When Thrifty Met Spendy: Love, Money, and Financial Compatibility

If you’re fighting with your sweetie, there’s a good chance it’s about money. A study by SunTrust found that more than a third of couples experiencing tension in their relationships said money was the reason. That eclipsed the No. 2 response, annoying habits, by 10%. And even worse, arguments about money early in a relationship raise a couple’s risk of divorce more than fights over any other subject.

Interestingly, while couples with large gaps in their credit scores are more likely to part ways later on, it also turns out that savers and spenders are more attracted to each other than they are to those with similar financial leanings.

As Valentine’s Day and the inevitable engagement announcements approach, you may be wondering whether you should give every prospective mate a financial compatibility test to see whether you’re a good money match. Can a frugal saver ever really be happy with a splurger? Will someone who’s content to scrape by annoy a go-getter who’s always searching for a money-making side hustle?

I’ll answer from a personal perspective, as a saver who married a spender: I like to think so, but it does take some work. Below are five time-tested strategies to help nip money arguments in the bud, maintaining marital harmony in the process.

Tip #1: Maintain Perspective

There are a lot of factors contributing to our financial identities, many of them stemming from circumstances beyond our control. Depending on a person’s background and upbringing, money can symbolize different things to different people.

I come from a fairly frugal line of Midwesterners. Hand-me-downs and home-cooked meals were the norm; there wasn’t a lot of “keeping up the Joneses” mentality where I was raised. We just made do and that was that. My parents divorced midway through my childhood, making things even tighter, but I managed to scrape through college and grad school without much debt thanks to scholarships, grants, and work-study jobs.

My husband’s parents immigrated to the U.S. in the late ’60s, and while they toiled at blue-collar jobs, projecting an image of wealth was important to them — they wanted friends and family back home to know they’d “made it” and were doing OK. Whatever they had went toward the best for their children. My husband was funneled into the Ivy League, and though he did well, he has the student loan debt to match.

To me, if you’re fortunate enough to have extra money, you put it away for a rainy day. It’s safety and security. To my husband, it represents a payoff for his hard work, and because of that, he sees no reason not to enjoy it.

That’s not to say we can’t change our habits now, but in moments of mutual financial exasperation, it helps to remember that we’re not deliberately trying to annoy each other — we’re simply reverting back to what’s familiar.

Tip #2: Talk About Your Game Plan

It’s hard to talk about money, but it’s crucial to get on the same page before misunderstandings arise.

A financial game plan means more than sitting down and hashing out a budget (though this is definitely an important part of the process). Experts say it should also be about prioritizing your main goals and planning how to best achieve them. It’s also figuring out what the biggest sticking points in your plan might be, and tackling them specifically.

For my husband and I, our major goals are threefold: saving enough for a comfortable retirement, funding college savings accounts for our sons, and staying out of credit-card debt.

So far, we’ve done pretty well with them, but one of our sticking points is whether to send our kids to public or private school. My husband has fallen in love with one private school in particular, but I don’t think we have room in the budget without radically reshuffling our priorities.

Our compromise? Go public, and put money that might otherwise go toward private school into our kids’ college savings accounts so that it can grow and benefit them down the road. If the need arises — if public school somehow fails to meet our kids’ needs — then private school could become our Plan B and we’ll be better prepared financially for it.

Tip #3: Exploit Your Partner’s Strengths

Sometimes it’s hard to acknowledge that someone with a very different viewpoint may, every once in awhile, be onto something. But coming from different perspectives can actually make a spender-saver relationship well-balanced and strong, experts say.

My husband, for instance, is a stickler for quality goods. But if we had my way, we’d skimp on a lot of things in order to save some extra cash. Of course, that doesn’t always pay off in the long run. So I’ve come to accept and even welcome his mantra (“You get what you pay for”) when it comes to at least some important purchases that we hope to have for the long haul, like furniture.

It’s also worth noting that few people fit neatly into stereotypical boxes. My husband loves to splurge, but he’s also a major hustler who’s one of the hardest workers I’ve ever known. I’m a saver, but I also don’t obsess over every dollar and probably am not as proactive about money as I should be. So while our dominant financial personalities are at odds, we still manage to find and appreciate the similarities, too.

frugal and spendthrift

Can a saver and a spender still live frugally ever after?

Tip #4: Consider Keeping Separate Accounts

Many couples automatically merge bank accounts when they get married. But some experts say keeping at least some of your finances separate can help nip arguments in the bud.

My husband and I have maintained separate checking accounts, but merged our savings. It might not work for everyone, but it’s a happy medium for us — we each manage our own day-to-day spending without micromanaging the other, but deposit a significant chunk of our respective incomes into the joint account for major bills, long-term goals, and our safety net.

Most importantly, we don’t “keep score” regarding who pays what. To successfully maintain separate accounts, you’ll need to decide who’s responsible for what: My husband, who makes more than me, gets most of the biggies, like our mortgage and utility bills, and he’s responsible for paying down our credit cards whenever we charge something. I pay a few little things, like preschool tuition, my student loans, Netflix, and a couple of miscellaneous other accounts, but my biggest job is padding our savings.

Tip #5: Learn to Compromise

Most happy couples know that finding common ground is the key to a strong marriage — and it’s really no different when it comes to money. Compromise is key.

Indeed, we’ve learned to give each other a bit of a pass in certain areas. My husband is a passionate “Star Wars” fan, and he’s determined to pass that love along to our sons. They have more shirts and light sabers than I care to count, but as long as things don’t get too crazy, I look the other way. He also has a penchant for crazily patterned golf pants, and even though they’re threatening to take over his closet, I let it go.

And my husband knows that even though I’m typically a tightwad, I’ll happily spend on travel and, to a lesser extent, home decor. As long as my purchases don’t significantly impact our long-term goals, he obliges, knowing I’ve paid him the same courtesy.

Are You a Spender? A Saver? Take Our Quiz

Are you a banker type? A hustler? Prone to splurging? If you aren’t sure what your dominant financial personality is, take The Simple Dollar’s Money Personality Quiz below. Make sure your significant other takes it, too — it could be a good jumping-off point for some candid conversations about how you view money, maybe preventing some arguments along the way.

Saundra Latham
Saundra Latham
Contributing Writer

Saundra Latham is a personal finance writer and editor. Her work has appeared in The Simple Dollar, Business Insider, USA Today, The Motley Fool, Livestrong and elsewhere.

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