5 Ways to Survive a Spender/Saver Union

By Diane McCurdy, C.F.P.

Are you in a spender/saver marriage?

Consider a typical day in the life of a couple with this kind of relationship:

Your husband spends the day with the kids and returns home with more new toys and children's clothing. He also informs you that they all had a lovely dinner out.

The kids, of course, had $8 chicken fingers even though there were perfectly good chicken fingers in your freezer. You cringe at the sight of the toys because you know that, after onefighting over money or two uses, they will be laid aside and never touched again, except when you do the annual toy box purging. And while you think the clothes are adorable, your kids already have closets and drawers full of cute clothes that won't fit them in six months.

You would much rather put money into the kids' college funds and buy them special gifts a couple of times a year than throw the money away on every little toy, gadget or piece of clothing they want. Add to that your dismay, anxiety and growing resentment toward your spouse because he always gets to be "the good guy" - indulging the kids - while you toil away pinching pennies so they can go to college.

You both think that you're good parents, keeping your children's interests at heart. But when it comes to the money you spend on them - or on life, in general - you and your partner live on different planets.

Can you relate? If you're like many married folks with kids, you can. The spender/saver scenario can go either way - it could just as easily be the wife who prefers spending to saving money. But whether you're the scrooge or the spendthrift, you've almost certainly felt some "finance friction" in your relationship.

Our attitudes toward money are so deeply embedded that we tend to believe we are right and our partner is wrong. But having different attitudes doesn't make either one of you wrong. If more clashing couples tried to understand how their partner feels about money - not to mention explore the roots of their own attitudes - fewer would end up in divorce court.
In my work as a financial planner, I've identified four basic money attitudes:

Savers, and Spenders, as described above

Builders, who see money as a tool and use it (whether wisely or not) to turn their dreams into a reality; and

Givers, the people who regularly donate to charity, buy expensive presents for their friends and deny their own wants to give to others.

But of the four attitudes, the spender/saver combination seems to generate the most conflict in a relationship. A recent Money magazine survey confirmed that 84 percent of couples said they had clashed over money issues - usually regarding spending and saving.

Paths to Peace

Identifying and understanding your own money attitude is the first step toward smoother financial relations with your partner. If you are a saver married to a spender (or vice versa), what specifically can you do to ensure that you respect each other's differences and will be able to provide the things your children truly need? Here are five strategies to make the spender/saver relationship work:

1. Make sure that you both understand the difference between your money attitudes. Sit down with your partner for a heart-to-heart talk and a budget-planning meeting. Be frank, respectful and ready for compromise: I'm a saver; here's what that means … You're a spender; here's why and here's what that means … Let's talk about how we can get on the same page, so that our needs are met and we're sending the right messages about money to the kids. It's amazing how few couples think to have this calm, rational discussion. Yet not having it sets the stage for festering resentment, which blows up into arguments.

2. The saver needs to know that he or she is saving enough money off the top to ensure financial security. Financial security means different things to different people. The saver needs to realize that the family doesn't need a million dollars in the bank in the next five years to survive. Maybe it's enough to know that the mortgage is being paid every month or that a certain amount is always going toward education savings.

3. Likewise, the spender needs to knowthat he or she can still spend and enjoy life without sabotaging financial security. Think longer term: How would you feel if one day you realized that you had spent so much money on toys and meaningless "whatevers" for your kids that you couldn't afford to send them to summer camp for a week, something that would truly have an impact on their lives. Or, if down the road, when it's time to send the kids off to college, you don't have enough money saved to help them out.

4. Make a money agreement. Decide between the two of you how much money you will spend and how much you will save - in a month and a year. Once a saver is reassured that enough money is being set aside for the kids' future, there's no need to worry when a spouse buys a toy for the kids or takes them out for dinner every now and then. Once a spender scales back on buying the kids tons of things they never seem to use, birthdays and Christmas become more special - children now have to choose a couple of special gifts instead of getting what they want on a regular basis.

5. Know that your kids learn the value of money from you. Spenders and savers both struggle with the best ways to teach their children the value of money. But it's important that they do it with a united front.

Have conversations about your own money attitudes away from your kids. It's hard for them to see the big picture when it comes to money. They may see the parent who is buying them what they want as the good guy and the parent who is telling them "No" as the bad guy. Wait to discuss money with your children when you can do it as a team - one that has reached an agreement on what to spend and save in a given month or year.

The Bottom Line

Money is just a tool. We are the ones who give it so much emotional power. We'd all be better off if we realized that there's always more money to be earned and cultivated to fit our needs. We shouldn't allow the dramas we create around financial matters to disrupt our marriages or our kids' childhoods. Understanding our money attitudes and those of our partners - and then compromising to ensure our needs are met - keeps the focus where we want it as parents: on our kids.

Diane McCurdy is a certified financial planner and lecturer with more than 25 years of experience. She's also the author of the book How Much Is Enough? Balancing Today's Needs with Tomorrow's Retirement Goals.

Updated August 2012