Study Shows Thinking Your Wife Is a “Spender” Increases Marital Stress

Contributed By Marianne Holman Prescott, Church News staff writer

  • 7 September 2017

Research says when husbands think their wives are too “spendy,” financial and possible marital strife will follow.  Photo by Nate Edwards.

Article Highlights

  • Many stresses in family relationships can be attributed to finances.
  • Spouses’ perceptions of each other’s spending behavior largely affect financial conflict.
  • Weekly financial planning as a couple can facilitate communication and prevent conflict.

“It’s so important that we assume good intentions and look for the good in our spouse. You can’t change your spouse’s behavior, but you can change your own behavior and your perceptions toward your spouse.” —Ashley LeBaron, BYU graduate student

For many couples, one of the biggest stressors in their relationship is money. Whether it is trying to balance expenses, live within a budget, or pay the bills, many couples find finances a stressful part of their life together.

“A lot of family relationships are affected by finances,” said E. Jeffrey Hill, professor of family life at Brigham Young University. “We can really struggle if we are a poor steward of our finances.”

A new study published in the Journal of Financial Planning highlights research done at BYU and Kansas State University that takes a closer look at finances in marriages, specifically the differences in financial personalities.

“Financial problems are consistently reported as a top stressor for Americans, contributing to marital conflict and dissolution,” the paper reads. “The purpose of this paper was to determine how spending personalities contribute to financial conflict between partners.”

Taking a closer look at what researchers categorized as “spenders” and “tightwads,” researchers found that for husbands, the highest contributor to financial conflict came when they perceived their wife as a spender.

“Husbands who viewed their wife as a spender were nine times more likely to report financial conflict in the relationship,” the paper states. “For wives, having a husband who viewed them as a spender was the highest contributor to financial conflict.”

Although wives did report some stress stemming from a spendy husband, wives were 11 times more likely to report financial conflict when husbands viewed them as the spenders.

“It is important to note that in this study we measured perceptions, which may or may not accurately reflect reality,” said Ashley LeBaron, a BYU graduate student and one of the researchers on the project. “The fact that spouses’ perceptions of each other’s spending behaviors were so predictive of financial conflict suggests that when it comes to the impact of finances on relationships, perceptions may be just as important, if not more important, than reality.”

Recognizing there are financial stressors that happen—job loss, poverty, debt—LeBaron said that research shows that perceptions can either make the situation worse or alleviate stress.

For wives, feeling a high degree of communication frequency was associated with a decreased likelihood of conflict.

“Couples need to communicate about finances, especially early in marriage,” said lead researcher Sonya Britt-Lutter, professor at Kansas State and a national expert in the area of finances in marriage, in a BYU press release. “Don’t think that financial problems will magically go away when circumstances change. The study showed that circumstances weren’t the issue here; perception was, and perception doesn’t always change when circumstances do.”

Even with financial conflict, there are ways to make things better, the researchers agreed.

“If you are having conflict with your finances, you are not alone,” Hill said. “That also means there is hope, too. Oftentimes doing a few simple things can take you out of that conflict category and into a place where finances is helping your family.”

For some, taking an inventory of their own spending habits as well as their perceptions of their partner can be helpful.

“Our findings suggest that spouses should look at their own spending as well as their perceptions of their partner, and maybe do some personal adjusting,” LeBaron said. “Am I a spender? If so, what can I do to be a better money manager in order to lessen our financial burden?”

LeBaron suggested looking at how a person views their spouse, acknowledging if their perception may be unfair.

“If so, how can I change my perceptions, attitudes, and actions toward them?” LeBaron asked. “It’s so important that we assume good intentions and look for the good in our spouse. You can’t change your spouse’s behavior, but you can change your own behavior and your perceptions toward your spouse. Perhaps if we all focused more on ourselves and less on the faults we perceive in our spouse, we would have less financial conflict.”

Although all financial problems aren’t always a simple fix, Hill said that there are simple changes a couple can do to help with or even prevent conflict in their marriage.

“Oftentimes just small changes—a little bit of discipline—can move you from having financial conflict, which leads to marital dissatisfaction and even divorce, to being OK with your finances so you can work on other things,” Hill said.

Hill shared the idea of “mad money,” or a set cash amount each month each partner has to spend on whatever he or she wants. It doesn’t have to be a large amount, just a set amount that a person can spend on anything they please.

“A lot of conflict is about little nickel-and-dime things that make no difference to your budget or your financial picture,” Hill said.

LeBaron reminded people that “there is nothing wrong with getting help from a marriage and family therapist or financial therapist; third party intervention can help couples work through their struggles and adjust their interactions to be less conflictual.”

“One of the things that I encourage couples to do is what my wife and I do on Sunday afternoon,” Hill said. “We get out the calendar and go through what we are going to do the next week, and we look at our budget. … We are able to talk about the little things, and then it doesn’t cause conflict.”

A few simple steps will help couples improve their financial and relational health.

“If these financial adjustments can be done with a team mentality instead of an ‘it’s your fault’ mentality, couples will be more successful and they’ll strengthen their relationship,” LeBaron said.

Researchers used data from BYU’s Flourishing Families Project, a project that began in 2007 including nearly 700 families from two locations. Respondents were on average 45–46 years old and have been married for 18 years.