How To Change Financial Habits As A Couple

Mar 22, 2024

The journey of changing your habits as a couple can have many unseen obstacles until you know what to look for. Having a framework that can help the two of you through the process of change can be immensely beneficial. 


Research has revealed that there are five stages of change that we go through when faced with a wide range of problematic behaviors, from smoking and drug abuse to diet or a sedentary lifestyle. This psychological framework comes from research funded by the National Institute of Health and is known as motivational interviewing. 


You can use this framework to work through any number of different financial issues: out-of-control spending, hyper-control of spending, fear of investing, tax avoidance, and differences in approach to money, to name a few. 


The 5 Stages of Change



  • Pre-contemplation
  • Contemplation
  • Preparation
  • Action
  • Maintenance


While the stages of change are laid out in a linear format, in the process of change we often revisit elements from previous stages, making the journey like that of a spiral staircase. In a recent blog post, I wrote about the 9 processes of change. Research has shown that each process of change is more valuable in some stages of change than in others. 


What makes change challenging for couples is that each partner may be in different stages of the change process. My observation is that when couples want to change their financial lives, one of two things happens: either both partners move through the process of change and the couple finds new ways that work for them, or one partner engages and moves through the stages of change while the other partner never leaves precontemplation, rendering the relationship undesirable for both parties. In the latter scenario, the relationship usually comes to an end. 


Precontemplation - Not Really Thinking About Change

For change to happen, a new level of consciousness needs to be raised. If we don’t see or think there is a problem, there is no need for change. The familiar psychological defense mechanism of denial is often at play here. 


Yes, I know your begging and pleading have tried to raise your partner's level of consciousness about the problem, but they may now be even less inclined to consider the need for a change in your financial life. 


All of us are embedded in a variety of social contexts that set the rules and expectations of how we function in life. Becoming conscious of how these groups influence our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors is part of the social liberation process of moving from precontemplationHow To Change Financial Habits As A Couple to contemplation. 


As a couple, this means that in time you will need to look at family relationships, religious/spiritual group belonging, workplace, media consumption, and political belonging. Each of these groups has overt and covert views of money that may be facilitating and/or frustrating your financial reality. 


Finding helping relationships that understand the stages of change can facilitate the change process, often by using effective consciousness-raising experiences that don’t evoke people’s defense mechanisms. 


Contemplation - Considering Change

Continued consciousness-raising is necessary to understand the bigger picture of the problem. What may initially look like a partner's lack of financial responsibility may be due to issues related to addiction, ADHD, anxiety, or a number of other mental health issues. 


During the contemplation stage of change, questions are raised about how social groups impact or influence us. It can feel scary to consider how a group is shaping your financial expectations of yourself and others. 


Learning to work with your and your partner’s emotional arousal is something you will need to navigate as you engage in the change process. I have often heard from couples I work with that when anger, disappointment, sadness, or other uncomfortable emotions come up, it shuts down the conversation. This makes it hard to navigate the process of change as a couple where you need each other's engagement and expression of authentic feelings. 


Having a helping relationship to develop new ways of being with emotion and returning to a sense of emotional balance can be very helpful. Equally distressing for many clients at this stage of change is the beginning of starting to see yourself differently. For clients who have labeled themselves as “bad at money,” I invite them to consider a wider view of themselves. But it can be hard for them to accept this new concept about themselves. Being able to reevaluate yourself shows up in the following steps of change and is a large part of what helps people move into the next stage of change. 


Preparation - Gathering Information About Change

If you are both moving together through this process of change, you have started to identify different people who can help. This may start with a single professional like a financial therapist or financial planner, or it may include some friends. 


You are both committing to each other that this change will be important. I got to be a helper when I once worked with a couple preparing to take a larger and more expensive trip than they ever had taken. We talked through both the financial commitments and psychological meaning of the trip. 


They realized that this was breaking with some of their social traditions on how much time and money they would take for a family vacation. In their case, it was a one-month-long trip that would cost $50,000. They had been saving for this and were well prepared for it. 


They learned how to talk with each other about the fears they had about spending so much money on a trip and time away from work. They were starting to see how much they needed to transfer trust to others to take care of work while they were away on this pleasurable trip. 


They also realized that it was evoking jealousy for some of their staff. The questions of “Who am I?” and “Who are we to take such a nice trip?” were heavily activated and made them feel self-conscious about committing to take this trip. With some self-reassurance, they realized that it was okay for them to make decisions consistent with their own goals, even when that did not please others.


Action - Engaging Actively in the Process of Change

At every stage, there can be some second-guessing and back-sliding on the desired change. Couples who are wired differently financially and can’t find common ground can come to a painful place where they must decide whether or not to end their relationship with each other. One partner may be ready for the relationship while the other is not. 


Deciding to end a long-term relationship is a major change. The ability to make this decision can be the outgrowth of challenging many social expectations about what it means to be in a marriage. The imagined rewards of living life separately can help spur the change to live life more authentically and in line with personal financial values. 


Sometimes, enough personal growth and development has happened that one or both partners have found their voice in the relationship and said, “Enough is enough.” They believe they are worthy of a healthy and flourishing relationship that cultivates both relational and financial well-being. 


For others, when the relationship is not ending but the couple has both committed to the process of change, they can acknowledge the pain that they have created for each other around money and expectations. One couple who formerly bitterly fought over how to allocate and track household expenses found a new common ground after letting go of the hierarchical relationship structure that they had internalized from their religious upbringing. 


This couple rewarded themselves for this new collaboration by buying a vacation property that they could use to create family memories and rent when they were not using it — an option neither of them had considered earlier in their stuck patterns of fighting about money and spending patterns. 


Maintenance - Keeping the Desired Change in Action

While the action stage is all about putting into place everything that has been developed in the previous stages (with some expected setbacks along the way), the maintenance stage is about keeping the positive change in action. 


Continuing the story of the couple who bought the vacation home together, they committed to learning how to effectively communicate with each other continually. They saw it as a shared responsibility to grow their relationship and help each other through resolving their respective childhood traumas that were the deepest source of the money conflicts. 


They couldn’t see this at the beginning of their journey of figuring out money together, but with years of effort, they developed a deep fondness for each other and embraced financial intimacy. 


Their goals now include periodically looking at their retirement planning and balancing how much time they are working to earn money with how much time they are spending with their family and on meaningful vacations. 


To help them maintain these changes, their friend group has evolved to include other couples who also value authentic and honest relationships. They have also identified a few couples that are 10 to 15 years older than them that serve as marriage role models. They are intentional about cultivating an environment that helps them flourish relationally and financially. 


Embracing the Process of Change as a Couple

The process of change is not easy and takes a commitment to learning, healing, and growing. Even with a framework, there will be plenty of experimenting to figure out what works for the two of you. What works and is meaningful at one stage of change can evolve and change over time. This is normal. 


It is important not to dismiss or minimize prior stages of learning, healing, and growing, but rather to see them for what they are: attempts at making important changes. The most important element is trying and continuing to work on the change process. Change and growth will happen, and you will get better at it as you learn to move through the stages of change. 


Wishing You Healthy Love and Money,
Ed Coambs 


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