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Money Imbalance in Relationships (How to Prevent and Restore)

Sharing finances in marriage is one of the most challenging things to do. Here’s how to fix and prevent money imbalances in a relationship.

Sharing finances in marriage is not like learning how to share a car with your family, or even learning how to share the TV remote.

couple cooking together, text overlay "how to fix money imbalances in relationships"

It’s much more complicated than that.

That’s because whenever there are two people involved in managing a limited resource, there’s going to be conflict.

Different ideas about how the money should be spent (propelled by different money values, money experiences, needs, desires, etc.), different ideas about how much money should be saved, different incomes, different expectations, etc.

Need I go on?

You’ve likely come butt-up against some of these issues already in your own marriage.

So, how to fix money imbalances in a relationship? How to prevent them altogether?

First up, to address both how to share finances in marriage the right way, AND, what might be going wrong to force you to need to fix money problems in your relationship, let’s look at the foundations of solid financial unity in marriage.

Achieving Financial Unity in Marriage – What's the Goal?

I’m a firm believer that you should know what the two of you are shooting for before we dig into all the problems.

Heck, even just reading this list will help because you can identify some of the problems you might not even know you have (because they’re below the surface).

The goal here is what I like to call “Financial Intimacy”. I define it as:

Financial Intimacy: Being able to work together and share your thoughts, feelings, needs, and desires about money with your partner in a safe space where you feel you are being heard and your needs are being reasonably met.

Note that you can have financial unity in your marriage, and NOT actually meet all of these criteria – as with everything in a relationship, it’s a work in progress.

If you fit the bill on several or a handful of these? Then you’re well on your way.

Financial unity in marriage looks like this:

  • You Both Know Each Other’s Digits: You each should know how much the other person earns, where the money is located, credit score estimates (here’s how to get your free credit sesame score, plus how to use it), and how much debt there is. This annual marriage financial planning worksheet will help.
  • You Both Have a Voice in Finances: It’s so, so, so important for each of you to both be able to vocalize what you want and what you have issues within the financial arena, as well as to listen to the other person. Even if you can’t agree on things, you at least are both being heard and taken into consideration. (Newsflash: there are always going to be money issues where you both won’t agree. That’s okay. Hear each other out and start looking at compromising and/or the “best” solution at the time).
  • You Both Have Access to the Finances: Another important point is that even if one person takes the lead in dealing with household finances (that’s me!) the other person has full access to the finances (psst: are you scared to allow a partner to know all financial information because they may spend you both into ruin? Here’s my article on financial dishonesty in marriage). This can also include signing up for one of the best budget apps for couples, and each of you getting real-time access to finances.

So…what if your own couple’s financial picture doesn’t look even remotely that rosy?

Not to worry. Next up, I’ll be sharing specific things you can do together to gain financial intimacy.

Idea #1: Work Together on a Couple’s Money Goal

There’s something magical that happens when you work together on a problem or on a goal.

I’ve felt it in my own marriage – both when we’ve had a money goal, and when we’ve had a money problem.

For example, when we first got engaged, we had $25,000 in debt between the two of us. Read all about how we worked together as a newly engaged couple to get out of this debt (plus pay cash for our wedding, our 11-day honeymoon to Austria, and put a down payment on a home) in just 15 months.

Here are Couple’s Money Goal Examples:

Idea #2: Get on the Same Financial Page

Get on the same financial page. You simply cannot manage money together, effectively, if you don’t both know what’s going on with the finances.

Here are free tools to help:

Here’s my full article on best free budget app for couples.

Idea #3: Do Something FUN Together

Have you ever noticed how all kinds of stress – financial, and otherwise – can melt away when you do something fun together?

Not only that but infusing your relationship with fun experiences helps the two of you remember to keep things in perspective.

Financial troubles do not last forever, and the two of you can look at one another with love instead of with frustration, anger, helplessness, or whatever else you’re feeling from being under financial strain.

I happen to love to invest my time in writing about cheap date ideas and ways to have fun together:

Next up, we’ll look at what causes financial strain in relationships.

Financial Strain on Relationships

Have you ever thought to yourself, “Financial stress is killing my marriage”?

It’s a sad reality, but one that many American couples feel at some point in their marriage (being a 10-year personal finance writer, I've heard a lot).

So, what are some of the things that can cause financial strain on relationships?

One thing I’ve learned is that financial strain on relationships can be caused in two different ways (and yes, it helps to categorize so that you can better cope with the problem):

  • Financial Strain from External Sources: These are things that are mostly out of your control, and that happen to you – like your home sitting on the market for too long before getting sold.
  • Financial Strain from Internal Sources: These are things that are mostly in one or both of your control – so, caused by one or both of you – such as one person wanting to spend more and the other person wanting to save more of the money.

I’ll show you specific examples I’ve witnessed or heard about over the years. Pay attention, because this is how money ruins relationships (but by paying attention? It doesn’t have to ruin yours).

Psst: you might want to check out one of these free online marriage counselling courses, and this article on what changes financially after getting married.

External Relationship Financial Strain Examples

  • Underwater mortgage
  • Variable-interest-rate mortgage and the interest rate goes up
  • Getting denied a mortgage, car loan, etc. because of one person’s credit score
  • One person losing a job
  • Having to pay on a mortgage and rent or two mortgages at the same time because your home is taking longer to sell
  • High student loan debt
  • High credit card debt

Internal Relationship Financial Strain Examples

  • One person loaning money to family or friends
  • One person identifies as a “spender” and one person identifies as a “saver” (hint: this combination in a marriage is more common than you think! Perhaps it’s because we’re supposed to learn from one another and become less extreme? Just a thought.)
  • One person spending more of the resources than the other, causing resentment (excessive selfish spending)
  • The person who earns less income is expected to contribute just as much money toward bills
  • One person comes into the marriage with much more debt than the other person
  • One person or both people having bad credit scores
  • One person hiding financial resources
  • Disagreement over how to combine finances
  • Miscommunication over how much is in the account (that leads to consistent over withdrawals)
  • One person taking over the finances (either by choice or by necessity)
  • One person shutting out the other person from the finances

Here are 33 financial problems examples that might not be listed above.

So, how do you correct some of these money imbalances in a relationship?

Correcting a Money Imbalance in Relationships

Whenever there’s a money imbalance in relationships – such as when one person earns all or much more of the money, or one person spends considerably more than another – then there’s a much higher chance for conflict.

Fortunately for you both, there are several ways you can correct a money imbalance between two people.

  1. Use Percentages Instead of Dollar Amounts: Instead of using actual dollars, use percentages. For example, if one of you earns much more than another, then you would want to figure out a percentage that each should pay into the bills rather than contributing the same amount (which would be an imbalance – the goal is not to ‘impoverish’ one partner by soaking up more of their income towards bills just because they earn considerably less).
  2. Make a Mindset Shift: I find that in many relationships where there’s a money imbalance, there’s also a mindset imbalance. Meaning, that one or both of the partners value each other’s contributions to the relationship and to the marriage based on the money that is contributed. This is going to take a considerable mindset shift to change, but it needs to be done for the sake of you both staying together. Each person brings value to the relationship besides the money that they earn – things like cooking nutritious and yummy food for everyone, chauffeuring the family to and fro events, moral support, love, and comfort when someone is down. These qualities don’t have a monetary value, and they shouldn’t.
  3. Consider Combining Debts (in Your Mind): When my husband and I got engaged, one of the first things I did was sit us down and add up our combined debts. Turns out, we had a combined $25,000 in debt leftover from my college, his car, and the engagement ring, etc. And you know what? While we both didn’t take ownership of that debt on paper, we knew that it would benefit each of us, AND our marriage, by taking on each other’s debts mentally. So, we vowed to pay off that debt together before walking down the aisle. You can read all about our debt payoff journey here, especially the part where it took an additional 5 months after being married to do. But it was SO worth it to combine our debts mentally and work together on a financial goal (here are three free financial goal worksheets for couples).

How to Deal with Money Issues in a Relationship – Our Personal Story

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I want to share a story with you to show that the best-planned financial systems for you and your partner (the ones you put into place to avoid money issues in marriage?) often need tweaking, and may even need a downright overhaul. I know ours did.

Picture this: about four years ago we walked down the aisle with, among other things, a solid financial plan in place (don't hit the snooze button yet).

We were just months away from paying off all of our non-mortgage debt and our future was looking bright.

After combining our finances into one big pot from where we paid all of our bills, we decided upon an amount of individual spending money that was free and clear to spend on whatever we wanted.

Since I naturally gravitate towards finances (you think?), we designated me as Maverick (pilot) and Paul as Goose (co-pilot) in terms of day-to-day finances, with periodic sit-downs to make sure we were on the same page.

The plan was solid. The execution was pretty good.

But then, we started slipping.

We got busy, and our periodic sit-downs became about as reliable as that $15 million the guy in Nigeria has been promising me through email. Our communication got a little murky. A year or two of this turned our household into Team cute, cuddly, and naive Who People Vs. Team merriment-spoiler Grinch…not a great way to deal with finances.

Needless to say, it was causing some friction between us.

I would ruminate over occasional surprise charges, while he would rebel against too much scrutiny. That “same page” we used to be on had a tear through it. Where before we were able to compromise and walk away feeling that both of us had gained, now we were vying more for our own personal needs.

That small tear polarized our positions much more than normal. Suddenly, we had money issues in marriage.

Psst: are you dealing with financial dishonesty in marriage? You'll want to check out my article on that. 

Sharing Finances in Marriage: I Did Something I Never Thought I Could Do

We both knew that something had to change.

It dawned on me one day what it should be, but to be honest, I was scared to go through with it.

I knew that I had to hand over the financial reins to Paul, who was ready and eager to pick them up.

I was scared to relinquish control because I didn't know what would happen. And since Paul had pulled back from dealing with our finances at all, I didn't have confidence in his ability to keep us on a great financial track {honest confession}.

Would we miss payments during the hazy changing of the guards? Would there suddenly be a huge spending frenzy from pent-up demand? What about negotiating down our insurance payments at renewal time, or remembering to put groceries on our debit card so that it comes out of the right account?

Would I be able to just let the unsightly things go in the learning curve phase?

…and Got Outcomes I Never Thought I Would See

Our role reversal occurred several months ago.

I have the most amazing conversations with my husband now…that he initiates. We'll be sitting in the living room on a typical Tuesday night and he will remark about the outrageous cost of cans of cokes vs. two-liter bottles. While watching a news segment on couples with huge amounts of debt, he'll look over at me with a knowing smile – a financially savvy moment that is shared and understood by both of us.

Pssst: need help breaking the money ice? How to talk to your partner about money.

The other day he went to the store with “celery” on the list so that I could make some of my grandmother's stuffing, and I unloaded clearance-section, pre-chopped celery from his trip instead. He embarrassingly smiled and said, “Sorry, I saw that this container was on clearance for a buck so instead of getting a whole bunch of celery I just got enough for your recipe” {thump-thump, thump-thump…it's the starting up of my defibrillated frugal heart}.

I could not be more in awe of the organic changes in my husband.

But that is not even the most surprising outcome of this role reversal.

You see, there have been big changes in myself as well. I've stopped obsessing/ruminating/tracking each cent as if our lives depended on it, which has opened up more time and energy for other things. My mind is at ease, and I no longer cringe when I think about having to approach Paul to talk about something financial. It's…liberating.

We're a team, we're communicating, we're appreciating one another, and the roles and functions we fulfill so much more.

Did any of those scary scenarios in my head come to fruition? Yes, we missed a payment in the first month. But it was only a one-time thing and Paul was extremely apologetic. There was no late charge and he quickly remedied the situation.

Overall, the gains have been extreme. It's like we're on a whole new level in more ways than just financially. We respect and understand each other much more because we took off our own shoes and wore each other's shoes for a while (seeing how I wear a 6.5 and my husband wears a size 12…it was a little awkward at first). And even though it is likely I will take over more of the finances in the future – after all, I do love to deal with them and Paul has decided that he loves being married to someone who loves to deal with them – this change was so critical to us moving forward together.

Money.com says,

“Money is the topic that spouses argue about the most, ahead of household chores, spending quality time together…snoring, in-laws, and what’s for dinner.”

Are you looking to get on the same page with your partner about money? Are you dealing with money issues in marriage? If you crave financial intimacy as we did, then check out my marriage and money and these financial marriage lessons I learned about over the last decade of being married.

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Amanda L Grossman

Personal Finance Writer and CEO at Frugal Confessions, LLC
Amanda L. Grossman is a writer and Certified Financial Education Instructor, Plutus Foundation Grant Recipient, and founder of Frugal Confessions. Over the last 13 years, her money work has helped people with how to save money and how to manage money. She's been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Kiplinger, Washington Post, U.S. News & World Report, Business Insider, LifeHacker, Real Simple Magazine, Woman's World, Woman's Day, ABC 13 Houston, Keybank, and more. Read more here or on LinkedIn.