Survey: 1 in 10 financially bullied by significant other
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 say their spouse or partner is a financial bully, according to a recent survey of 1,036 couples by CreditKarma.com, 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 financial consultant and 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 has seen couples in which the wife was berated for 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 to nearly 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. All too often, financial and emotional issues overlap, he said.
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.
The holidays — when it's easy to get swept up in a gotta-spend-money, gift-buying frenzy — can be especially trying.
In a recent survey of couples' holiday spending, more than a third of married couples say 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 simply is how we were raised. Someone who grew up in a frugal household can't understand why their 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.”
Miscommunications and misunderstanding may not rise to the level of financial abuse, but they can cause 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 a 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 is 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.
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 can obtain help through nonprofit credit counseling centers, such as the National Foundation for Credit Counseling at 800-388-2227.
Some churches offer money management workshops for couples, and some nonprofits offer counseling on marital communication. If the financial bullying is extreme, anger management classes or other professional help may be in order.
Tech-savvy couples may prefer using sites such as CreditKarma or Mint.com, which let you track your finances together, follow spending patterns and set financial goals.