Marital problems can have negative consequences on partners’ mental and physical well-being. A new study examines the role of financial personalities in marital conflict, suggesting that perceptions, rather than facts, are the root of disagreement.

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Financial concerns are a common source of marital conflict, but when it comes to spending habits, what role do our perceptions play?

Researchers from Brigham Young University (BYU) in Provo, UT, in collaboration with scientists from Kansas State University (KSU) in Manhattan, decided to investigate the impact of financial personalities and communication on relationship conflict.

The research looked at data from the Flourishing Families Project, which is a BYU longitudinal study of family dynamics that surveyed almost 700 households over the course of 10 years.

The findings were published in the Journal of Financial Planning, and the study’s first author is Sonya L. Britt, Ph.D., an associate professor of personal financial planning at KSU.

The Flourishing Families Project started in 2007 and continued until 2016. During this time, the study collected 10 waves of data every year – including questionnaires, physiological data, and video recordings.

The families had to have a fifth-grade child in order to participate in the first wave of the study, and all the families had at least three members.

For the current research, Prof. Britt and colleagues focused on the data gathered during the second wave, which investigated partners’ perceptions of each other’s spending.

Over 96 percent of the couples included were heterosexual. On average, the men were 44 years old, and the women were aged 46.

The main variable considered for measuring financial conflict was the answer to the question, “How often are financial matters a problem in your relationship?” Possible answers ranged from never, rarely to sometimes, often, or very often.

To assess how partners viewed each other’s spending personalities, participants were asked to rate how strongly they agreed or disagreed with statements such as, “My partner manages money well,” “My partner’s spending habits put a strain on our finances,” or “My partner is too tight with our finances.”

Of all the study participants, 90 percent of women and 85 percent of men said that they had some kind of financial concerns. Regarding financial conflict, 56 percent of men said that they argued over financial issues, and 59 percent of women reported the same.

Based on their responses, the financial personalities of the partners were grouped into so-called “spenders” and “tightwads.”

Statistically, the study found that for heterosexual men, having a wife whom they perceived as a spender was the top predictor of financial conflict. Conversely, for heterosexual women, having a husband who viewed them as such was the largest contributor to financial conflict.

These results were purely dependent on perception and had no connection with real spending habits, and the findings persisted regardless of whether the families had a high or a low income, and of whether, as a couple, they spent large or small amounts in actuality.

The study also found that men perceived having more children as the second significant factor that led to financial conflict, whereas for women, a lack of financial communication was seen as impacting the chances of financial conflict.

The fact that spouses’ perceptions of each other’s spending behaviors were so predictive of financial conflict suggests that when it comes to the impact of finances on relationships, perceptions may be just as important, if not more important, than reality.”

Study co-author Ashley LeBaron, graduate student at BYU

Prof. Britt also chimes in, saying, “Couples need to communicate about finances, especially early in marriage. Don’t think that financial problems will magically go away when circumstances change. The study showed that circumstances weren’t the issue here, perception was, and perception doesn’t always change when circumstances do.”

The researchers note some of the limitations of their research. Firstly, the study participants were married for an average period of 18 years, which involves the possibility of a so-called survivorship bias, meaning that those who were married for longer were likely to have already survived some degree of “relationship distress.”

Secondly, spending personalities were defined based on how the partners perceived each other, not on actual spending habits. This, the authors note, could be seen as both a weakness and a strength of the study.

The authors concede that future studies should have a more diverse sample, explore the impact of actual spending habits, and gain qualitative – not just quantitative – insights into money management and relationship outcomes.