you and your spouse just can’t agree? It’s time for compromise.

“This is where the toughest conversations happen,” Lehmann says. “It’s where we draw the line to connect values and reality. And it’s where we go back to our fundamental values.”

Sometimes the compromise is within your spending plan—what can I give up to do something else? But other times you have to find the middle ground with your significant other.

The Parkers have two sons, 17 and 16. “Our boys hear us having those conversations as we wrestle back and forth on budget items,” Cindy says. “They see it in action. But they also see that if you don’t control the money, it will control you.”

With their sons nearing the end of high school, Mike and Cindy have chosen to compromise their original spending plan. They wanted to create some additional family time—a trip across the country a few years ago, a cruise this year.

“These were big dollar items for us, so that meant things from other categories needed to be cut down,” Mike says, and the two had to come to agreement on it. “It’s not that we’re going without, but we’re shifting to do what we want at this time.”

Gotta-Have-It Gauge

We’ve all got that list of things we’d like to buy. But do we need to buy them? This is where the “Gotta-Have-It Gauge” comes in handy. Create your spending list, then ask yourself these questions:

  1. Do I really need this?
  2. If not, do I at least really want it? (Will I still really want it tomorrow?)
  3. Is this something I must buy now? (Or can I take some time to think about it?)
  4. Am I sure that it will get used or worn frequently?
  5. If I buy it now, will I have enough money left over to buy the other things I’ll need soon?

When done, you may need to reprioritize your spending list.

Source: Parents, Teens & Money Matters® workshop

Starting Kids Young

Members Mike and Cindy Parker started teaching their sons—Luke, 17, and Ryan, 16—about needs and wants when they were each in first grade.

Each boy was given several envelopes monthly with labels including tithing, clothing, saving, gifts and spending. In each envelope, the Parkers placed the money allocated for that area. When the money was gone, it was gone. It taught the boys how to budget.

“As they got older, the labeling got less and their decisions about how to spend their money got greater,” Mike says. “The only areas we still enforce today are tithing and savings.”

The boys haven’t always made the right decisions. One month, money that should have purchased a pair of shoes didn’t.

“Someone at church asked us if everything was OK at home since our son had holes in his shoes,” Mike says. “It was embarrassing that people thought we were having financial issues, but I explained this is how they learn to allocate their money.

“There are ramifications and making those mistakes now is less costly than when they become adults.”