Why You Fight Over Finances

Here are the biggest disagreements when it comes to money -- and how to resolve them.

Money and Power

family finances

Kaysh Shinn

When you have a new baby, everything changes. Spending all day in your pj's becomes more necessity than luxury, spit-up removal tops your to-do list, and out of the blue you have a mountain of money problems. Couples who never fought about anything suddenly find themselves in cash crises right and left.

Often, experts say, budget blowups are actually less about money and more about control. "Money often represents power, love, freedom, and all sorts of other things that it really isn't," says Michael Bradley, EdD, a psychologist in Feasterville, Pennsylvania, and author of The Heart & Soul of the Next Generation (Harbor Press). "You're never going to solve the issues if you talk about dollars. You need to talk about the feelings behind the dollars." What financial friction do new parents face? Read on.

Spending Solutions

Cash clash: You love buying baby things. You say: "It's just a toy from Target." He says: "That's another $10. And why the fancy baby clothes?" He can't understand what's wrong with his sister's hand-me-downs.

Our experts say: While new moms are celebrating the newborn, dads are panicked about providing. "They're years into the future, thinking, Who will care then about whether the baby had new or used clothes? How will I pay for college?" says Bradley.

New moms -- who may be carrying extra baby weight and are no doubt sleep deprived -- are often dealing with self-esteem issues. They won't spend money on themselves (why waste it on "fat clothes"?), so buying baby booty becomes a great substitute, says Elizabeth Schomburg, senior vice president with Family Credit Counseling Service, in Chicago.

To get to the bottom of it all, think about what a purchase means to you. Did you grow up wearing castoffs from your older sister? Perhaps that's why you're so opposed to giving your baby secondhand clothing now. Talking it out may help you allay the feeling that you need to spend so much, or it might make your husband sympathetic to your plight.

Cash clash: You left a well-paying job to stay home with the baby, and now you're uneasy spending. Your husband doesn't limit your access to cash but makes little sarcastic comments. Plus, money's tight without your income. And since you're not making money, you don't feel entitled to spend any.

Our experts say: When women leave the working world, they often feel anxious and even guilty that they're no longer contributing financially. They went from being in total control of their life to being totally controlled by this baby.

Barbara Stefanacci, of Clifton, New Jersey, left her job three-and-a-half years ago when she had her first child, and she always feels guilty about spending. "My husband makes cracks like, 'Was this really necessary?' And yet he spends money on parts for his car, which I don't think is essential," she says. "I'm used to being independent, and it's hard not to have money just for me to spend on what I want."

What women often forget is that although they may not be bringing home a paycheck, they are contributing financially by doing the jobs of babysitter, housekeeper, and cook.

To help you gain back some control, go through your financial records with your husband, suggests Robert Pagliarini, author of The Six-Day Financial Makeover (St. Martin's Press). Once you've paid all the bills and put some money into savings, create a mad-money fund. "You can do whatever you want with yours, and your husband can do whatever he wants with his," says Pagliarini.

Cash clash: He feels you need a date once a week. You think it costs too much. There are far more practical things you could spend the money on. He says your relationship is worth the expense.

Our experts say: You can find ways to save. Going out for a quick bite doesn't have to cost a fortune.

If you dig deeper, though, you might find that this argument has more to do with feelings than fortune. "Money always gets the partner's attention," says Sallie Foley, a marriage therapist in Ann Arbor, Michigan. "If someone feels pushed out of the pecking order, as dads sometimes do, money may represent a way of asserting oneself." Splurging on a sitter may also symbolize to your husband that you value your relationship.

Anne Lido's husband had been begging her to find a sitter since their 2-year-old was born. This mother, from Merrick, New York, admits she didn't make much of an effort. "We had so many new expenses, paying for an extravagant dinner just wasn't a priority," she says.

After talking it out with her husband, she realized it wasn't about going anywhere fancy. "Now we [get a babysitter and] do our food shopping on Saturday night. It gives us time alone together and gets one of the weekly chores out of the way."

Lifestyle Lessons

Cash clash: He wants to continue his golf game every Sunday, his weekly basketball games, and his once-a-month poker all-nighter. Just because you've had a baby doesn't mean he needs to put his hobbies on hold. You feel there isn't money for nonsense now that there are diapers to buy and college to save for.

Our experts say: This argument may not be about money at all. "She may be saying that it's too much money, but she really means that it's too much time away from home," says Pagliarini. He, on the other hand, is trying to prove that nothing in his life has changed. "That's a common fear reaction, because everything has changed," says Bradley. He may be resentful that you're spending a lot of time with the baby. Meanwhile, you're feeling resentment because he goes off to work and has adult interaction while you're at home, feeling guilty about taking any time for yourself.

See what you can do to make both of you happy. Maybe playing golf every Sunday is out of the question, but an evening of basketball once a week after the baby's gone down for the night might be okay. Your local YMCA may even have free or inexpensive babysitting, so while he's shooting hoops, you can swim or catch a Spinning class.

Cash clash: You want to move to a larger house in a nicer neighborhood with a better school district. He thinks you should stay put. The house is fine; the local school district is adequate.

Our experts say: "This couple may have had different visions that they've never figured out how to talk about," says Foley. Couples are often frightened of disagreeing, so they avoid confrontation. But the happiest couples are not necessarily the ones who think exactly alike. "The happiest are those with the greatest understanding of their differences and respect for those disparities," says Foley.

Because there are so many new bills when a baby arrives, you should decide what's really important to both of you. Sit down separately and create a list of your own top three financial goals -- for the short term (the next six months), the mid term (the next five years), and the long term (20 years out) -- suggests Schomburg. Maybe you want a bigger house, but he wants to pay off credit card debt. Look at your two lists, and really think about which goals make the most financial sense.

"Your baby won't be going to school for several years, so you might use this time to save for a down payment," says Schomburg. Keep in mind that in addition to a bigger mortgage, a bigger house also adds higher property taxes, higher electricity bills, and more.

While having a baby can bring out the worst in couples, it can also help them reach new understandings about money and the underlying concerns. Make up on the money issues, and you'll strengthen your relationship overall.

Copyright © 2007. Used with permission from the September 2007 issue of American Baby magazine.

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