Many issues have the potential to cause discord. However, discovers Sharon Stephenson, having different ‘money personalities’ can be the sticking point.

It started with the smoked eel and a low murmur of dissent. It carried on through the hapuku with pureed eggplant and got louder during the cheeseboard, a rolling maul of disagreement about money.

"Last week you spent $400 on your hair and the week before that, $800 on a pair of bloody shoes," the husband finally yelled at his wife over the tiramisu.

"It's my money, I earned it, I can do what I like with it," his wife screamed back, before storming off.

The rest of us in the crowded restaurant looked at our shoes, our wine glasses, anything but the couple tearing themselves apart over finances. Money, it turns out, doesn't just talk — sometimes it yells and stamps its feet.


We've probably all been there, although probably not so loudly or publicly. Because if you type "what couples argue about the most" into Google a fair chunk of the two million or so results will point to money.

A recent US survey showed that finances are the leading cause of arguments among couples, more than children, sex, housework or friends. And that couples have, on average, three arguments about money a month.

"There are so many different fights that couples can have when it comes to money," says Deborah Carlyon, from Auckland financial planning firm Stuart and Carlyon. "You might fight over what to spend money on versus what to save. You might have different ideas about what things 'should' cost, such as $30 for a small bottle of manuka honey, or you might judge each other for your spending habits — i.e. the 'you bought another dress?' approach," says Carlyon, who's been advising people on how to manage their money for 30 years.

"One partner might be more of a spender while the other is a saver. You could argue about whether to combine your finances, how to create a budget, how to manage your money or how to save for the future. There's no end of ways that finances can trip up a couple."

So far, so not surprising. What might raise eyebrows is where arguments about money can lead: according to a 2012 study from Utah State University, couples who reported disagreeing about finance once a week were 37 per cent more likely to get divorced than couples who only disagreed about money a few times a month.

Jeffrey Dew, associate professor at Utah University's Human Development and Family Studies Department, followed married couples over a five year period and found that of all the things couples fought over — including chores, family, sex and time spent together — money was the only conflict that could lead to divorce.

"Our research found that money fights are frequently a stand-in for bigger relationship issues," Dew was reported as saying. "On the surface, an argument might appear to be about overspending, but underneath it's a struggle about trust, power, security or status. If you're under financial duress, there's likely an added layer of stress to a relationship, which can take a serious toll."

Melanie Pearce* laughs so hard when I read her Dew's quote that she almost snorts her turmeric latte all over the walls of a Ponsonby cafe. Pearce, 40, last year divorced Matt, her husband of four years and the father of her 3-year-old daughter Sophie, because of their financial incompatibility.


"Matt believed in spending every cent he got — that if he didn't use it, he'd lose it," says the intellectual property lawyer. "It probably stems from an experience when he was 4 or 5 and someone gave him a dollar, which his mother immediately took away from him for safekeeping. She didn't mean anything by it, but it taught him that every time he got money he should spend it, otherwise it would disappear."

Pearce, on the other hand, is a lifelong saver, the youngest of six who, like her siblings, put herself through university with part-time jobs. "My parents taught us the value of a dollar and to respect the graft that goes into earning it. That makes you less likely to squander it."

Pearce met Matt, an engineer, while living in London and admits she was attracted to his easygoing ways. "He had a real 'live for the moment' type attitude. Which is fun when you're young but not so much when you have a whopping great mortgage to pay off."

The pair split up but got back together five years ago. Not long after, they bought a house in West Auckland and had Sophie. It was the first time they'd pooled their money.

"Previously we'd always had separate accounts. It wasn't something we consciously talked about, but we've got such vastly different money personalities, it was easier just to have separate accounts."

That was when the friction started, with Matt's spendthrift ways meaning he often couldn't pay his half of the bills. "Funnily enough, he was always able to buy another expensive fishing rod or shout a round of drinks but then he'd plead poverty and I'd have to cover him. It got really squeezed when I was on maternity leave and we had to live on his wage."

Lily Leung and David Fletcher. Photo / Peter Meecham
Lily Leung and David Fletcher. Photo / Peter Meecham

Research suggests that almost 73 per cent of people believe their partner is their financial opposite but choose to build a life with that person anyway. Pearce says she could no longer be one of them.

"It's fine when there are just two of you and you can keep your accounts separate, but put a child into the mix and it's not so simple. We'd argue about money almost daily until it got to the stage where I realised I couldn't be with a man whose values were so different to mine."

The first time Lily Leung went to the supermarket with her partner David Fletcher, she was shocked he bought groceries without first looking at the price.

"I always check the price, compare products and never pay full price for major items unless I have to," says Leung a 40-something copywriter/property investor who describes herself as asset rich and cash poor.

Having bought her first house with an ex boyfriend when she was 23, Leung currently owns five long and short-term let apartments in Auckland. She pays Fletcher rent on the one-bedroom Grey Lynn apartment he bought last year.

"I've always worked hard with property investment and in my marketing/copywriting business, so I was able to give up full-time work a few years ago. But I'm also careful with money — I rarely spend it on things like clothes or expensive meals, I've got an average car and I go the hairdressers probably once a year. I'd much rather save and then splurge on things like taking David to Hawaii for his 40th birthday. Money isn't everything to me, but managing it well means I can work when I want to, not because I have to, as well as securing my financial security when I'm older."


Fletcher, 40, on the other hand, has a very different money personality. "I've always been pretty easygoing about money," says the brand manager. "I studied business at uni and understand how economics works on a national and global scale, but I was a bit relaxed when it came to my own finances."

The couple believe their respective backgrounds have had a significant impact on their financial views, with Leung particularly influenced by her accountant father and her mother, who ran a gift shop in New Plymouth.

"I used to help Mum in her gift shop when I was 8 and that's when I learned how to be good with finances. My parents also taught me the value of money from an early age which definitely influenced me."

Some of that has rubbed off on Fletcher, who credits his partner with helping him to be more financially organised. "Lily is definitely more savvy when it comes to earning and spending money than me, but I think I've also influenced her in terms of paying more for quality items that last a long time. She used to opt for cheaper alternatives or second-hand stuff but now we meet each other halfway."

Lily Leung and David Fletcher. Photo / Peter Meecham
Lily Leung and David Fletcher. Photo / Peter Meecham

The couple, who don't plan to have children, say they rarely argue about money because they're upfront about their different spending profiles and have learned how to compromise.

"We have a household account for shared bills and purchases but the rest of our finances are completely separate," says Leung. "I probably earn more and have more assets than David, but I've also taken bigger risks and have a lot more to lose."


The key to a harmonious financial life, they say, is to remember that you love each other.

"Money can be really stressful but it's not as important as your happiness or your relationship," says Fletcher. "Respect and courtesy are key and it helps if you can try to understand where your partner is coming from, rather than enforcing your own views."

* Name changed.

Four ways to minimise money conflict

• Understand that arguments about money are often about what money emotionally represents, so the goal is to dig deeper and find out what those underlying issues are.

• Set mutual goals for your finances and then try to reach them by having open, honest conversations when there isn't a crisis. A good reality check is to sit down once a year, no matter where you are on the financial spectrum, and discuss your financial plans/dreams and how you're working towards that.

• Using money to control your partner can seriously damage a relationship and just because you're the higher earner doesn't mean you can dictate spending.


• Communication is critical — e.g. agreeing to discuss any purchase over a certain limit, and honesty is key (a recent survey revealed that roughly six million US consumers have concealed financial accounts from their spouses, partners or significant others they live with).

• Focus on solutions, not blame. One strategy is to set up different bank accounts for fixed expenses, fun spending and joint savings. If couples each regularly fund individual bank accounts, with an agreed amount for "no questions asked" fun money, that can often defuse arguments.

— Advice from Deborah Carlyon