Couple staring at a piggy bank thinking about getting financial therapy for couples

What Is Financial Therapy For Couples?

How to Talk to Your Spouse About Money Without Fighting

Are you interested in financial therapy for couples? For many couples entering couples therapy or financial counseling, differences around money are a significant source of conflict in their relationship. And of course, money fights are common, because money is one of those things that means different things to different people.

For some, money is a stand-in for love and connection, and for others money means security. Some people view spending money on things they enjoy as what gives life meaning, and others view accumulating money to pass on to the next generation as the purpose of life itself.

Other people view money as freedom, and still others see it as a tool. People can also have negative associations around money, including guilt or fear. Other people can even tie their sense of self-worth to the money they have in the bank, or to outward displays of wealth.

Money is, in short, a loaded topic.

So it’s only natural that all couples usually have at least some differences around money because they’re different people. Even if a couple is in basic agreement about their values around money, there will still be differences. In general, financial values exist on a spectrum between “spending” and “saving.”

Why Couples Fight About Money: Savers vs Spenders

In every relationship, there is a person who has a “saver” orientation and a person who has a “spender” orientation. This is even true between two people who are freer with their money than other couples, or within a couple who generally saves more than other couples. They, as a unit, may appear aligned around what they’re doing with money, and yet still find things to squabble about between themselves.

Saver fights: “I thought we agreed to put $1500 into the retirement account and bump the mortgage payment by $500 from now on. We can totally live on a $300 a month grocery budget — you eat too much anyway. Don’t you want to have the house paid off in three years???”

Spender fights: “No, I’m excited about Rekyvic and Dublin and Amsterdam, but I really had my heart set on Prague too. I mean, if we’re going anyway shouldn’t we embrace it? We’ll pay it off! We can use the line of credit from the condo in Vail, it’s appreciating like crazy. Why are you such a kill-joy?”

Of course, in couples who are even further apart on the spender / saver continuum than these examples, you can only imagine how intense fights about money in a marriage can get. This is never more true than around the holiday season, when budgets get blown faster than you can say “Fa-la-la.”

Money is, in short, a loaded topic.

As we speed toward the holidays, life can become a twinkly blur of get-togethers and activities. The internal, sometimes even sub-conscious drive to have a “nice holiday” can drive us to spend way more money than we intended. In some couples, holiday spending can even be hidden between partners, creating a rupture of trust when it’s disclosed in the sober grey light of January.

Yes, “financial infidelity” is a real thing, and it causes real trauma to relationships. When couples are frequently fighting about money to the point where it feels like it’s impossible to communicate about finances, people will begin to hide spending, hide debt, or get overly controlling or even aggressive about money. This can lead to splitting up finances, which is often a symptom of conflict avoidance in a relationship.

When it feels impossible to come to agreements about money, when communication about money always turns into a fight, where there is a lack of financial trust, or vastly different values around money, couples move towards separate bank accounts… and sometimes, sadly, eventually separate lives.

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Financial Therapy for Couples

By the time couples arrive in marriage counseling to discuss the ongoing conflict about money, it has often evolved into a bigger deal than can be solved by simply making a budget together, or getting scolded by a financial planner. Feelings have been hurt. Trust may have been broken. Even worse, couples can start to fear that they are too far apart in their basic values around life and money to even be compatible.

This can be a scary time for couples. I remember how it was in my own marriage when money was the number one thing my husband and I were fighting about. I felt like we barely had enough money to get by, and was frantic in my efforts to conserve our resources — even if it meant wearing second-hand clothes from thrift stores and packing PB&J for lunch every day.

My husband, on the other hand, felt stifled, unhappy, and constrained when I attempted to squash the flow of money through our life. He felt that without having anything to enjoy or look forward to, life felt empty and burdensome.

At the time, of course, neither of us realized that we were both right, and so we fought endlessly over whose perspective was more true and noble. I’d give him hell for spending $4 on a latte at a bookstore (or god-forbid, buying one of his fancy art-magazines), and he’d make crappy comments about how gross it was to buy used shoes.

We finally got into financial counseling for couples, and only then, learned how to listen and understand. We no longer have conflict around money. We have conversations about money. It’s good. You can do this too.

What Is Financial Therapy for Couples?

Fighting about money in a relationship is never just about dollars and cents. Money has emotional roots that go much deeper than that. It can be a reward for hard work, or a form of protection against a chaotic world. Money can be something to be enjoyed, something to be guarded, or something to be cultivated with care.

None of these orientations toward money are right or wrong. But when couples don’t understand each other, fighting about money is inevitable.

Financial therapy for couples is a form of marriage counseling that helps both partners understand each other’s “money mindset,” have empathy for each other’s perspective, and create a viable financial plan that takes both partners’ needs, hopes, and dreams into consideration. It helps couples build practical skills for managing money together, while also addressing the deeper reasons that they’re fighting about money in the first place.

…[W]ithout a high level of understanding and empathy, it’s very hard for couples to get on the same page about money.

This work can literally save a struggling marriage. It’s hard for a couple, particularly a couple in distress, to see through their own anger, fear, and moral judgment to see the other person’s perspective about money for what it usually is: A deeply held personal value, often related to core emotional and psychological needs.

However, without a high level of understanding and empathy, it’s very hard for couples to get on the same page about money. That’s where great marriage counseling, financial therapy, and relationship coaching come in: They can all help you stay calm enough to talk through your thoughts and feelings in a way that fosters understanding and empathy about money, and what it means to each of you.

For example, when I put down my shining sword of virtue and justice long enough to hear what my husband was actually trying to communicate, I learned that his less-privileged background led him to view money as something to be pounced upon and enjoyed while it was there (before it evaporated again), as opposed to accumulating it and cultivating it. I understood him more deeply, and had empathy for what money represented to him: Pleasure and meaning in the moment, and not anything that could be counted upon.

Over time, I also came to understand that being open to his perspective was good for me, too: Because of him, I’ve had more fun, more interesting adventures, and frankly, better furniture and clothing than I ever would when left to my own devices.

And as the conflict and defensiveness between us diffused into curiosity and openness, he learned that I inherited a deep anxiety around money from my immigrant family, who fled Europe after the second world war when Stalin appeared to be the next maniac drumming on the horizon. As a first-generation-American who grew up watching her Belgian father save scraps of wire, unbend pulled nails for a second use (stored in glass baby jars he’d saved from my earliest months), and literally cut off the moldy parts of the cheese before proclaiming it perfectly fine, I had a deeply ingrained survival instinct to conserve money.

I’m pleased to report that my money mindset influenced my husband too. He now tolerates my budgets and squirreling, and seems to like the fact that we have a financial buffer between us and disaster, as well as a plan for the future.

We no longer fight about money. However — and this is the important part — our alignment about finances is NOT because either of us have changed who we are. He is not exactly like me, and he never will be. He still thinks it’s perfectly acceptable to spend $900 on a BMX bike, and on the rare occasions I shop for clothes, it’s usually at consignment stores.

But he understands me, and accepts that saving money and avoiding debt as much as possible is a wise way to live. And I understand him, and have accepted the fact that it’s important to be generous, and that nice things and meaningful life experiences are worth paying for.

That level of acceptance and understanding is always my hope for the couples who come to us for help in getting on the same page around money. If fighting about money feels like it’s destroying your relationship, please know that it doesn’t have to be this way.

Particularly during this time of year — the holidays, and their aftermath — you have lots of opportunities to talk about finances. This year, I hope you consider giving each other the gift of listening with the intention to understand. Ask your partner what money means to them, and try to get on their side of the table. Don’t have a conflict. Have a conversation.

If you want to solve your financial disagreements for once and for all, the answer is not controlling or changing each other. It lies in developing empathy, understanding, and a sense of common purpose that unites you as a couple and as a family. Hard to do, but so, so worth it.

With love and respect to you both,

Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby

P.S. Do you still have questions about Financial Therapy for Couples? Check out: Financial Counseling for Couples

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18 Comments

  1. Hello Dr. Bobby,

    What type of counselor should I reach out to, financial, marriage, or is there a counselor that does both. I read your article about ways to stop arguing over money, but, like many other articles I’ve read, we tried your tips with short-lived, positive results. My wife and I will come up with a plan that,at the time, we agree on that allows me to save and pay debt and allows her to spend on things that she likes. However, my anxiety increases because she continues to blow through her budgeted amount of cash and she will ask me for more money…because it’s only 5 or 10 dollars here and there. The same story with why I started trying to get her to understand budgetting, risk management, and how I saved us by having an emergency fund. We’ve talked through the deep-ingrained reasons and insecurities, and these continuous actions make both of us feel afterwards. I’ll stop the story here unless you want more information.

    Thanks for your help.

    1. Hi Kenny, I think it is very wise of you to be thinking about couples counseling for you and your wife. You’re right: tips that you find on a blog post are great ideas, but not enough to move the needle on entrenched relationship patterns and differences in values. In my experience a financial counselor will tell you what you “should” be doing with your money, from his or her perspective. They don’t even scratch the surface around why people do what they do with money, and how it impacts your relationship. It sounds to my ear that you two are now in a full-fledged power struggle here, and it’s going to take a good marriage counselor to help you both unwind that and start working together again. My recommendation to you would be to engage in high quality marriage counseling for the purpose of getting in alignment around this issue. On our team you might consider working with Meagan Terry. She is an extremely competent marriage and family therapist and she’s also been certified by the federal reserve as a financial counselor for couples. Then, when you’re both on the same page, you can meet with a financial advisor who will tell you what you should be doing with your money. Hope that makes sense? Good luck to you Kenny, and thanks for reaching out.

  2. Hello Dr. Bobby,
    I read your article and I agreed with what other said ” I read your article about ways to stop arguing over money, but, like many other articles I’ve read, we tried your tips with short-lived, positive results.” It has been our problem about finance (money value) for the past long years. I am looking for counselor I can reach to both financial and marriage to save our marriage. Could you please recommend me someone at San Jose, CA area if you know anyone? Thank you for your help.

    1. Hey Kate! Yes, I completely agree: Finding real and lasting resolution to longstanding relationship issues is going to require much more than the type of high-level, general relationship advice that is available through blog posts! In my experience the roots of relationship problems, financial or otherwise, are often deep within each partner — perhaps even to the point where they are not fully conscious. Excellent, evidence based couples counseling is designed to help you each have the experiences (not knowledge necessarily, but experiences that create change).

      We don’t have anyone in San Jose, but if you’re open to meeting with someone based in San Francisco (who is also available by video, if the drive is too much to make regularly) I would highly recommend my colleague Dr. Georgiana. Here is a link to her profile. She has a lot of experience in helping couples build bridges to the center and create compromise and understanding. I hope you schedule a free consultation with her at least, to see if she’s a good fit for you.

      All the best to you,
      Lisa Marie Bobby

  3. Amazing article Liza! Money related differences often lead to huge arguments. In many cases, when one partner earns considerably more than the other, the person becomes more dominating and takes all the decisions. It is a great idea to seek couples therapy for dealing with such situations.

  4. I realize there are many issues and options to pursue a marriage counselor. I would like a better understanding of which step should be taken first. Example: spouse has had a hard childhood to where parents would steal child’s earnings to sell for drug money and that’s not even the just of it. Now, as an adult, the spouse has to buy the most expensive item of anything the desire or need. This results in financial burden for their spouse and 3 children. Would this need individual counseling first? Then result in adult/financial/marriage counseling?

    1. Oh my goodness, what a difficult situation for you. I think this is a fantastic question that you’re asking, and a wise one. The answer of whether or not financial counseling for couples should happen before or after individual therapy for trauma depends on the current level of self awareness and motivation for change of the person who’s engaging in this problematic behavior.

      For example, I work with many individual clients as a life coach and therapist, and I can tell you that when they talk to me about what’s happening in their lives it is through the lens of their own perspective. Like, “My husband is on my case all the time because he thinks I spend too much money and always need to have the most expensive things, but I think he’s controlling and I should be able to have things I enjoy.” (I don’t know if that sounds familiar to you at all Ali, but that may well be the conversation that happens in your partner’s individual therapy sessions.)

      In contrast, I know a couples therapist that sometimes there are more direct growth opportunities through marriage counseling because each partner will be confronted with the aspects of their behavior that feel problematic for their spouse, and which are causing problems between them. It may still wind up being the case that your partner does have unresolved trauma that needs to be healed in order to feel more secure in the world without buying all the things. But she may require your support, and that of a great marriage counselor, to understand the origins of her behavior and the damage it’s creating.

      Denial and defensiveness are incredibly powerful and protective forces, and can obstruct meaningful growth. It’s harder to hide in couples counseling, in my opinion. Unless your partner is already self aware and motivated to change, I’d start with relationship counseling work.

      Hope that perspective helps, and good luck to you both.

      Dr. Lisa

  5. Hello Dr. Bobby,

    What type of counselor should I reach out to, financial, marriage, or is there a counselor that does both. I read your article about ways to stop arguing over money, but, like many other articles I’ve read, we tried your tips with short-lived, positive results. My wife and I will come up with a plan that,at the time, we agree on that allows me to save and pay debt and allows her to spend on things that she likes. However, my anxiety increases because she continues to blow through her budgeted amount of cash and she will ask me for more money…because it’s only 5 or 10 dollars here and there. The same story with why I started trying to get her to understand budgetting, risk management, and how I saved us by having an emergency fund. We’ve talked through the deep-ingrained reasons and insecurities, and these continuous actions make both of us feel afterwards. I’ll stop the story here unless you want more information.

    Thanks for your help.

  6. Hi Kenny, I think it is very wise of you to be thinking about couples counseling for you and your wife. You’re right: tips that you find on a blog post are great ideas, but not enough to move the needle on entrenched relationship patterns and differences in values. In my experience a financial counselor will tell you what you “should” be doing with your money, from his or her perspective. They don’t even scratch the surface around why people do what they do with money, and how it impacts your relationship. It sounds to my ear that you two are now in a full-fledged power struggle here, and it’s going to take a good marriage counselor to help you both unwind that and start working together again. My recommendation to you would be to engage in high quality marriage counseling for the purpose of getting in alignment around this issue. On our team you might consider working with Meagan Terry. She is an extremely competent marriage and family therapist and she’s also been certified by the federal reserve as a financial counselor for couples. Then, when you’re both on the same page, you can meet with a financial advisor who will tell you what you should be doing with your money. Hope that makes sense? Good luck to you Kenny, and thanks for reaching out.

  7. Hello Dr. Bobby,
    I read your article and I agreed with what other said ” I read your article about ways to stop arguing over money, but, like many other articles I’ve read, we tried your tips with short-lived, positive results.” It has been our problem about finance (money value) for the past long years. I am looking for counselor I can reach to both financial and marriage to save our marriage. Could you please recommend me someone at San Jose, CA area if you know anyone? Thank you for your help.

  8. Hey Kate! Yes, I completely agree: Finding real and lasting resolution to longstanding relationship issues is going to require much more than the type of high-level, general relationship advice that is available through blog posts! In my experience the roots of relationship problems, financial or otherwise, are often deep within each partner — perhaps even to the point where they are not fully conscious. Excellent, evidence based couples counseling is designed to help you each have the experiences (not knowledge necessarily, but experiences that create change).

    We don’t have anyone in San Jose, but if you’re open to meeting with someone based in San Francisco (who is also available by video, if the drive is too much to make regularly) I would highly recommend my colleague Dr. Georgiana. Here is a link to her profile. She has a lot of experience in helping couples build bridges to the center and create compromise and understanding. I hope you schedule a free consultation with her at least, to see if she’s a good fit for you.

    All the best to you,
    Lisa Marie Bobby

  9. Amazing article Liza! Money related differences often lead to huge arguments. In many cases, when one partner earns considerably more than the other, the person becomes more dominating and takes all the decisions. It is a great idea to seek couples therapy for dealing with such situations.

  10. I realize there are many issues and options to pursue a marriage counselor. I would like a better understanding of which step should be taken first. Example: spouse has had a hard childhood to where parents would steal child’s earnings to sell for drug money and that’s not even the just of it. Now, as an adult, the spouse has to buy the most expensive item of anything the desire or need. This results in financial burden for their spouse and 3 children. Would this need individual counseling first? Then result in adult/financial/marriage counseling?

  11. Oh my goodness, what a difficult situation for you. I think this is a fantastic question that you’re asking, and a wise one. The answer of whether or not financial counseling for couples should happen before or after individual therapy for trauma depends on the current level of self awareness and motivation for change of the person who’s engaging in this problematic behavior.

    For example, I work with many individual clients as a life coach and therapist, and I can tell you that when they talk to me about what’s happening in their lives it is through the lens of their own perspective. Like, “My husband is on my case all the time because he thinks I spend too much money and always need to have the most expensive things, but I think he’s controlling and I should be able to have things I enjoy.” (I don’t know if that sounds familiar to you at all Ali, but that may well be the conversation that happens in your partner’s individual therapy sessions.)

    In contrast, I know a couples therapist that sometimes there are more direct growth opportunities through marriage counseling because each partner will be confronted with the aspects of their behavior that feel problematic for their spouse, and which are causing problems between them. It may still wind up being the case that your partner does have unresolved trauma that needs to be healed in order to feel more secure in the world without buying all the things. But she may require your support, and that of a great marriage counselor, to understand the origins of her behavior and the damage it’s creating.

    Denial and defensiveness are incredibly powerful and protective forces, and can obstruct meaningful growth. It’s harder to hide in couples counseling, in my opinion. Unless your partner is already self aware and motivated to change, I’d start with relationship counseling work.

    Hope that perspective helps, and good luck to you both.

    Dr. Lisa

  12. Do you know of any financial/ marriage counselors in the East Brunswick, NJ area. I have a close family member in debt. It is painfully obvious this issue is deeply entangled with marital issues around money and communication in general. It seems as though the one spouse thinks it’s the others responsibility to fix it or is in complete denial of their accountability. Anyway they are so in over their heads and stressed they can’t even see how to take first steps. Giving them references may help start the process.

  13. Hi there, I’ve personally put together a team I trust of experienced clinicians. Many of them offer virtual sessions, too. I’d pass along this (link to Marriage Counseling) to your family member so they can reach out; we’ll help them find the best fit. Or, you can even consider gifting some financial therapy sessions in the form of a gift card. Best, Dr. Lisa

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