Focus on the Family

Communicating About Money

by Ron Blue, Jeremy L. White

Divorced couples have revealed that money is one of the main reasons for their breakups. It's not just a lack of money, because many affluent couples have struggles and tension about money. I'm reminded of an interview:

Reporter: "So you are 100 years old. How did you manage to live so long?"

Old man: "Well, son, I got married when I was 21. the wife and I decided that if we had arguments, the loser would take a long walk to get over being mad. I suppose I have been benefited most by 79 years of fresh air and exercise."1

Arguments about money — not sex or household chores — are what couples between the ages of 18 and 40 fight over the most, according to a recent survey. In fact, money is such a troublesome issue that 82 percent of survey respondents say they have hidden shopping bags and various purchases from their spouse.2 So much for marital oneness and unity, huh?

When my wife, Judy, became a Christian in 1972, I was busy building a business, growing our income and providing for our family. She asked me about giving money to the church by tithing. Not being a believer at that time, I wouldn't hear of it. I didn't think it made financial sense. Judy showed patience and a winsome, submissive spirit. We didn't begin giving significantly until I became a Christian.

Should Judy have begun tithing, or nagging me to do so, even when I wasn't in agreement? I don't think so. God is more interested in a couple's relationship than the "correct" answer. God doesn't need our money. He owns it all. In a marriage, it's not a matter of who's right, but submitting to one another in love.

So, allow me to comment on a few of the vexing areas of managing money for couples. I think it will be particularly helpful to consider the different perspective and approach of husbands and wives when it comes to debt, spending and budgets, and investing.


1Pruneville.com, "Jokes and Quotes," http://www.pruneville.com/jokesandquotes/cleanjokes/ (accessed May 22, 2007).
2Charles Paikert, "Money Battles Top List of Fights," Investment News, February 12, 2007, 6.

Communicating About Debt

Couples should have a financial strategy in place to avoid the use of debt. Don't let debt become a cause of discontent in your marriage.

by Ron Blue, Jeremy L. White

As a young businessman drove home from the jewelry store shortly before Christmas, he was beside himself with excitement. It had been a tough year at his business, so he'd had to borrow to purchase the diamond necklace. But he knew the thrill on his wife's face would be worth the cost. Once home, he carefully placed the box under the Christmas tree. He watched with delight as his wife looked at the box and shook it, wondering what it might be.

Finally the big day arrived! Christmas morning, as the wife opened the box, the look on her face changed from curiosity ... to shock. She began to cry, because she knew he had taken on more debt to obtain the necklace.

Surprised at her response? You shouldn't be. I've counseled with hundreds of couples over the years and have noted specific differences in the ways men and women react to debt. In this section, we'll compare those responses. I realize that the following generalizations may not apply to every couple; some husbands are much more sensitive about taking on debt than their wives. However, overall I have found some fairly standard reactions to debt among men and women.

A Husband's Response

Let's begin by examining the typical husband's response. First, the husband will tend to become a workaholic in order to handle the debt. Even though more work and longer hours are not the answer, they are typically the husband's first response when faced with debt. But it's a response that the wife normally does not want. She wants him to be home more. And thus conflict builds.

Second, the husband will stop telling his wife what he is doing regarding debt. He won't even let her know when he takes on more debt or why. Many times as I work through the assets and liabilities with a couple, the wife will exclaim, "I didn't know we owed that!" The husband stops communicating with his wife regarding debt because he is concerned about her reaction. He knows her response will normally be negative. So rather than try to explain why, he says nothing.

Third, the husband may exhibit ups and downs in his spiritual life. I've noticed in counseling with couples that if things are going well (income, job, promotions), then debt is not a big issue and their spiritual life is strong. However, if there is a glitch in their income or the debt load becomes too great, then the couple tends to go into a spiritual tailspin. This is to be expected, because they must work harder and therefore have less time to spend with God. They can't get ahead because they must put all their energy into paying debt, which adds to their stress. This should not be surprising because when we're in debt we feel anxious that our income not go down. Proverbs 22:7 is true — "the borrower is servant to the lender." Therefore, debt can put the spiritual leader on a spiritual roller coaster.

A fourth way the husband may respond to debt is to blame his wife and take no personal responsibility for it. He concludes that he has been driven to assume an inordinate amount of debt in order to satisfy his wife's desires for "things." As a result, he may feel little personal responsibility and even develop an attitude of apathy toward paying back the debt. He takes on more debt yet works less. Eventually he doesn't care if the debt is even paid back. His wife's security is of very little concern to him.

The wife should understand these responses of the husband to debt. Likewise, the husband should expect the following responses from his wife.

A Wife's Response

Debt causes most wives to become very anxious. This is because she has a basic God-given need for security. Because of the woman's basic nurturing instincts, she desires to have a secure environment. Debt threatens this.

I've known of husbands who have suggested to their wives that they go into debt to finance a business opportunity, an investment, or the purchase of a new "toy." The husband is generally surprised by his wife's strong response. Her anxiety and fears may surface with a simple comment that includes the word debt.

She may say, "Why do we need the debt? What if our income goes down? What about our home?" Often a wife's response to debt is much different than her husband's. What a husband may see as a wise business move, the wife may see as a threat to her security.

At this point — just before the blowup or the tears, depending on the wife's modus operandi — it is the husband's responsibility to help his wife understand his reasoning. If she is not comfortable, then perhaps the husband should not take out the debt. After all, is money more important than your marriage?

Out of anxiety comes the wife's second response: nagging. she may con¬tinually push her husband on the debt issue. "Why don't you reduce the debt? Why do we have so much debt?" It's my observation, however, that this nagging is simply a plea for communication, a request by the wife for her husband to let her in on what he is doing. She needs to hear his thinking on debt — and how it will be paid for.

A third response of the wife to debt is apathy. She may feel there is no reason for her to watch what she spends if he is going into large amounts of debt. What does her little bit for clothes really matter if the husband is going to spend huge amounts on houses, boats, and other "investments"? Basically, this attitude results if the husband does not help the wife understand why and where debt fits into the overall provision plan.

The final response the wife may have to debt is disrespect for the husband. She does not feel he really cares about her, since he is willing to threaten her basic security by taking on debt. So she begins to belittle him and tear him down. If he really cared for her, she concludes, he wouldn't take on so much debt.

A Couple's Response

Obviously, debt exists in most marriages. Therefore, husbands and wives must prepare for it. The husband's basic drive to provide may conflict with the wife's basic need for security. To avoid problems in marriage caused by debt, each partner should strive to communicate with the other — before debt is assumed. Husbands especially should make sure their wives understand why a debt is needed and how it will be covered. Couples should have a financial strategy in place to avoid the use of debt. Don't let debt become a cause of discontent in your marriage.


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Communicating About Budgets

The number one reason for couples to develop a spending plan — a budget — is to reduce conflict in their marriage.

by Ron Blue, Jeremy L. White

Reduce Conflict

The number one reason for couples to develop a spending plan — a budget — is to reduce conflict in their marriage.

"What's that?" you say. "Budgeting can reduce marital conflict?" I can just see all you "My-spouse-and-I-can-talk-about-anything-but-money" people scratching your heads — but hear me out. Budgeting reduces conflict for the simple reason that it provides built-in accountability and an objective standard for all of your spending decisions.

You might be surprised at the number of financial transactions you make. If you add up all the checks you write, all the credit card purchases you make, and everything you pay cash for, you could easily make 1,500 or 2,000 transactions a year. With or without a budget, you are going to spend money, whether it's to buy groceries, pay the rent, or take a family vacation. If you don't have a budget — a spending plan that allocates your income to reflect your priorities — any of these expenditures could touch off an argument. In fact, if you disagree on only about one out of every 100 purchases, you will wind up at odds with your spouse at least once a month. Statistically speaking, money fights or frustrations are a virtual certainty!

Judy and I use a computer software program to track our purchases. According to the computer, we make anywhere from 2,000 to 3,000 transactions each year. But since most of our spending decisions are made ahead of time in our family budget, there is very little disagreement about where our money should go. As a result, we have the freedom and flexibility to enjoy our purchases without fear, guilt, or conflict. Our budget works to eliminate potential problems before they arise.

Create Focus

The second reason why a spending plan makes sense is that it allows you to create and maintain a vision for the future. A budget gives you the guidelines you need to successfully spend less than you earn — which, as any financial analyst can tell you, is the key to long-term financial security. Whether you want to buy a home, start your own business, fund your children's college education, or set yourself up for a comfortable retirement, a spending plan can keep you focused on your goals.

Balance Spouses' Input on Spending

Third, a spending plan means that nobody has to be the bad guy. As I mentioned earlier, most marriages usually have a spending spouse and a saving spouse. Any time the spender buys something, he or she becomes a potential target: Why did you buy that? It costs too much! And we don't really need it. Couldn't you have found something less expensive? Likewise,when the saver refuses to spend money, he or she may invite criticism: Why can't we buy that? It's not that expensive — and besides, it's on sale. You worry about money too much. Don't be such a killjoy.

A budget can help eliminate such tension. Objective and impartial, the spending plan draws a line between the affordable and the out-of-reach, the wise purchase and the foolish. Because a budget is drafted with input from both spouses, the spending/saving decisions are not "mine" or "yours," but "ours." You're on the same side of the fence.

Aid Communication

A fourth reason for a spending plan is that it forces couples to communicate. You can't establish budget categories and allocate income without talking about priorities, needs, dreams, and goals. Fears and insecurities can also be part of the process. By providing a forum for discussion, the budgeting process enables you to define and address philosophical differences — everything from how much to spend on food and clothing to how, where, or when you want to give money to your children, your church, or your charity.

Set an Example

Finally, by establishing and using a budget you set a great example for your kids. As Judy and I often remind ourselves, "More is caught than taught." When your children see you exercising financial discipline and making progress toward your goals, they will learn a valuable lesson about how to handle their own money.

Reducing conflict, creating vision, eliminating the bad guy, fostering communication, and demonstrating wise money management are all good reasons to develop a spending plan. But I'm not pretending that the process will be easy. At times it might even be a struggle. It's like going for a swim in the ocean: You have to get through a few rough spots before you get past the breakers. But I can promise you that once you get beyond the turbulence and out to where the water is gentle and clear, you will never want to go back.


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Communicating About Investments

It can be difficult for couples to maintain an atmosphere of trust and open communication about investing.

by Ron Blue, Jeremy L. White

It can be difficult for couples to maintain an atmosphere of trust and open communication about investing. Many husbands and wives simply do not discuss their investments. I am constantly amazed by the number of people I meet who approach investing with the idea that there is no point in talking with the other person because their spouses wouldn't understand the proposals, or are not interested in financial matters, or would automatically nix any investment opportunity.

Usually, though not always, men are the ones with this attitude. If you think I am making this up, I wish you could stand at the podium with me during some of my speaking engagements. If the audience is strictly male, generalizations such as those I've just made elicit guilty laughter, knowing looks, and nods of understanding. But if the audience includes women, the men sit rigidly in their chairs, wearing poker faces and even getting defensive. Men know how they think; they just don't want to admit it in front of their wives.

A Risky Investment

Although I didn't acknowledge it at the time, the way I handled our finances during the early years of our marriage generated major problems in my relationship with my wife. Simply put, Judy didn't trust me. She had no idea what I did with our money or what my actions might mean for our future.

While the children were at home, Judy was focused on raising our children. At first, the money or what I did with it didn't matter; Judy was just glad that I put food on the table. But when I started an accounting firm in Indiana, things began to change. As she tells it, the steady stream of papers I asked her to cosign for the business began to make her uncomfortable. She didn't understand exactly what she was signing, and I never took the time to explain things.

All Judy knew was what she saw: We were making payments on the two new cars I had purchased, we still had my college loans to pay off, and we took on a significant amount of debt when I started the business. From a financial standpoint, Judy was scared – but what was even worse was her fear that if she questioned any of my decisions, I might leave her. Remember, neither of us knew the Lord then. The way Judy saw it, I loved the business more than I loved her.

Even after we became Christians, I failed to bring Judy into the financial loop. In 1977, I sold my Indiana accounting firm so we could go into full-time ministry. At the end of the year, I realized I had an unexpected tax problem: the proceeds from the business sale had boosted my income, and I hadn't planned for the tax consequences this increase would create. On the advice of a Christian financial planner, I invested in some apartment buildings and a gold mine – two of the myriad tax shelters that everyone seemed to be jumping into at the time.

When I mentioned the investments to Judy, she instantly spotted a problem. Designed to shelter income and provide tax-reduction benefits, the apartments and the gold mine had no real economic promise. As investments, the chances that either asset would grow in value or generate income were slim. To Judy (and eventually to the bulk of the financial community), investments like these didn't make much sense. Even so, she did nothing to try to change my mind. "I was past the point where I wanted to protest – much less fight – about money," she says.

I knew, of course, that investing in the apartments and the gold mine carried a measure of risk; every investment is "risky," to some degree. But in my mind, the risk was secondary to our perceived need for a tax shelter. Heedless of Judy's perspective or the risk the investments carried, I rationalized my decision. (As things turned out, we did not lose any money, and we did reap some tax benefits. But, as Judy predicted, the investments themselves turned out to be economically worthless.)

Rationalization

Any investment can be rationalized – especially if you are a man. Men seem uniquely capable of attaching a "no risk" or "low risk" label to any financial move they want to make. Not long ago, I met with a couple who had a large amount of money to invest. They wanted to know where they could get a 30 to 50 percent return, saying they had heard of something called a market neutral investment.

Never having heard that term before, I was intrigued. "What is a market neutral investment?" I finally asked.

"One where there is no risk," the fellow answered – with a completely straight face. "If the market drops, market neutral investments are not affected."

I wanted to laugh, but I looked at his wife. She was as concerned as any investor I have ever seen. From what I could tell, her husband was the financial "expert" of the family, but he had missed a truth that she intuitively understood: There is no such thing as a "risk-free" investment.


Strategies for Effective Conflict Resolution

In order to maintain our commitment to love, cherish, and honor our spouses, we need to yield ourselves and our rights, first to God and then to one another.

by Ron Blue, Jeremy L. White

Call them debates, conflicts, arguments, or vehement fiscal discussions – every couple will have disagreements. When a man faces a confrontation with his wife, he typically responds in one of three ways. Husbands, which one of these statements best describes the way you react?

  1. I give in. I'd rather give up than fight.
  2. I flee the scene, hoping the problem will take care of itself.
  3. I assert my authority to gain control of the situation and get my way.

Unfortunately, when you give in, flee, or fight over your differences, you will never experience the satisfaction that comes with effective conflict resolution.

Instead, you could find yourself sleeping on the couch.

Wives, when you disagree with your husband about something, which one of these responses best describes your approach to the situation?

  1. I try to get the upper hand through manipulation or hiding the facts.
  2. I challenge my husband—especially when I think I know better.
  3. I pretty much do as he says; things seem to go more smoothly that way.

Again, women aren't the only ones who manipulate and challenge their spouses, just as men aren't the only ones who fight or flee. But it should come as no surprise that none of these options will promote long-term satisfaction or peace in a relationship. Let's look, then, at God's design for effective communication and conflict resolution in marriage.

Biblical Principles

First, let's reflect on the Biblical principles. When husbands and wives commit to one another, we see the outworkings of Christ's relationship with the church, as described in Ephesians 5:28-29: "He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it, just as Christ does the church."

Scripture commands husbands to selflessly love their wives and wives to respect their husbands. It's not difficult to see how, in a perfect world in which these commandments were never broken, marriages would be peaceful, satisfying, and uplifting. But we don't live in a perfect world. We live in a fallen world, and our natural tendencies are to focus on ourselves and attempt to impose our will on others. Any of my selfish attempts to get Judy to do something "my" way causes communication breakdowns. Those breakdowns often leave ugly scars. Wounded relationships, broken families, and a discouraging lack of peace and satisfaction are just a few of the consequences that can mar a marriage.

Eight Strategies

In order to maintain our commitment to love, cherish, and honor our spouses, we need to yield ourselves and our rights, first to God and then to one another. Over the years, Judy and I have used several strategies to help prevent communication stalemates, blowouts, and breakdowns. If you and your spouse have a difference of opinion, try approaching conflict with one or more of these guidelines in mind:1


1The following information is adapted from Ron Blue and Judy Blue, Money Talks and So Can We (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999), 28, 35-35.

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