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Financial Stress in Marriage: 4 Ways to Make Money Talks Less Difficult

Sasha Grabenstetter May 25, 2023

For many couples, taking a close look at finances together is a recipe for stress.

Nearly 3 in 4 married or cohabitating Americans say financial decisions have caused tension in their relationship, and 1 in 5 American couples say money is their most prominent relationship challenge.1,2

All of this financial stress in marriage begs a question: How can financial planners engage with couples who are conditioned to find money talks stressful? For the answer to that, look to the field of financial psychology.

Here we demonstrate four practical strategies based on financial psychology research that can help you take your client experience for couples to the next level.

1 in 5 couples say money is their biggest relationship challenge

Applying Financial Psychology in Your Practice

The Psychology of Financial Planning, a guidebook developed by the CFP Board, highlights that money has a powerful influence on power dynamics for couples: “Adjusting for power dynamics has served as a powerful tool for financial planners and their clients.”3

When thinking about power dynamics in a marriage, it’s important to factor in that the financial contributions in American marriages have changed. The number of women who earn as much as or more than their husbands has nearly tripled over the past 50 years, and 16 percent of U.S. households have a breadwinner wife.4 About 55 percent of marriages have a husband as the primary or sole breadwinner, and in 29 percent of marriages, both spouses earn roughly the same amount of money.4

Regardless of whether one spouse earns more than another, perceptions of inequality in financial decision-making can cause conflict in a relationship. When one partner is the main breadwinner or knows more about household finances, you can explore practical ways to even things out to create harmony among partners in the financial planning process. Here are four best practices to follow.

#1 Start Off on the Right Track with Both Spouses Present

Did you know only about 38 percent of couples say they interact with their advisor together?2 If you want to be seen as the personal financial planner of both partners in a relationship, it’s best to ensure you’re including both of them in meetings and client events.

That’s especially true in the initial stages of getting to know clients when you aren’t certain how they want to tackle financial planning. Things like inviting only the husband in the relationship to a client golf outing can create a perception that you’re only serving one side of the household.

Leaving one partner out can potentially feed into a well-known pattern of widows firing their advisors. A recent study put the percentage of widows who don’t continue with their advisor after their partner dies at 80 percent.5 Even if there is an established division of labor in a household, with one partner taking the lead on financial planning matters, continue to give each partner an equal opportunity to ask questions and feel seen and heard in the planning process. Also, consider client events that have broad appeal to men and women to build deeper relationships.

#2 Use Technology to Create a Shared Vision of the Future

Getting partners on the same page about finances can be challenging. Financial planning technology, including a client portal equipped with aggregation, can break down barriers and get information flowing. The login credentials—sent to each spouse as a best practice—become the keys to a shared future. When both partners can see the details of their cash flow and connect those inflows and outflows with their goals and overall financial picture, the future comes into sharper focus. The more data clients provide to you, the more you’re able to provide personalized financial planning recommendations.

#3 Look Out for Signs of Confusion

Picture this: You’re in the middle of describing a complex financial product and how it might fit into your clients’ financial plan. One partner is nodding along, the other is squinting and touching their forehead.

That’s your cue that the terminology you’re using isn’t painting a clear image. There’s no need to single out the client who seems confused. Instead, it’s time to try another way to get your point across.

This could be an analogy (e.g., buying stock in a down market is like buying it “on sale”). It could be an infographic from Napkin Finance. It could also be a visual created in your financial planning software. Try a new way to clarify what you’re talking about, then ask for feedback on your explanation.

Studies of what prevents people from getting financial advice have shown that fear is a potent force. Your clients may fear looking ignorant for not understanding a financial concept, so choose an empathetic approach.

#4 Get Both Sides of the Story

If one partner is doing all the talking and one is silent, you should not accept that as normal. Instead, offer the silent partner the chance to feel heard. It could sound like this: “Pat, you seem quiet today. Tell me, is there anything I went over that didn’t make sense, or I can help answer for you?” If the reply doesn’t offer enough detail, a simple “tell me more” can lead to a better conversation.

When it comes to retirement and long-term planning, 22 percent of women report having little to no involvement.2 When you consider that they tend to live longer than men and may be forced to take charge of financial decisions, a proactive approach to engagement takes on new urgency.

A Firm Foundation

With a little planning and active listening, you can elevate the client experience for couples in your practice. When you empower both partners to take an active role in their financial future, you create the building blocks of a productive and trusting relationship.

If you want to learn more ways to apply financial psychology, download our new eBook, Candid Conversations: Couples, Money, and Conflict. This guide breaks down techniques financial therapists use to get clients to think collaboratively and rationally and includes tips from experienced financial planners who excel in promoting strong relationships.

Sources:

1. AICPA, “Relationship Intimacy Being Crushed by Financial Tension: AICPA Survey,” February 2021.

2. Fidelity Investments, “2021 Couples & Money Study,” July 2021.

3. The Psychology of Financial Planning. CFP Board of Standards, 2022.

4. Pew Research Center, “In a Growing Share of U.S. Marriages, Husbands and Wives Earn About the Same,” April 2023.

5. Francis, Stacy. “Op-ed: The loss of a spouse or partner creates huge financial risk. Here are tips to protect your money.” CNBC. April 27, 2022.

DISCLAIMER: The eMoney Advisor Blog is meant as an educational and informative resource for financial professionals and individuals alike. It is not meant to be, and should not be taken as financial, legal, tax or other professional advice. Those seeking professional advice may do so by consulting with a professional advisor. eMoney Advisor will not be liable for any actions you may take based on the content of this blog.

About the Author

Sasha Grabenstetter, AFC®, BFA™ is a Financial Planning Education Consultant at eMoney Advisor. She is an integral part of the internal and external financial planning education programs, as well as financial planning content development. Sasha won the 2020 Outstanding Symposium Practitioners' Forum Award from the Association for Financial Counseling and Planning Education. She previously co-authored “Apple Seed: A Student Guide to Pro Bono Financial Planning” and “All My Money: Change for the Better.” With close to 10 years in financial education, Sasha received her AFC® designation in 2015 and graduated with her master’s degree from Texas Tech University in 2012.

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Welcome to
Heart of Advice

a new source of expert insights for
financial professionals.

Get Started

Tips specific to the eMoney platform can be found in
the eMoney
application, under Help, eMoney Advisor Blog.