There’s a scene in many an old movie, often a romantic comedy from the 1940s or ’50s, where the wife arrives home laden with hatboxes and shopping bags from high-end boutiques and the husband jocularly winces at how much his spouse has bought. It’s usually played for laughs.
An overspending partner is also fairly common. About a third of respondents to a Creditcards.com survey in 2020 said they spent more than their partner would like them to, with 12% admitting they had secret debt.
“Money comes up so often in therapy,” says Sharon O’Neill, a licensed marriage and family therapist whose practice is primarily in Westchester County, N.Y. “When two people come together, that is one of the things that is so often different—one person spending more than the other.” It’s much more rare, she says, that a couple’s spending habits are compatible.
Understand the Family Dynamics
Of course, there are degrees of overspending, and one of the first things you should figure out is why it bothers you. If a partner’s spending is clearly hurting your finances, then the problem is apparent. But if these splurges don’t have an economic impact on your household, why should they matter?
Often, anger about money is really about other issues in the relationship, says Paul Hokemeyer, a licensed marriage and family therapist who lives in Telluride, Colo., and New York City. “Marriages have that all the time,” he says. “The investor banker husband who has 20 bicycles and every month a new bicycle is coming.” The family can afford the expense, but it angers his wife.
So, maybe the bikes aren’t the problem at all. Maybe it’s a lack of intimacy or feelings of not being seen or heard in a relationship, he says. “It’s a lot easier to talk about quantifiable things, like bicycles, than qualifiable things like emotions, so the question becomes how is this hurting you,” says Hokemeyer, who is also the author of Fragile Power: Why Having Everything Is Never Enough.
Nothing shapes your own view of spending more than how your own family thought about money, spent it (or didn’t), argued about it and used it while you were growing up, and the same is true of your spouse. “It’s very important for couples to understand each other’s money type and respect [it],” says Jill Fopiano, a certified financial planner and the president and chief executive officer of O’Brien Wealth Partners in Boston. “Try to find a place of alignment rather than looking at this as a character flaw or a personality trait.”
Find Common Ground
Andrea Woroch, who frequently writes and speaks about budgeting and money, says when she and her husband first came together, their spending patterns completely clashed. She was fine with leftovers; he wanted to dine out all the time. She bought generic products; he never comparison shopped. “I felt completely out of control with how my husband spent and what he spent on,” she says.
So, they took the first step every expert recommends: They talked about the problem without pointing fingers at each other. “You need to address the issue in a nonaccusatory and nonjudgmental way, such as ‘I’ve seen these credit card bills and I’m getting really scared. I’m concerned about our future together and I want to make sure that I’m doing everything in my power to make sure our financial future is safe,’” Hokemeyer says. Then find shared goals.
Can you agree, for example, on big objectives, such as paying off a mortgage, funding a grandchild’s education, socking away for retirement or buying a second home? If so, that’s one obstacle overcome. “Don’t focus on the micro details of spending, such as ‘were you at Nordstrom’ or ‘were you at the golf course,’” says Kevin Donohue, a certified financial planner with Legacy Planning in West Chester, Pa. “That just incites anger. Usually, if you focus on common ground, that’s the start of moving things in the right direction.”
Then—and this is the really hard part—you need to go over your finances: monthly income, monthly spending, assets, savings and investments. Forecasting what your future finances will look like if the spending doesn’t stop, such as losing your house, as well as how to reach your financial goals, is key, Donohue says.