Can you police your spouse's spending habits?

Randy sat in my office complaining about his wife's excessive spending habits. "Every day, a package from an online store shows up at our doorstep. It makes me so angry that she doesn't realize that eventually our money will run out. And what do I tell the kids?"

At the next meeting, Randy's wife, Suzanne, joined us. Her perspective was very different. "Randy thinks I am a compulsive shopper, but he is cheap. If he has a hole in his socks, he won't even buy a new pair."

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Couple bills
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It was clear this couple was at an impasse. Randy wanted to police his wife's spending habits, and Suzanne thought he was the one with the problem. With 50 percent of marriages ending in divorce—and one of the major causes of marital strife being financial conflict—Randy and Suzanne were in a precarious, yet not uncommon, position. Each wanted the other to change their financial habits. But the real solution involved both partners looking at their behaviors and then deciding how best to work as a team.

If this scenario sounds familiar, you are not alone. Managing finances together can be challenging. If you and your partner came from two different economic circumstances, have vastly different money personalities (saver vs. spender) or financial literacy levels, making financial decisions may cause great marital discord.

Often the problem starts before couples walk down the aisle. A 2013 study conducted by National Foundation for Credit Counseling revealed that 68 percent of engaged individuals have negative attitudes about discussing money with their soon-to-be spouse, and 5 percent report that engaging in a money conversation with their partner would cause them to call off the wedding. If you don't talk about money, its hard to know where your partner stands on the best way to make, save and spend money.


We live in a society that considers talking about money taboo. Many of us don't know how to discuss financial matters openly and honestly. One study reported that up to 80 percent of spouses admit to having hid a purchase from their loved one. This behavior can be a one-time event, or it can become a compulsion.

April Benson, Ph.D. and author of "To Buy or Not To Buy: Why We Overshop and How to Stop," says "compulsive buying is when someone spends so much time, energy, and/or money on shopping and buying or even just thinking about shopping and buying that it's significantly impairing their life. That impairment could be financial, interpersonal, occupational, emotional, or spiritual." According to a Stanford University study, 17 million to 28 million Americans overshop.

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Either way, trying to control your partner's financial behavior is a recipe for disaster. Instead, follow these tips:

1. Focus on understanding financial habits, not criticizing them. The tendency for couples engaged in a conflict is to point a finger at their partner and label the other's habits as wrong. Playing the blame game just fuels conflict and tension in the home. It is best to suspend judgment and focus on understanding your partner's spending behaviors.

Ask yourself: What triggers the spending? How does the person feel before, during and after the purchase? Did anyone in his or her family spend money in the same way? What impact might that have on their current money-management skills? Taking a curious stance increases mutual understanding, fosters compassion and sets the stage for real change.

2. Examine your side of the equation. Often the behavior that attracted you to your partner is now the one that is driving you crazy. Take some time to think about your part of the couple dynamic as it relates to money. When you first started dating, did you find your partner's ability to spend freely attractive? Do you prefer being the one in financial control and, therefore, married to someone who is less financially knowledgeable?

Dr. Benson explained, "Spouses often enable money disorders like compulsive buying, sometimes to distract their partner from some of their own negative behaviors. More than once I've encountered couples where the wife's compulsive buying is partially an expression of anger about a husband's infidelity."

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It is important that you look inward and understand your relationship with money and what part you play in the dynamic. Whether you like it or not, when it comes to couples and money, the solution lies in both partners changing their behavior, not just one.

3. Explore your money mind-sets. Each of us has a unique money history that impacts our money mind-sets. A money mind-set is a set of beliefs about money that impact our saving, spending and investing every day. These attitudes are formed between the ages of 5 and 15 from watching our parents' financial habits, are very childlike in nature and often reside in our unconscious mind. They tend to be overly simplistic rules that fall short when addressing the complexity needed when managing money as an adult. It is important that you learn to identify your money mind-set and then take the time to learn about your partner's. Armed with this knowledge, you can better understand yourself and your partner.

4. Recognize that changing money behaviors takes time. Be patient with yourself and your partner as you address your different mind-sets about spending and saving. If you both agree to stick to a spending plan for the month and one of you falls off the wagon, take time to look at what triggered the slip and how both of you may have contributed to the situation. Revisit how your money history and mind-set may have contributed to this recent slip. Fight the urge to argue and instead learn from each mistake. The only way for true behavioral change to happen is through trial and error.

5. Get help from a professional, if needed. If you find you and your partner have the same argument over and over, despite following the above steps, consider getting professional help. Talk to your financial advisor together and see how he may be able to help. Also consider reaching out to a counselor who specializes in compulsive buying or a coach who works with couples around money issues. Having a neutral party to hear both of your perspectives and work with you as a team to find balance in your financial lives could make the difference between becoming another divorce statistics and living happily ever after.

By Kathleen Burns Kingsbury, special to CNBC.com. She is the author of several books, including "How to Give Financial Advice to Couples."