5 min read

Sometimes money problems are just relationship problems

When is a fight about money not about money?
Sometimes money problems are just relationship problems

Hello, grownups!

I did an AMA ('ask me anything') on Reddit earlier this week. Right at the end, somebody asked me a question that stuck in my skin like a burr. It was this:

how do I stop my wife from chowing all my money?

The question's been deleted now, I'm not sure whether by the original poster or by the admin. I understand why: the way it's phrased tells you more about what's going on than the question itself. It's dripping with resentment, half-joking-but-not-really. Each part of it is fascinating to me. "Chowing". "How do I stop". "My money". I don't know a damn thing about this person or their relationship, but don't those eleven words tell a heck of a story?

I wanted to say to them: buddy... you don't have a money problem. You have a relationship problem.

And in my experience, that's often the case when couples fight about money.

What you do with your money is an expression of your values. Big or small, whenever you make a choice about your lifestyle, you're making a tradeoff and deciding that you value one thing over another. Where you live, where your kids go to school, the work you do, who cleans the floors, how much you save, whether you buy the fancy Woolies tomatoes or the cheap ones from Checkers... these are all money decisions, and ultimately, they add up to what kind of life you end up living. You make money choices every single day, and these choices are connected to deep ideas you have about yourself and what a good life looks like.

Marriage (and similar forms of long-term partnerships, legally recognised or not) can be a lot of things, but it is fundamentally an economic partnership (and always has been, sorry). This is true even if you're married out of community of property, even if you keep your finances separated, even if you don't have children. Because when you choose to live your life with somebody, you're choosing to make decisions together about what that life looks like, and those are all money choices.

Queen Victoria: the one who started this whole "I shall marry for love!" thing (and also the tradition of wearing a white gown and train)

Sometimes couples fight about money because they simply don't have enough of it, which is stressful as heck. But often, money fights are really about something else: mismatched values, or different goals, or the feeling like your partner is not seeing or respecting the value you bring to your partnership (particularly when one person is doing more domestic labour and the other person is earning a big paycheque), or, let's be honest, sometimes it's just one partner just being an entitled butthole who does not see their partner's wants or needs as being as important as their own.

This is all made harder by the fact that most people don't talk about money. Most of us grow up in families where we don't actually learn to talk about money in a way that's calm and mutually respectful. So when we encounter something tricky, like different ideas about what's worth spending money on, we aren't able to talk about it and come to a solution. Things we feel ashamed of and struggle to talk about openly (sex, money, our unique emotional wounds) tend to be the things that fester. They become sites of resentment. Until things get so bad you end up asking a question like "how do I stop my wife from chowing all my money" to a stranger on the internet instead of having a proper conversation with your wife about how you can resolve your different needs and values.

Money is the number one reason couples fight, and it's the most commonly cited reason for divorce, so it's a damn important thing to spend time working through with your partner.

The question-asker vanished before I could give them an answer, but here are two practical things I would have suggested:

  1. Build a financial plan together. Financial plans are never perfect, because you are not a wizard and you can't see the future. But the process of sitting down with your partner and working on a financial plan can be very helpful. It forces you to talk about your values and to do some often-fun fantasising about your future together. Even if you're a "keep your finances separate" kind of couple, this kind of planning exercise can still be worthwhile. It can help to have a professional guide you through this process, to help you with the maths, ask pointed questions and keep the conversation on track (especially if money's already a source of tension). In South Africa, Lifecheq  are really good at putting together these kinds of financial plans (they cost about R2,500), or speak to any registered fee-based financial planner. If you're feeling misaligned about money, creating a shared plan that you both feel committed to can be a great way to align you.
  2. If you're fighting about money (or sitting on resentment, or just feeling like you actually have no idea what your partner's money beliefs and goals actually are) you might not need a money professional at all; you might benefit from good old-fashioned couple's therapy. Couple's therapy isn't just for people on the brink of divorce and it's not a terrifying harbinger that your relationship is doomed! It's just a space for you to have guided conversations with your partner. Therapy can be kak expensive, but it's not as expensive as divorce.

I really hope that the person who asked me that question is able to talk to their wife, and that the issue does turn out to be something simple and resolvable like "we have different ideas about what is a reasonable amount of money to spend buying a bottle of wine", and not something deep and difficult like "I don't respect you as an equal partner in this marriage".


Wishing you the good Woolies tomatoes and expensive wine,


Updates from Sam-land

  • Lockdown diaries, day 3,302,599. Today I ate a pear, and spent twenty minutes staring at a crack in my ceiling. I am very bored of being stuck inside my house.
  • I just finished reading John Langan's The Fisherman. It was well-written, but not for me. It's one of those stories-within-a-story books and I found the inner story boring as heck, but the outer story absolutely riveting. Read it if you love Lovecraftian horror, poignant stories about grief, and fishing.
  • I've also been working my way through a riveting biography of Hildegard of Bingen by Fiona Maddocks. Hildegard is one of my longest-running obsessions: she was this amazing polymath nun/composer/artist/scientist/mystic in the 12th century who had some pretty horny visions of God, and I love her.
Saint Hildegard, touched by God's noodly appendages