I don’t know about you, but for me it’s easy to fall into the “if…then” trap when it comes to money. If we had an extra 400 dollars a month, then dot dot dot. Or, If we had a 5 bedroom home instead of a 3 bedroom home then dot dot dot. And when we start doing this if…then thing, it begins to impact our marriage.

Money is definitely top of the worry list for a lot of couples around the world. I know how hopeless it can feel about changing your financial situation, so I want to encourage you that we have some good news. The great news is not some get-rich-quick scheme. No, it’s that you can shift your marriage so that you can move away from that hopeless feeling, regardless of your financial situation. So let’s jump in.

How Financial Strains Impact Marriage

Before we get to the solution we need to spell the problem out. Not surprisingly, research finds that financial strain does impact marriage by reducing marriage quality and also reducing the stability of the marriage[i].

What’s fascinating is you can actually put a number to this. The direct link between financial strain and reduced marital satisfaction accounts for up to 15% of the total variation in marital satisfaction[ii].

If you are struggling financially or unhappy with your financial situation, you are far more likely to see your entire marriage as not working. I think this is good to point out because in this situation you have a pretty specific issue but you’re extrapolating it to a much larger one.

For me, that’s a check point. As in: stop and think about it. Because what we just identified is that you may only have a money issue. But you’ve made that into a marriage issue. I think it begs the question, is that necessary? Yes — financial strains impacts marriage. But how much power have you given to that issue?

So money can be made into a bigger issue than it really is. But: just to continue the thought of how marriage is impacted by finances: money issues also impact marriage indirectly through the way they change how you act. Financial strain due to unemployment, debt, low income or other issues increases stress and depressive symptoms for both spouses. This in turn reduces the amount of social support, warmth & affection which the spouses show to each other and increases the level of negative communication: things like anger, criticism or dislike. This behavior reduces marital satisfaction, and this reduced satisfaction increases depressive symptoms, creating a destructive cycle[iii]. So the way money makes you think and talk to each other ends up having a worse impact on your marriage than the money problem itself.

Other research supports this: A study from 2008[iv] entitled “Money Doesn’t Buy Happiness, but it Helps” compared low income and medium income couples. Low income couples had higher levels of psychological distress and also scored lower on measures of marital adjustment.

And as we all know, financial difficulties are also one of the main reasons couples give after divorcing for why their marriage broke down[v].

Conversely, high income is directly linked to high marital satisfaction, and also indirectly influences it by reducing pressure and stress within the marriage[vi].

Now I know at this point it sounds like we have a simple formula: increase the moolah, increase the marriage mojo. But just stay with me for a bit longer.

Financial Satisfaction

I’d like to look at financial satisfaction. Financial satisfaction is not about having more money. It’s about being satisfied with the money you have.

Now financial satisfaction is strongly linked to marital satisfaction[vii]. As I mentioned, financial satisfaction is not the same as simply having lots of money, although it is negatively correlated with financial strain. There are other factors which influence financial satisfaction in marriage, including:

    1. The perception that you have enough money and are coping.
    2. Smart financial decisions: families and couples who pay bills on time, live within their income and avoided unnecessary debt have a higher sense of self worth, respect for each other and the family, and have less tension in the marriage[viii].
    3. Feeling in control of your finances and being self-sufficient (as a couple) is linked to higher quality of life[ix].

So being smart with your finances, making the best use out of what you have and believing that you have enough are all good for your marriage irrespective of your actual account balance.

Having control over spending and financial decisions is another important factor in financial satisfaction. While most married couples have joint accounts and pool their finances, in most marriages the reality is that one spouse is more likely to control the pool of money more than the other[x]. Only 1 in 5 marriages had truly equal control of money and spending between spouses[xi].

Equal sharing of finances is strongly correlated with financial and marital satisfaction[xii]. This is especially true for low income couples. Independent finances or a lack of financial control reduces intimacy, hinders conflict resolution and overall lowers marital satisfaction, especially for women. Women married to men who withhold control of finances or keep some of the money to themselves often become suspicious that their husbands are not fully committed to supporting the family, or are possibly being unfaithful[xiii].

So it’s possible that one of you may be successfully handling the money, but because of the control aspect it may reduce marital satisfaction. This is bound to work differently for different couples but a marriage where one spouse has sole say over money matters doesn’t sound like an intimate, trusting relationship to me.

It’s great to note that there are ways of handling money so that, even if you have a low income, you can still find satisfaction in your marriage. In other words, you don’t have to make more to be happier. Rather, you can change how you relate to what you already have.

Coping with Financial Pressures

Once again we’ve created a bonus worksheet to help you really dig into this whole issue of finances and get to that place where those finances don’t carry the same level of emotional strain that you feel today. Wouldn’t it be great to be on the same page as your spouse? This 4 page worksheet will take you through that really important equality issue, and through discussion around budgeting, saving, giving, and staying strong together. This is freely available to our much appreciated supporters on Patreon. If you want a copy too, you can get this by becoming a patron of The Marriage Podcast for Smart People.

Ways to Prevent Finances Negatively Impacting Marriage

So satisfaction with your money and being sensible with it does more for your marriage than actually having lots of disposable income. That being said, the challenges of money on a lot of manages are very real. So here are some ways to reduce the strain finances can have on your marriage.

Communication

One of the main ways that financial difficulty impacts marriage is by creating stress and depressive symptoms, which lead to dysfunctional communication[xiv]. We touched on that earlier. So by learning and practicing communication skills you can mediate the effect financial strain is having on your marriage.

I think this is a good point to consider because at the end of the day not all of your stress is just about the finances. It’s also about how you relate to each other in the midst of those financial issues. So a good part of what you’re facing may not even be financial issues as much as a communication style problem.

And again: while the financial issues may seem large and insurmountable, learning communication skills is something you can start on right away so that you can figure out how to navigate through that financial issue together rather than as opponents.

Equality

I recommend you adopt a system of equal access and decision making regarding finances. Why? This increases intimacy and reduces problems with trust and conflict in your marriage[xv]. If you’re the spouse that’s been holding onto finances — is it time to take a step back and say, “Sorry, my bad, I’ve been too controlling. I would rather have you as my ally than as a sparring partner. Can you help me find a way to do this together?”

Spending Time Together

Several studies found that quality time together is another mediating factor between financial strain and marital strain. As in, finances only harm your marriage because they reduce the amount of time you can spend together. Interesting hey? One study from 2007[xvi] surveyed 497 couples and found that financial pressure creates an increase in negative behaviors as a couple (such as conflict) and reduces positive behaviors such as quality time together.

So actively working against this and making time for each other can reduce the strain finances place on your marriage. The basic idea here is that you know you have a stress point in one area of your marriage — and that point is not going to go away right away — so you’re going to compensate for that by strengthening another area of your marriage.

Along these same lines, a separate study by Dew in 2008[xvii] examined levels of debt in newlywed couples and found no direct link between debt and marital satisfaction. Instead debt negatively impacted marriage because it interfered with the couple’s expectations of what marriage would be like, in that it increased arguments and reduced time spent together. Does that make sense? Debt is not the marriage killer…it’s the way you’ve handled it that may be putting all that strain on your marriage.

So again, working on good conflict skills and spending time together would reduce the negative impact of debt (and presumably other forms of financial strain) on marriage.

Financial Management Skills

Formal financial management strategies such as goal setting, budgeting, saving and record keeping help reduce financial strain, while also reducing arguments about finances. Much of the conflict around money comes from couples having different ideas on how to spend or manage their money, so as one researcher put it “Financial management skills may reduce the chance for marital disagreements, while the lack of such skills may actually create crisis situations.[xviii]“.

In other words, your mishandling of money, just due to a lack of education in these areas, could be a source of conflict. Again: the answer is not winning the lottery or some unattainable goal (waiting for your rich, heirless aunt to die) but taking some easily accessible steps forward in learning new skills.

Research shows that the use of good financial management skills and the perception that you are managing finances well were both linked to marital satisfaction[xix][xx]. So these skills don’t just help you get a handle on your finances but they actively work to improve your marriage.

There are plenty of great options for money management courses out there. If you’re listening from here in Canada, or from Australia, New Zealand or the UK we recommend getting in touch with Christians Against Poverty, a fantastic charity who offer debt advice and money skills courses with a Christian worldview. But wherever you are in the world there’s plenty of help available if you do a little research.

Increasing your available finances through better money management, or changes in circumstances/employment is linked to increased marital satisfaction in itself, and helps couples feel like they are achieving something together[xxi]. So if you take these skills and manage to turn your financial situation around it gives you a joint sense of accomplishment as a couple, and that’s a powerful positive force in your marriage.

I think that is so cool because now you’re taking something that has been a drain on your marriage and you are both rallying around it together, and now it becomes something that helps form your sense of ‘us’ rather than something between you.

Again, research supports this skills piece. One study from 2015[xxii] found that attending a course on financial management, communication and coping skills as a couple improved financial coping and marital satisfaction 3 months later.

So if this is an issue, get some training, get help, read a few good books. And also be sure to check out our past episodes too. We did a mini-series on finances in episodes 59 to 63. Those are free and a great place to start. You might not always find yourself in a situation where you have as much money as you’d like, but you can certainly take steps to get there, and also to stop financial hardship impacting your marriage. So start informing yourself and start developing a marriage and a mindset that thrive no matter your financial situation.


References:

[i] Vinokur, Price, and Caplan, “Hard Times and Hurtful Partners.”

[ii] Kerkmann, “Financial Management and Financial Problems As They Relate to Marital Satisfaction in Early Marriage.”

[iii] Vinokur, Price, and Caplan, “Hard Times and Hurtful Partners.”

[iv] Dakin and Wampler, “Money Doesn’t Buy Happiness, but It Helps.”

[v] Kerkmann, “Financial Management and Financial Problems As They Relate to Marital Satisfaction in Early Marriage.”

[vi] Conger, Conger, and Martin, “Socioeconomic Status, Family Processes, and Individual Development.”

[vii] Copur, The Relationship between Financial Issues and Marital Relationship.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Vogler and Pahl, “Money, Power and Inequality within Marriage.”

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] Addo and Sassler, “Financial Arrangements and Relationship Quality in Low-Income Couples.”

[xiii] Ibid.

[xiv] Vinokur, Price, and Caplan, “Hard Times and Hurtful Partners.”

[xv] Addo and Sassler, “Financial Arrangements and Relationship Quality in Low-Income Couples.”

[xvi] Gudmunson et al., “Linking Financial Strain to Marital Instability.”

[xvii] Dew, “Debt Change and Marital Satisfaction Change in Recently Married Couples*.”

[xviii] Kerkmann, “Financial Management and Financial Problems As They Relate to Marital Satisfaction in Early Marriage.”

[xix] Ibid.

[xx] Copur, The Relationship between Financial Issues and Marital Relationship.

[xxi] Conger, Conger, and Martin, “Socioeconomic Status, Family Processes, and Individual Development.”

[xxii] Falconier, “TOGETHER – A Couples’ Program to Improve Communication, Coping, and Financial Management Skills.”