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When Money Makes Marriage Miserable

By Emily Brower Auchard February 10, 2017

The average couple argues about money three times a month. What’s more, 42% of Americans say they aren’t completely honest with their partners about financial matters. Given the prevalence of financial conflict between spouses, it’s perhaps no surprise advisors frequently find themselves in the position of mediator — sometimes even marriage counselor. We spoke with a few advisors to find out how they approach these situations.

Luis Rosa, a financial advisor with Haydel Biel & Associates in Pasadena, Calif., says he has seen a rise in financial tension in couples – particularly those with two incomes. Rosa, who manages $100 million, says about two of three couples he works with fall into that category: “I can see the unhappiness in their faces.”

“Personal spending is where I see things go off the rails – particularly when each spouse has their own account,” says Rosa.

His first step to helping these couples ease tension is to get them on the same page regarding their spending. In his planning he budgets individual allowances so that each spouse has the freedom to spend their own allowance when and where they want, but they also have accountability for the amount.

He’s seen the positive impacts of this strategy many times. “Once we deal with personal spending issues, the couple’s day-to-day financial life is much smoother,” he says.

Kimberly Foss, president and founder of Empyrion Wealth Management in Roseville, Calif., also sees financial tensions rise when there are too many “pots” of money.

“I worked with one couple that was in a second marriage and they divided their money into yours, mine and ours,” says Foss, who has $200 million in assets under management.

Kimberly Foss

In the course of this couple’s 10-year relationship, the husband managed to accumulate about $100,000 of debt without the wife’s knowledge.

“He just couldn’t manage his money,” says Foss. “Then when they came to me to talk about planning for retirement, everything got exposed, causing a lot of anger and unhappiness.”

In these situations Foss is very clear with her clients that there should be no shame or blame once everything is out in the open. Her goal with such couples is to rebuild trust and encourage forgiveness. Then she puts together a plan that addresses the sources of conflict. In this particular case, the plan she proposed set parameters around the spender by putting all expenses on auto-draft and by automating contributions to retirement and college savings accounts.

“They are much happier today,” comments Foss. “They’ve really grown together as a couple.”

When working with couples, advisors often find themselves in the role of mediator or marriage counselor.

“It’s something I see fairly regularly,” says Dale Horn, senior vice president of wealth management at UBS in Baltimore, Md. “When I have to mediate between spouses, I wade right in because it’s part of my job.”

Horn, who manages more than $100 million, says while situations with couples can sometimes get uncomfortable, it’s critical to work through the conflict.

“If a couple is at odds with each other about their goals or one is overspending, it’s a detriment to their financial plan and their financial future,” he explains. “If I can’t find a way to help them resolve the conflict they won’t succeed with their plan.”

Horn’s approach is to get each spouse talking about the tensions and emotions behind their relationship to money. “I find that when each spouse talks about their concerns while the other spouse is actively listening and then I repeat their rationale, it goes a long way to resolving the conflicts and ultimately meeting somewhere in the middle,” he says. Then, when he moves on to the plan and talks about the reality of the numbers, he find that couples are a lot more willing to listen and come together.

“Between getting them to communicate and showing them the that numbers work or don’t work really helps resolve the situation and makes them happier,” he says.