The 4 Money Trails: What They Are, & How They Can Help Any Long-Term Relationship

This article is a followup to “Advice From A Therapist: 8 Rules For Talking About Money With Your S.O.,” which provides basic advice on how couples can keep calm during financial discussions. Check it out here for more.

“Status,” said my soon-to-be husband as we sat side by side on the squishy couch in our premarital counselor’s office. “Of the four ways people relate to money, I guess for me it’s status. At least it used to be.” 

My mouth dropped open. This was a guy who wears T-shirts with holes in the armpits, no problem. Who would rather hang out in a dilapidated billiards bar than go to the trendy new joint down the street. Who wanted to buy a camper and live on the road for a while. 

“What?” I said, in shock. “Please explain.”

Joe said when he was younger, he had bought into the idea that the goal in life was to earn lots of money. And that money could help him prove himself to people. He reminded me of his love for fast cars. It was the last thing I expected him to say, but when I thought about it, it made sense. He did love a good sports car.

Determining How You Relate To Money

This was just after our counselor, Lindsey Foss, had told us that people generally relate to money in one of four ways:

  1. Status
  2. Security
  3. Enjoyment
  4. Control

When I told her my money style — security — Lindsey said that it was no wonder Joe and I had been butting heads when talking about finances. Whether the two of us had been discussing budgeting tools, bank accounts, or retirement savings, Joe and I had hit roadblocks each time we sat down to talk. And now it seemed obvious why — we were hiking in from opposite sides of the financial mountain. Trying to blaze a new path together when our trailheads weren’t even touching. For me, it was important to save as much money as possible, to bring a sense of stability into my life that I hadn’t felt as a child. Meanwhile, Joe wanted the freedom to purchase a big-ticket item now and then. 

Lindsey pointed out that this was nothing to worry about. The first step was understanding why our partner was on that weird path around the bluff to begin with. Understanding creates feelings of empathy for the other person, which leads to easier discussions. And, more importantly, Joe and I both decided that we wanted to change the way we thought of money. We agreed to steer ourselves toward the same path of viewing money for enjoyment instead of being trapped in our youthful visions of what adulthood should look like.

We were united in one future goal. Suddenly, I noticed a fork in the path ahead where our trails merged. Because I know we are not the only couple going through this, I interviewed Lindsey to get an expert take on how other couples can navigate this rocky financial terrain.

The 4 Money Trails

First, she gave me a breakdown of each of the money trails a person can wander on:

  • Status: People with this view see money primarily as a tool to maintain a certain image and/or impress other people. For instance, for these people, buying brand names might be very important.
  • Security: People with this view see money as a tool for stability and protection. They likely place a lot of importance on saving and managing bills well.
  • Enjoyment: People with this view see money as a pathway towards fun and pleasure. They may enjoy shopping. going out to eat, or buying things for other people.
  • Control: People with this view see money as the key not only to control but to independence. People with this view tend to place a strong emphasis on maintaining control of their own money in order to avoid dependence on another for financial needs.

Know Where Your Trailheads Are

Lindsey says it helps to know how you and your partner view money. To some people, it’s obvious. But for those who could use guidance, she suggests in-person counseling or a site like Money Habitudes. This site offers both physical and online assessment tools. They aren’t free, but they would help to gain an understanding of your personal financial beliefs. This allows you to reflect on where both of your money beliefs stemmed from. “Our partner is then more likely to recognize that we are not just being stubborn, but we are following a pattern that was (or would have been) helpful to us at some point in our lives,” Lindsey said.

Once you know your and your partner’s starting points, you can find a way to meet in the middle. Or at least comprehend why the hell they are stomping around on the other side of the ridge.

Bridge The Financial Gap

Lindsey says it’s fine for two people to view money very differently. In fact, she says, “Just because you share a definition of the meaning of money doesn’t mean that you won’t have any conflict over money.”

So what do you do? Talk. Then talk some more. It’s important to have continuous conversations about your hopes and dreams for the future, and how you would like to see your money put to use. Only then can you come up with a mutual plan. Also, make sure to check in regularly regarding your system of managing money to ensure it’s still working for you both. Lindsey insists that there is no one right way to manage money for every couple, but that the two in the relationship need to be on the same page.

And if you’re really stuck? “I wish more couples would come to therapy when they are facing challenges related to money because the skills they could learn also would help them work through other issues more effectively,” she says. 

Especially after getting married, pressures tend to ramp up. For Joe and I, it has been a huge help figuring out how to discuss big things like money. If you can’t avoid it, you might as well enjoy the trek. 

How do you keep financial chats with your partner calm and stress-free?

Tiffany Verbeck is a freelance writer and storyteller who helps small businesses and entrepreneurs tell their brand story. She runs a professional blog on personal finance at www.tiffanyverbeck.com and a personal blog on growing up in Indiana called Midwestern Transplant. She can be found on Twitter at @tiffanyverbeck.

Image via Unsplash

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