1 December 2020

Stressing out over money

Picture of Derek Boylen

Derek Boylen

Relationship Counsellor, Educator, Researcher and Director at the Centre for Life, Marriage and Family

One of the biggest issues for couples often revolves around their finances. They come into a relationship with different ideas about money which I refer to as money ‘habitudes’. That is, people have certain habits when it comes to spending their money.

Some people want to put money aside through investments, while for others, money is about social status and spending their money in the here and now. They earn money so they can pursue the kinds of sports and hobbies that interest them. That’s the way they prioritise money.

Yet for other couples money is about donating to their favourite charities which brings them happiness and fulfillment. And for certain others, money is about long-term financial stability.

So, in any relationship people come together with different money ‘habitudes’. And that can result in some difficult conversations about what they should do with their money and how they prioritise their spending.

In any household, one person will usually be more interested in what bills are coming in and how much is in the bank account; that person can sometimes become the money ‘police officer’ in the relationship.

Whenever couples talk about money, it’s almost always going to be about unlimited needs. Hopes. Wants. Dreams. Investments. And the resources by which to acquire this wish list are limited.

The reason why money is a difficult topic for discussion is that there’s very little romance in talking about finances. Couples prefer to talk about things that bring them happiness and joy in their lives, but money can do the opposite.

Also, we know money doesn’t necessarily make you happy. There are plenty of examples of people being well off and not happy. And, on the other side of the coin, not having enough money and struggling to pay bills puts a lot of pressure on a relationship.

The first step for couples to strengthen this area in their relationship is to be patient with one another. Firstly, work out priorities. Australians find it difficult to talk about money because we fear risking ridicule or being judged. 

Our identity is intrinsically linked with earning a good wage and being a good provider for our family. So, it really cuts deep when people are struggling financially to meet their financial obligations. I would encourage couples, if they’re not good with money, or they haven’t had much financial experience, to seek help from a financial planner and to read widely.

Couples need to work as a team around these issues instead of working as enemies. Sometimes getting advice from experienced and knowledgeable people will help couples to get the best outcome for their family.

Less than 10% of couples work off a budget. But budgeting brings a lot of clarity and helps couples to stay on the same page while providing a sense of purpose.

Remember that a budget is simply a best guess. For many, it feels like a tough ask that will take hours to do but doing a budget is simply a best guess at how much money a couple think they may make in the year ahead and where they believe their spending will come from. Next year their guess will be better. And the year after the guess will be better again.

My wife Karen and I do our yearly budget in February each year, once the Christmas expenses and everything else is over. Inevitably, it is the last Saturday or Sunday in February.

We get up in the morning, have breakfast, have a coffee, get out an Excel spreadsheet and away we go. While we set the whole day aside, half an hour to an hour later we are usually done. We then review our yearly budget in August to see if we are on track. Often, it’s just those two conversations in February and August that gives us clarity and helps us feel good about the decisions we’ve been making about our money.

A lot of couples find themselves in difficult financial situations because of poor choices or the loss of a job. Irrespective, they suddenly discover they’re struggling to meet their financial obligations and are unsure how to progress. It creates a lot of anxiety and stress and often the first thing they imagine is the worst-case scenario, i.e. their electricity being cut off, or worse, losing their house.

There are plenty of organisations, such as St Vincent De Paul, that can provide support when it comes to financial budgeting and financial dealings.

I also believe talking to your children and letting them in on the family financial conversations is important. They will learn about budgeting early on which can only be a good thing. Even getting them to do chores for pocket money from an early age so they learn about the value of money.

This story is an edited version of a Focus Session on Financial Stressors with Derek Boylen and David Ahern recorded as part of the Figuring out Families podcasts series. You can access this podcast and others at: majellan.media/figuring-out-families/



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