The 3 unconscious money mistakes all couples make

The 3 unconscious money mistakes all couples make
Source: Getty Images
Source: Getty Images

Forget jealousy or forgotten anniversaries: Money might pose one of the biggest threats to your love life.

A whopping 31% of adults with a partner said money is a major source of conflict in the relationship, according to surveys by the American Psychological Association.

And it's particularly bad for couples who want to start a family. The APA reports found 77% of parents indicated money was a "very significant source of stress," messing up family dynamics and screwing with their sex lives to boot. Low-income households had it worst, reporting a 5.2 stress level, while high-income lovebirds fared better, scoring 4.7 on the 10-point-scale.

Some good news? Squashing a few bad habits can help diffuse the dollar-driven tension in your relationship.

The first step is recognizing the problem. Here are three big mistakes couples make when it comes to money, and the solutions experts recommend to keep financial troubles from spoiling the romance.

Clamming up to avoid awkwardness

Even the very beginning of a relationship is fraught with conundrums. Who pays for dates? What kind of expectations are there for gifts and outings?

All the more reason to start talking early — even if it feels a little uncomfortable, said financial therapist Megan Ford, also a researcher at the University of Georgia.

"It's a process, trying to understand where one another is coming from," Ford said. "Understanding why we feel and believe certain things about money."

So-called mixed-collar dating, where one partner has significantly more income than the other, doesn't have to feel unequal if all parties are honest about what they can afford early on.

Don't be afraid to explore the waters on the first date, as long you use casual language. Try saying: "This was really fun and classy but still affordable. There's less pressure when people spend less than $50 on date. I prefer romantic nights like this, more focused on the great company and conversation than some fancy getup." 

As long as your statement is positive, and more about your feelings and habits than a fear of "wasting" money on a "bad date," this kind of statement will come off as attractively honest — not stingy. It will also signal to you and your date whether your values are aligned.

If you make far less than your significant other, it can be a nice gesture to show that you still want things to feel fair between you. For example, you could say, "I want to get you a Christmas present, but would you mind if we agree not to spend more than $20 each?" 

Only talking about numbers, debt, paychecks and bank accounts isn't enough, Ford warned. As a relationship moves forward, communicating about personal histories, financial goals and values becomes even more important.

"Tap into the underlying message," Ford said. "Listen to the 'why' rather than just the surface level."

Ask your partner: What values did you learn about money growing up? Why do you prefer splurging on concert tickets over dinner at a restaurant?

This communication will help you learn how to compromise as the relationship progresses towards a joint household. Frighteningly, only 43% of married couples talk about money before tying the knot, according to surveys by American Express.

Mimicking your parents instead of experimenting

The worst thing you can do is simply copy your parents' or friends' relationships.

Instead: Map out a plan to make sure your roles match your specific traits and needs as a couple.

You've got options: Whether you take turns paying for things like dates and birth control — or split the bills so you are each paying equal percentages of your salary, rather than the same dollar amount — there's a whole range of ways to share costs. Don't be afraid to make mistakes and express differing opinions.

"For many couples, money is a perpetual area of conflict," said Ford. "Conflict can sometimes push us in a positive direction, push you to reevaluate and negotiate. It doesn't mean the relationship is doomed."

Couples who talk about the future and experiment with roles tend to stop fights before they even start, said New York cognitive therapist Chamin Ajjan.

"Having a weekly meeting to talk about how money is spent can prevent conflicts from happening," she said.

But sometimes conflict isn't your biggest obstacle.

For example, same-sex couples face a particular set of financial challenges: Reports by the Prudential Financial, Inc. show LGBTQ households generally have weaker financial foundations set up for the future — like retirement funds and insurance — compared to the general population.

Queer women have it worst of all when it comes to net income, with lesbian women earning an average annual salary of $45,606 compared to straight women's $51,461.

Christopher Street Financial president Jennifer Hatch, a firm specializing in wealth management and financial consulting for LGBTQ clients, told Mic that since gay marriage was legalized her married clients face less discrimination with banks and mortgages.

But income inequality continues to present huge challenge for queer women, she said. "They typically make less money whether they're married or not," Hatch said. "I think there are still societal issues related to two women in a couple."

Even without the gendered dynamics of a heterosexual partnership, she's noticed members of same-sex female couples can be hyper-conscious of how much money they bring in compared to their partner.

"Women are looking for equality while men [in same-sex partnerships] seem to be more comfortable with [income] inequality," Hatch said.

Whether the growing number of LGBTQ spouses choose to combine finances, keep their accounts separate or invent their own unique mixture of both, it's clear that open communication is the best way to sidestep money troubles and feelings of inequality within any relationship. 

"It's all about finding a way to both feel equal even if one partner is bringing in significantly more income," Ford said. "Keep in mind that one is more financially vulnerable, that awareness itself is helpful."

Assuming you "should" or "must" combine finances

It's not just celebrities like Kim Kardashian who manage their own money separately after marriage.

A 2014 survey of 1,000 Americans by TD Bank revealed that 42% of couples with joint bank accounts also kept separate accounts.

Although there's less data about married couples who keep completely separate finances, Ford said these arrangements are much more common than you might expect.

"There's a huge amount of variation," Ford said. "For some couples, combining finances works well, but we shouldn't assume that's best for all couples."

Many people find it simpler and more convenient to keep separate accounts for themselves, she said.

For women especially, keeping a distinct bank account can offer an empowering feeling of freedom and independence within the relationship: About two in five surveyed women with separate bank accounts told TD Bank that "independence" was their main reason for maintaining a personal account. 

If you do combine finances, it's okay if one person in particular is more financially savvy and handles most of the day-to-day money management, Ford said.

But it's still important, she added, for both partners to understand how joint accounts are doing.

Read more:
• The Truth About "Mixed-Collar" Dating — From the People Who Make These Relationships Work
• Is it Ever OK to Talk to Your Friends About Money?
•  This Is How Much Your Student Debt Will Actually Cost You Over the Course of Your Lifetime

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