Money Spats Rise as Recession Worries Linger

If money arguments with your spouse or partner seem to be cropping up more frequently lately, you’re not alone.

The percentage of people who report that discussions about household finances turn into arguments some or all of the time has risen to 61% from 45% over the last year, according to the latest Spending and Saving Tracker survey from American Express. Among young professionals under age 30, that number rises to 70%.

An improving housing market, moderating credit card defaults, a strong stock market and other economic green shoots suggest that household finances are on firmer footing than they were a year ago. That should pave the way for fewer money arguments, not more of them.

But with the recovery still wobbly many couples remain cautious about spending observes Leah Gerstner, vice-president at American Express, says the prolonged strain of pinching pennies and postponing discretionary purchases could be bringing money tensions to the surface.

“For many people the reality of the recession is setting in, just as gas and food prices are rising,” she says. “It’s taking some couples longer to rebuild their finances than they anticipated.” The fact that young professionals are still learning how to meld their individual financial lives harmoniously may help explain why they often bicker more than others, she adds.

Laurie Blazek, a financial adviser based in River Forest, Illinois, isn’t surprised by the survey results. Blazek, whose practice includes divorce mediation as well as traditional financial planning, says the financial pressures brought by the recession have taken a toll on many of her clients’ marriages.

“Money problems such as a job loss, falling home values or high credit card debt play a big role in the majority of divorce cases I handle,” says Blazek, whose own divorce 12 years ago was prompted, in part, by money issues. “A lot of people were living beyond their means, and when they lost a job they had no financial cushion to fall back on.” Even though many of these couples might have divorced regardless of the economic climate, she says, a tough economy may have brought things to a head sooner.

Student loan debt often exacerbates financial stress among young professional couples. “I know one couple that makes well into six figures annually but aren’t able to save because they have over $250,000 in student loans,” she says. “That’s a huge long-term burden. And it isn’t extinguishable in bankruptcy.”

Older, long-married couples she works with tend to fight less about money because their finances are on more solid footing and they’ve learned to resolve their differences over the years. But Blazek still referees some fairly heated discussions during planning sessions about how to invest for retirement.

“One partner might be extremely conservative and want everything stashed in cash, while the other sees a benefit to investing more aggressively to keep up with inflation,” she says. “Their attitudes are often a product of how they were raised as children.”

Although money disagreements may be on the rise, New York City marital counselor Gregory Kuhlman of says there are ways to handle them without going to war.Have the talk — calmly.

With the recession impacting many people’s finances it’s important to discuss money issues at the first sign of trouble rather than sweep them under the rug. “But you want to do it in a constructive way, without taking a critical tone,” he says. “Don’t wait until you’re tired and upset.”Understand what it’s really about.

Money differences among couples aren’t just about money. “The surface issue can be about spending versus saving, how much debt someone has, or how someone’s earning potential will affect a couple’s lifestyle,” says Kuhlman. “But there are also deeper emotional issues. For some people, money is about having security. For others, it’s about being able to have fun. Some have a strong desire to assert power and control through money, while others prefer handing the responsibility to someone else.”

Don’t share everything.

“A lot of couples, including my wife and myself, have joint accounts for paying bills and other essentials but maintain separate accounts for discretionary spending purchases,” he says. “I don’t need to know how much she spends on hair care and she doesn’t need to know what I spend on car parts.”

Agree to disagree.

Accept differences and work around them rather than try to change someone’s habits and mindset. “The most important thing to understand is that these kinds of disagreements are often inevitable. The key is finding ways to manage them without generating lots of negativity.”