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Marrying your financial opposite: A fatal attraction?

Couples who argue about money can take steps to maintain harmony

By Eileen Ambrose, The Baltimore Sun

February 14, 2012

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Somewhere, a husband and wife are arguing about money — even on Valentine's Day. And researchers say that if the two were being totally honest, they would say:

"It's not you. It's me."

Researchers say that people who don't like the way they handle money tend to marry partners with opposite financial traits. An unhappy tightwad, for example, will choose to walk down the aisle with a spendthrift. But what might seem appealing during courtship can be aggravating in a marriage.

"The more different you are, the more you fight. The more you wish you married someone else," says Scott I. Rick, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Michigan and one of the researchers.

Of course, there's no reason for opposing money styles to lead to divorce. Financial experts say these couples might just have to work harder during their marriage, making sure they communicate, set up financial goals they both agree on and never forget what attracted them to each other in the first place.

Rick says he and his fellow researchers based their findings on three studies involving a total of more than 2,000 married individuals. They reported the results last year in a paper titled "Fatal (Fiscal) Attraction: Spendthrifts and Tightwads in Marriage."

Researchers noted that people satisfied with their own values and attitudes end up marrying someone similar.

"Birds of a feather flock together," says Rick, who studies financial decision-making. "We tend to marry ourselves."

But people who dislike their own tightwad or spendthrift tendencies gravitate to their opposites. Spendthrifts, for instance, might loathe their tendency to spend too much, while tightwads might wish they were more carefree with dollars.

It's unclear whether they are hoping that a partner's traits rub off on them, Rick says, or whether they just find someone different especially attractive.

Whatever the case, researchers say, these differences can be bad for a marriage. Couples with different money styles end up fighting more about money — even if they have a lot of it.

Couples at odds about money come as no surprise to financial professionals.

Olivia Mellan, a psychotherapist and money coach in Washington, says she's found that even when people with similar financial styles marry, one of them will adopt fiscal characteristics that are the opposite of a mate's. So if two savers wed, eventually one will become more of a spender than the other, she says.

Money has long been a top source of friction — even in happy marriages.

Financial professionals say there are a few steps to take to maintain harmony.

Communicating is key.

Deanna Booker, outreach manager for Consumer Credit Counseling Service of Maryland and Delaware, says she has seen problems erupt when one spouse makes all the financial decisions. The other is left in the dark and then is surprised during counseling sessions to learn of the severity of the family's financial troubles.

"When they find out, it's way too late," she says.

"You have got to be able to sit down and take a breath and listen," Booker adds. "If one person is a spendthrift and one person wants to save every nickel, you really have to take time to learn why the person feels that way."

Once you've talked about your differences, work out a compromise.

Rick suggests the mate who likes to spend be in charge of the day-to-day shopping, freeing the tightwad of a distasteful chore. But on big decisions, he says, both should have a say.

Booker agrees, saying dividing financial duties makes both partners feel they have input.

Mellan, the psychotherapist, says she tries to get feuding couples to appreciate each other's money style. She starts by having them tell each other what they admire about the other's financial habits.

A hoarder, for instance, might compliment a spender for being generous, she says. The spender might praise the tightwad's budget discipline.

Mellan also recommends another exercise in which each mate tries to be like the other. Tightwads, for example, might periodically spend money on nonessentials, such as a gift for a mate or themselves. Or a spender might save toward a goal.

The purpose isn't to completely change them, Mellan says, but to nudge them toward the middle so they can get along.

She also suggests that each spouse separately draw up a list of short- , mid- and long-term goals. They then compare goals and compile a joint list that both can work toward, she says.

And working together makes for a happier marriage.

eileen.ambrose@baltsun.com

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