When Money isn’t Buying Happiness


When my husband approached my father about marrying me, my father’s response was, “Go figure out how you’re going to pay for everything and get back to me.”  His concern was valid, considering the amount of couples who identify finances as a main source of disagreement in marriage.  My husband and I spent most of our engagement working and saving money in order to avoid debt as much as possible after we were married.  We are actually in agreement most of the time when it comes to finances, and yet, money can still occasionally create conflict.

Many couples present finances as a source of major power struggles in marriage.  It’s also not uncommon to see damaging financial dishonesty, because one person might be a spender and another might be a saver.  The tricky part about finances is that money is entwined with emotional meaning which is highly nuanced and unique to each individual.

In order for a couple to really resolve financial issues, it is helpful to understand the emotional significance behind how a partner wants to spend money.  Here are two examples from my own marriage that represent two common patterns I see:  1) A scenario in which someone wants to spend money on something they didn’t have growing up and want their children to have, and 2) A scenario in which someone wants to spend money on something they had and remember with fondness and want their children to have.  They are both attached to dreams.

Around the turn of the century, our finances suddenly became tight when the high tech company that employed my husband went out of business while the high tech industry was shrinking.  Fortunately, we tend to be savers and had enough income to last a while so we could still pay our bills, but we had no idea how long we would be out of work, so we immediately changed our spending habits.  We stopped eating out, we eliminated many of our children’s extracurricular activities, and we streamlined our budget as much as possible.  My friend who had lived with three children in expensive Boston while her husband matriculated at Harvard taught me new economizing strategies which I immediately utilized.

One of the expenses I found myself clinging to was our tradition of taking our children snow skiing.  I lied awake at night trying to figure out how to find a way to pay to take them skiing for the season.  My husband could not figure out why this was such a big deal to me.  He had grown up skiing for years, and I had grown up in Southern California where the nearest ski resort with sub-standard snow was hours away.  He was a much better skier than I was, and he seemed okay with the fact that for the first time since our oldest son was 3, we were not going to be able to ski as a family.  “Why do you even care?”  he asked, “You didn’t even ski until you were 14 and you turned out okay.”

I realized I had emotionally-laden reasons for clinging to our annual ski outings.  I first went skiing with my friend in middle school.  I assumed I would pick it right up, because I already liked to water ski and figured snow skiing couldn’t be that much harder.  I was a complete disaster, which only made me want to do it more.  I joined the high school ski club in an effort to improve, but we only skied a few times a year, and I didn’t go often enough to get much better, and I never had a formal lesson.  I continued to be a disaster.  It wasn’t until I took a ski class during my sophomore year of college that I could really comfortably ski down a slope.

I wanted my children to feel more comfortable on the slopes than I had as a teenager, so it was important to me that they learned to ski.  When my oldest son turned three, we bought him a little pair of skis and began teaching him.  We had taken all of our children skiing regularly before my husband lost his job.  Skiing had taken on a lot of emotional meaning because of my previous experiences growing up.  I didn’t want my children to struggle with skiing like I had, so I emotionally reacted when my husband suggested that we skip a year.

On the other hand, my husband was a fierce protector of his desire to have a large backyard with an acceptable basketball court, because he grew up in a home with an extra large yard, and spent hours obsessively shooting baskets.  While we were looking for homes and he rejected several because the yards weren’t big enough, I finally asked, “Why is this such a big deal?  I grew up in Southern California with a yard the size of a postage stamp, and I was outdoors all the time.”  The answer was that he had such fond memories of growing up with a large yard and basketball court that he wanted to replicate the experience for his children.  I spent years without decent furniture so he could build a court that met his standards, which I affectionately refer to as the “Ball Mahal.”  I could not care less about having a basketball court, but it was really important to him, so I compromised.

I understand that finances can be complex.  Some people may be lacking in a fundamental understanding of financial principles.  Some people medicate uncomfortable emotions with spending.  However, regardless of the specific struggles, increasing deeper dialogue about the related emotions is usually helpful.

If you are having financial arguments repeatedly with your spouse, ask yourself if you really understand the emotional importance behind how your spouse wants to spend money.  Try to reflect back what you hear until your spouse is satisfied that you really understand the meaning behind it.  Financial decisions aren’t black and white.  They are choices made according to value systems and emotions.  When couples take the time to understand each other better, they are more likely to compromise and unite in decision-making…and they might end up buying themselves a little happiness in the process.

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