‘Money trouble’ among couples depends a lot on perception

Call it a self-fulfilling prophecy: Husbands who gripe that their wives spend too much — whether true or not — are likely to money and marriage troubles thereafter.

Brigham Young University researchers along with those from Kansas State University examined differing approaches to finances within marriages across couple across multiple state. These so-called “tightwads and spenders,” are described in the Journal of Financial Planning. When couples were split into these categories, it turned out it wasn’t so much about their actual spending habits, as much as it was the other partner’s perception of how spend-happy the spouse tended to be.

Said BYU graduate student and study co-author Ashley LeBaron: “The fact that spouses’ perceptions of each other’s spending behaviors were so predictive of financial conflict suggests that when it comes to the impact of finances on relationships, perceptions may be just as important, if not more important, than reality.”

Researchers discovered that to husbands, the biggest source of financial conflict was believing their wife was a big spender — whether or not that was true. Conversely, when wives had husbands who saw them as spendy, that led to troubles. The phenomenon held true across couples with high incomes and low incomes, as well as in couples who spent a lot or a little.

Said Kansas State professor Sonya Britt-Lutter: “Couples need to communicate about finances, especially early in marriage…. Don’t think that financial problems will magically go away when circumstances change. The study showed that circumstances weren’t the issue here, perception was, and perception doesn’t always change when circumstances do.”

LeBaron, Britt-Lutter and BYU family life professor Jeffrey Hill collaborated on the work.

A strong second influencer on whether couples had money-based marriage troubles was a perception among men that having more children was a source of financial trouble, while women saw a lack of financial communication overall as impacting financial conflict.

“The good news is that couples can benefit from clinical help,” Hill said, “whether that be a financial planner or a marriage and family therapist.”

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