Couples’ differences over money can grow into bullying

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Posted: Monday, December 30, 2013 12:00 am

There are bullies on the playground, in the classroom and at the office. Or perhaps right beside you at home.

Financial bullying among couples, whether they’re married or not, is a less visible but insidious type of intimidation and control. It can take many forms, from withholding money from a spouse’s bank account to demanding to see receipts for every shopping trip.

And it may be more common than we think. One in 10 respondents says her or his spouse or partner is a financial bully, according to a recent survey by, a personal finance website based in San Francisco.

“It’s eye-opening. A lot of people don’t realize the things that could be construed as bullying,” said Greg Lull, CreditKarma’s vice president of analytics.

With money often cited as one of the top causes of divorce, it can be extremely important to sort out the financial conflicts that trouble a marriage or long-term relationship.

“It comes down to using money as a weapon of power,” said Peter Cole, a Sacramento, Calif., chartered financial consultant, who also is a marriage therapist. “Financial abuse is used in almost identical ways to verbal, sexual or physical abuse — to control somebody and express anger and unresolved emotions.”

He’s seen couples where the wife was berated or overly scrutinized for almost any purchase beyond groceries. In another case, one spouse had access to the other’s 401(k) retirement account and secretly used it to invest in highly speculative stocks that drained the $500,000 account down to almost nothing.

“What happens with financial bullying is that communication has been really stymied,” said Cole, an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of California, Davis medical school. Although he keeps his marriage counseling separate from his financial advising practice, Cole said all too often financial and emotional problems overlap.

Battling over money can run the gamut, from financial bullying at one extreme to mere grumbling and irritation over mismatched expectations.

In some instances, couples may be unaware of their fundamental differences toward money, even when living together. If they have separate credit card accounts and pay bills separately, they may not realize that one is teetering on the brink of insolvency while the other is diligently saving dollars toward bigger goals.

When there’s a clash of money management styles, it can breed resentment, arguments and worse. One partner thinks nothing of maxing out credit cards and never worries about paying bills on time. The other partner is horrified by overspending, late fees and other uncertainties.

And the holidays — when it’s easy to get swept up in a got-to-spend-money, gift-buying frenzy — can be especially trying.

In a recent survey of couples’ holiday spending, more than a third of married couples said they disagree on, lie about or hide their holiday spending. Specifically, more than 50 percent said they’ve paid with cash to conceal a large purchase, and more than 10 percent took out a credit card in their own name to hide their spending, according to the survey by McGraw-Hill Federal Credit Union, a New Jersey-based network of East Coast credit unions.

A lot of it is simply how we were raised. Someone who grew up in a very frugal, tight-fisted household can’t understand why his partner spends so freely, which feels wasteful and financially risky. On the other hand, the person who grew up with plenty of money “cannot understand why their partner is being such a control freak,” Cole said. “A lot of times they just stop talking about (money), but they’re disgruntled with each other.”

Miscommunication and misunderstanding may not rise to the level of financial abuse, but they can create tension and bad feelings. The cure, experts say, is to talk: Talk about your past and how it affected your attitude toward money. Discuss a budget and establish shared priorities on spending. Listen to one another in order to reach compromises. And, experts say, these conversations should take place in a calm setting, not while you’re still steamed up over the latest Visa bill.

For instance, one spouse may resent what the other spends on clothes for work. But if a professional wardrobe is important to that person, then the couple need to find a compromise: an amount of spending that each can live with. Or a stay-at-home parent may feel bullied about everyday purchases by a working spouse who’s stressed as the sole wage-earner. In that case, Cole said, they need to sit down and listen to each other’s worries and concerns. It may be helpful for them to do the grocery and household shopping together. Or take a joint look at the checkbook, in order to get a handle on financial realities and shared priorities.

“The key is to communicate with each other so you’re aware of each other’s needs and pressures,” Cole said. “Once you unpack those things and the values behind them, you’re in good shape. You understand each other and are in a place to compromise where people don’t feel judged.”

There are many routes to financial harmony. It might require working with a marriage counselor or a financial adviser to untangle the unhealthy patterns and habits involving money.

Couples also can obtain help through nonprofit credit counseling centers, like the National Foundation for Credit Counseling, at 800-388-2227.

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