In their recent article, “Financial Communication as a Mediator between Financial Values and Marital Outcomes,” leading financial scholars suggest that money itself may not be what predicts divorce.
Their findings suggest that it is how couples communicate about finances that has the greater impact on marital quality and whether a couple is contemplating divorce or not. Essentially, how couples discussed money was found to be crucial for their marriage. Dr. Ashley LeBaron-Black and her colleagues furthered this line of research by examining not just the how of financial communication in a romantic relationship, but also the when. With about 2,000 participants between the ages of 18-30, their next study (led by Matthew Saxey) focused on whether having a first major financial discussion in a romantic relationship sooner rather than later would have positive effects on the relationship.
Overall, what they found is that for these major financial discussions, the sooner they happen in a romantic relationship, the better. That is, those who discussed finances sooner in their relationship had higher romantic relationship quality. At the same time, however, having a first major financial discussion earlier in a romantic relationship also predicted more financial conflict in the relationship. In essence, having a first major financial discussion earlier in a romantic relationship helped couples to consistently communicate about finances together, but not all this communication was likely productive.
These findings suggest that couples should be open about finances together and have a major financial discussion—about financial values, goals, and philosophies—early in their romantic relationship. However, when financial disagreements arise when discussing finances, it is not that these disagreements occur that is likely problematic—it is how these disagreements are handled. Financial conflict can even benefit the romantic relationship when managed productively, so keep this in mind as you aim to consistently communicate about finances in your romantic relationship.
Specific to their study about how couples communicate about money, and not just when they should, LeBaron-Black and her colleagues were interested in understanding the role financial values might play in couples’ financial communication. Considering that the couples in her study came from differing family dynamics, both partners might have consequently brought differing financial values.
A value in this case meant a “centrally held, enduring belief which guide[d] actions and judgments across specific situations,” so financial values were beliefs about how money should be spent in accordance with enduring beliefs. As you can imagine, being on the same page in terms of financial values was helpful for the couples in the study.
Specifically, both husbands’ and wives’ perceptions of more similar financial values predicted better couple communication about money. The more similar one’s financial values were with their partner, the more likely they were to communicate about money consistently with their partner. This consistent communication about money, in turn, was connected to a higher quality marriage and one with less contemplation of divorce—as mentioned earlier.
Understanding these research findings only matters as we do something about what we have learned. Here are some applicable takeaways that couples can implement in strengthening their romantic relationship and financial communication.
- The sooner finances are talked about in relationships, the better. Although initial financial discussions can lead to some finance-related conflict in the relationship, this finding should not deter couples from having major financial discussions early in their romantic relationship. Having an early first financial discussion as a couple can provide more time for compromise and healthy communication early on, potentially making future financial discussion easier. This principle of early financial discussion can be applied far before a wedding day. In fact, financial discussions during engagement and even during the dating phases of relationships help couples to discuss finances more consistently and have higher quality romantic relationships. Communicating consistently and in productive ways about finances—according to both studies—is a sign of better-quality romantic relationships, so putting in the effort to communicate about money would likely be worth it.
- The more similar couples can become in their financial values, the better. Sitting down as a couple and talking about what you value enough to spend money on is one way to understand what your financial values are. For example, do you want to save up for a family vacation because you value quality time together? Perhaps gift giving is your love language, so it would bring you more joy in your relationship to buy your spouse an expensive pair of shoes they want. You likely will not agree on how all money should be spent; I do not know of any couple that does. However, finding compromise and aligning your financial values, and actions, where possible would be worth it—according to LeBaron-Black’s findings. Often, marriages are made up of a spender and a saver; while this could seem to be inherently conflict provoking, each individual can help the other to find joy in saving, or spending, money in ways that reflect the couple’s financial values.
Financial hardship will come for most, if not every, couple. Therefore, it is an imperative life skill to learn how to communicate about finances to keep a romantic relationship strong. When financial discussions start, how they continue, and building shared financial values are all components of productive financial communication. Improving in each of these areas, according to this research, would be worth it.
LeBaron-Black, A. B., Saxey, M. T., Totenhagen, C. J., Wheeler, B. E., Archuleta, K. L., Yorgason, J. B., & James, S. L. (in press). Financial communication as a mediator between financial values and marital outcomes. Family Relations.
Saxey, M. T., LeBaron-Black, A. B., & Curran, M. A. (2022). The sooner, the better? Couples’ first financial discussion, relationship quality, and financial conflict in emerging adulthood. Journal of Financial Therapy, 13(1), 1–19. https://doi.org/10.4148/1944-9771.1299
 Rokeach, M. (1968). Beliefs, attitudes, and values. Jossey Bass.