“Couples, more often than not, have mismatched ideas around how to save, invest, and spend money,” says licensed marriage and family therapist Omar Ruiz, LMFT, adding that these habits and beliefs may originate from childhood. Their caregivers' financial philosophies—which they may have picked up on—and also what they perceived their own financial standing to be growing up may play into how they're inclined to handle money into adulthood.
So how does that impact you? Well, even if you don't share resources right now, if your partner spends more or saves less money than what makes you comfortable, it may turn into a red flag. “[Whether] you're just beginning to date, have been dating for a while, or are getting married, as you move through the relationship, your life is going to become more and more entwined,” says psychotherapist Aja Evans, LMHC, who focuses on financial wellness. And that reality extends to finances.
When your partner is spending more freely (or saving less frequently) than you’re comfortable with, it potentially puts your future financial wellness at risk. Read on to learn when your partner’s frivolous spending habits are cause for concern, as well as why to have the “money talk” as soon as possible—regardless of how long you've been in the relationship.
The top sign that mismatched spending habits are a danger to your relationship
There’s a stark distinction between simply not agreeing with what your partner spends their money on and deal-breaking spending habits, says Ruiz. “Spending habits may become a deal-breaker if it seriously affects not only the individual, but also the couple and possibly others, if a family is involved.”
Certified financial planner Robin Hartill, CFP, agrees with Ruiz, adding that mismatched spending habits aren't necessarily a problem unless they're fundamentally different from yours and future-compromising. “I don't think any two people are going to agree on every single purchase, so it really becomes irresponsible spending when it's getting in the way of meeting your [personal and collective] financial goals.” For instance, if you’re planning for the future together, and trying to save accordingly, but your partner continuously buys luxuries that makes saving impossible, that could point to mismatched spending habits being a deal-breaker.
"It becomes irresponsible spending when it's getting in the way of meeting your financial goals.” —Robin Hartill, certified financial planner
Frivolous spending habits are also problematic when they lead to debt. “If they’re sinking deeper and deeper into debt, or they can't afford their bills as a result, then it really becomes kind of a crisis situation,” Hartill adds.
That said, everyone has a different barometer for what constitutes a relationship deal-breaker, so you'll need to do some soul searching to gauge how strongly you feel about a partner's frivolous spending. To ascertain whether you feel a partner's spending is, in fact, a deal-breaker, Evans encourages you to check in with yourself and ask four questions:
- Am I uncomfortable with their spending habits?
- Do I feel like I’m unable to be as stable as I want to be?
- Is this something that I can or cannot live with?
- Do I trust that we’ll be taken care of if my partner buys X?
It's also possible that your partner doesn't know how problematic to you their spending is. In this case, Evans suggests communicating it to them respectfully and working to set boundaries for how you would like to proceed with your joint finances. “If you are trying to set healthy boundaries, and this person continuously is pushing them or doesn't respect them, that is definitely a red flag,” Evans says. “If you continue in the relationship, you should be coming to the table equally, feeling like you can have conversations about what's going on with your money.”
Talking about financial goals can keep mismatched spending habits in a relationship from becoming a deal-breaker
Even if you bank separately and split bills, if your relationship with your partner progresses, your finances are likely to become inextricably linked in some way—like, say, if you move in together or mutually provide for family members. That makes it crucial to make sure you’re on the same financial page as soon as possible, experts say.
This exercise can also facilitate empathy in a relationship, because the very notion of frivolous spending is subjective. “One partner might value really expensive, fancy, delicious dinners,” says Evans. “The other partner may not, and may not want to spend money on that.” What each person deems to be “irresponsible spending” is up for discussion after basic needs are met, making it all the more important to communicate your personal beliefs about what financial wellness means to you, and then find an agreement that works within the scope of your relationship.
To open up that conversation, first consider how much you’re comfortable spending, how much you want to save, and what you want to save and spend on. From there, Evans suggests talking to your partner about what’s realistic for them and creating a budget to help keep you both on track.
When you talk openly and honestly about what brings you joy, everyone in the relationship is given “space to buy the things that they want and spend the money that they want on things that they value,” Evans says (within in reason, of course, and only so long as all the basics are already taken care of).
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