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Combining finances, spending habits key to happy relationships

| Monday, Feb. 4, 2013, 9:39 p.m.
Amber and Will Cole of New Alexandria
Amber and Will Cole of New Alexandria Submitted
Mark Brewer  |  Tribune-Review
Mark Brewer | Tribune-Review

Amber Cole calls herself the “nerd” in her marriage.

Highly organized, she is the one who saves money aggressively and plans for the future. Her husband, chiropractor Will Cole, plays the “free spirit” role, and doesn't much care for sitting down and crunching numbers.

Can this couple co-exist, with such different styles?

Yes — though the Coles struggled before attending a recent course from financial guru Dave Ramsey, who invented the nerd vs. free spirit title roles.

The Coles took the Financial Peace University course at their church, Pittsburgh East Community Church in Plum, The parents of two children — Solomon, 6, and Shiloh, 3 — share a joint checking account. But they assign a budgeted amount to each other. Both fill individual envelopes with cash for gas, groceries, disposable income and the like. They have agreed on a monthly amount for savings, and Will Cole participates more in money management.

“Basically, every penny has a place,” says Amber Cole, 30, of New Alexandria. “It has to be something that you're both working together on and in agreement about.”

With couples, money is no trivial matter. As tax preparations are being made, it's a good time of year for couples to look back and plan ahead.

According to a survey for the American Institute of CPAs, money is the No. 1 issue that married or co-habiting couples fight about — more than fights about children, chores, work or friends. The 2012 Harris Interactive survey, which polled more than 1,000 American adults, found that couples argued about finances three times per month on average.

Results of a September study — “Examining the Relationship Between Financial Issues and Divorce,” conducted by researchers at Utah State, Kansas State and Texas Tech universities — suggest that the more frequently couples argue over finances, especially if the fighting happens every day or several times a week, the more likely they are to get divorced. Financial conflict more strongly predicted divorce than other marital issues, according to the study's finding.


With such a potentially explosive topic, perhaps it's no wonder that people evidently lie to their mates often about money. SELF Magazine in 2012 teamed with NBC's “Today Show” to survey their website's visitors for the “Financial Infidelity” report. Of the more than 23,000 readers who took the survey, 46 percent said they have lied to their partners about money.

Women seem to be more likely to lie about money than men: 32 percent of women said they have hidden purchases from their partners, compared to 17 percent of men, according to the survey. The most common financial fibs concerned shopping — white lies such as claiming a new shirt was on sale. However, some partners, less than 10 percent, tell whopper lies or keep major secrets, like a hidden bank account or credit-card debt.

“Lying about money is a huge issue,” says Sara Wells, senior editor for SELF, a Conde Nast magazine based in New York City. “I think it kind of confirmed what we expected.”

Experts told SELF editors that even little white lies, like fibbing about how much your highlights cost, can erode trust in a relationship.

More than 60 percent of survey respondents, both male and female, consider financial dishonesty a form of cheating, and two-thirds said that financial honesty is as important as monogamy. This is interesting, given that nearly half of people have lied to their partners, yet expect honesty, Wells says.

Many of us lie, “but if someone did it to us, we almost equate that with cheating.”

Jodi Buzzell — a licensed professional counselor with Harmar-based Family Services of Western Pennsylvania, where she is the outpatient coordinator — has counseled many couples having financial disagreements. Many couples in a weak economy are feeling stress, often from one person losing a job, she says. Or, they are struggling to raise kids, which is an expensive job.

“If one is spending more money on household items, and the other is spending it on frivolous things ... then that may cause tension,” Buzzell says. “Most conflict boils down to someone wants to spend more, and one wants to save more.”

The discovery of financial lies and secrets leads to other doubts about the relationship, Buzzell says.

Separate, but together

One way to prevent money arguments is for each person to have his or her own banking account, often in addition to one joint account, Buzzell says. This common practice lets people spend money as they please, while still honoring their commitments to their partner about the “our” money and joint expenses.

Anne Reilly-Overdorff, 37, of Greensburg — and her husband, H.J. Overdorff — have separate accounts, except for a money-market account used for their emergency savings.

“Early on, when we were dating, I knew that our spending habits were different,” says Reilly-Overdorff, 37. The physical therapist is a saver, and her husband is more of a spender. “When we got married, we asked about a joint account, but we decided it would work best if we each had our own.”

Having individual disposable incomes works well for each of them, she says. If they shared everything, the couple would probably fight about money frequently.

“If I want to buy another pair of shoes, I don't want to hear it from him that I already have 20,” Reilly-Overdorff says with a laugh. “You just want to maintain your identity.”

Tim Henry, a Greensburg- and Somerset-based accredited wealth-management adviser with Ameriprise Financial, says that each member of a couple brings a different financial background to the relationship.

“One of the things that is really interesting in meeting a couple for the first time is that they're both raised differently in terms of spending and savings habits,” says Henry, who counsels Overdorff and his wife. “When you get married .... the trials and tribulations of that relationship hinge on what you learned growing up.”

Parental examples influence people's money beliefs and styles, Henry says; spendthrifts are likely to raise spendthrifts. Often, when Henry meets with a couple after the initial consultation, the secrets start to come out, like a credit card carrying a bigger balance than the spouse thought.

Usually, one person is causing more of a financial problem than the other one, Henry says. They may act spontaneously about purchases, instead of thinking through and rationalizing the purchase. “They see money in the account and they spend it,” he says.

Kellie B. Gormly is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at or 412-320-7824.

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