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Financial Planning & Family Conflict: Making Sense out of Cents

Updated: Oct 9, 2023

A Financial Advisor and Family Psychologist Answer Your Questions

The #1 thing that couples avoid talking about or will fight about is finances.

by Chris Greenwood & Jen Ripley, Ph.D.

Chris Greenwood is a Financial Advisor for Northwestern Mutual. He has built his practice by “Helping bring hope, joy, and peace into people’s financial future one person/family/business at a time.”

Christopher P Greenwood is an Insurance Agent of The Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company (NM) (life and disability Insurance, annuities, and life insurance with long-term care benefits) and its subsidiaries in Milwaukee, WI. Investment brokerage services provided as a Registered Representative of Northwestern Mutual Investment Services LLC, a subsidiary of NM, a registered investment adviser, broker-dealer, and member of FINRA and SIPC. Investment advisory and trust services provided as an advisor of The Northwestern Mutual Wealth Management Company, a subsidiary of NM, and a federal savings bank.

Jen Ripley, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist specializing in couples therapy, directs a training lab in Hope-focused couple counseling, and is Hughes Distinguished Chair at Regent University. Her motto is “Bringing principles and practices in couple counseling and family care to every willing home, helper, and house of worship.” and

Chris and Jen and their families have been friends for many years and Chris provides financial planning to Jen’s family.

1. The whole world of finance just seems so foreign to us but for different reasons. I have trouble seeing past the corruption, deception, scams, and lies and my spouse struggles with some of the big words she/he doesn't understand, the endless options we don't know how to choose from, and decisions we don't know how to prioritize. How do we know what to do and who to trust?

Chris says: The reality is that the stumbling blocks of financial ickiness, ever-changing options, and the feeling of being lost and/or overwhelmed are extremely common and completely understandable. Thankfully, the answer to this unfortunate reality is not super complicated. A) The great news is you don’t have to be a financial scholar or Google-certified accountant (google searches aren’t everything…Web MD anyone?). You just need to work with a truly comprehensive financial planner who cares enough about you to take the time to walk you through the financial maze of life. B) I could not be more firm in my belief that the only type of financial planner/advisor you should ever work with is one who is unashamedly a fiduciary. Fiduciaries are simply held to the highest moral, ethical, and legal standards in the financial world, and there is no reason not to work with one. Fiduciaries have an obligation to your best interest, while other advisors may not.

Jen says: Finances can be a strain within a couple's relationship because it uncovers underlying tensions about resources and can spark competition or power struggles. Who gets to say how shared resources are spent or saved? Some people have a history of hurts where there weren’t enough resources in their family of origin, past or current relationship. If you also feel like you don’t understand financial planning, that adds anxiety to the mix. This can be a real powder keg. It’s no wonder finances are one of the top things couples argue about. It can be good to start by reflecting on your experiences and resources. Do you have a history of poverty or financial strains from your childhood, previous relationships, or this relationship? What is your financial literacy level now? Going into financial discussions, do you sense that you need to defend yourself or feel like you can cooperate as a team? Have the two of you openly shared your individual, couple, and financial goals with each other?

2. I hear the ads on the radio for financial planning, but I also hear that a person needs to make or be worth a certain amount of money. Working with a planner seems like an ok idea but I don't think we qualify. What options are out there for someone like us?

Chris says: I was in the same boat for the first two decades of my post-married life. I had no idea that there were options for financial guidance that didn’t come with high thresholds or high price tags. My wife and I struggled to communicate well in the area of finances in large part because I was completely winging it and didn’t want to look foolish in front of her. My lack of knowledge diminished my confidence that I was making the right choice. I cannot speak of many options because many planners are indeed fee, net-worth, or income based. Thankfully, the organization I work with strongly believes that everyone has the right to a free, comprehensive financial plan regardless of social status or economic level. I am honored to provide to others what I never knew was available.

Jen says: It can be easy to get caught in the “keeping up with the Jones” mentality about family finances. It’s easy to feel like everyone else has much more money and resources than you do. After all, their Insta profile seems to indicate many expensive hobbies or travel. But you can’t see the debt or poor financial planning others may be living with. As you start to think about your resources, it’s helpful to be honest with yourself and honest with each other. While you may not be able to save millions, you can take care of your future selves and your children if you have them. You are responsible for your own financial future, even if it isn’t a luxury-filled one, it’s still your future. Using an expert planner can be helpful in removing some of the sense of being “less than” others in planning. Be proud of the good decisions you have made, and learn from the poor ones. That’s all that anyone can do in this life.

3. I believe we need to get our own house in order financially before we begin working with a planner. My spouse thinks we need help to get our house in order. It’s causing a lot of tension. What's the right age/stage of life to start working with a financial planner?

Chris says: Now. 🙂 That’s the quick answer to the question. The sooner a person/couple/family/business begins working with a comprehensive planner, the better. The equally important answer to the question set up is “Both.” A strong financial plan is going to offer hope, joy, and peace because there is now a pathway forward. With that said, a plan is just a plan unless there are people ready to commit to it. This is a great example of a both/and not an either/or. People ready to get their house in order with a little guidance along the way make the very best of clients because they are motivated to walk out the plan.

Jen says: The Harvard negotiation project is a group that provides negotiation services to nations, corporations, and groups. They have a very helpful principle for a couple's disagreement: explore the underlying meaning and true goal of the disagreement. If you want to get your house in order, what is that about? Is autonomy really important? Do you sense that you will be shamed by a planner and want to avoid that experience? Or is it about other things like wanting to have fun as a family with your money instead of saving, which is really about a sense of closeness you find with family fun? Explore what underlying reasons drive you and your partner to want a planner together. Does he feel overwhelmed and fearful about leaving you without adequate life insurance? Is it about a personal sense of showing love and care for your children by saving more and getting help with that? Then the real goal there is demonstrating love through financial planning. If you can find the reason behind the reason, you can often draw closer through the journey, even if you can’t agree on the initial approach.

4. We try to base our decisions on Scripture. Can you make a Biblical case for financial planning or is it something the financial world made up to get people's money?

Chris says: Like with many topics, you aren’t going to find terms like financial planning in the words of Scripture. What you are going to find are principles. Without turning this answer into a multi-page essay, I would say absolutely yes. I would suggest taking a strong look at Joseph of the OT. Joseph spent his entire life managing things. Joseph was a planner from running Potiphar’s house, watching over fellow prisoners in the prison, and eventually being the second in power to Pharaoh. If you zero in on the years of abundance and his plan to prepare for the years of famine, you can see with even more detail how the Lord used him to put a plan in place that dealt with food and finances. A lot more could be said, and a lot of other people could be observed in Scripture, from Abraham to Jacob, Daniel to David, and Solomon to Josiah. By observing their lives in the pages of Scripture, you can find many Biblical principles for planning.

Jen says: This question makes me wonder what life's most essential and important thing is for you. You might discuss as a couple what planning or financial principles you have adopted from faith. If the most important thing is your faith and the God you follow, then that organizes and orients everything in life. Many people join a community of faith and orient their values, decisions, and plans in congruence with ideas that have undergirded people’s lives for thousands of years. There is something so beautiful about being part of a community of believers who have existed for generations and will exist long after you are gone. I encourage people to learn the time-tested principles of faith: trusting God for provision, the wise use of resources, forgiveness of past decisions in a family, and generosity to those in need. A family that follows these principles for a lifetime, inspired by their faith, will have a good life.

5. I have been "winging it" financially my whole life. I have worked hard, saved some, and used what has been offered to me at my job. Honestly, I’m exhausted, and I keep wondering if I have done enough and if my family will be ok financially. Where do faith and trust come in?

Chris says: “Wingers” are my favorite group of people to work with because they desire to do the right things but simply grow exhausted by this thing called life while trying to figure out those right things. One of the unofficial things we teach and model for children at a young age is that you don’t have to, aren’t supposed to, and it’s ok if you don’t figure out everything all on your own. Somewhere along the line, in trying to help people grow up and become independent, we rewrite the above to say: you have to, are supposed to, and it’s not ok unless you figure out everything all on your own. This is garbage. We are designed for relationships and are always better with than without. This applies in both the areas of faith and humanity. Sure, placing your faith and trust in a comprehensive planner can feel like a risky move, but after living for decades as a “winger,” I can tell you winging it is much worse.

Jen says: It might be worthwhile to explore for yourself your personality traits and how “winging it” might fit your personal style. Every personality style has two sides, strengths and weaknesses inherent in a trait. For example, an introvert is easily able to get their interpersonal needs met, but they also may isolate themselves too much and not have access to help when they really need it. The same goes for the person who “wings it.” Winging it means you aren’t obsessing and worrying about finances much, which is great. But it also means you might not put enough planning and thought into planning. My experience is that most couples end up with one “winger” and one “planner.” It’s a predictable phenomenon in a family system that opposite-trait-matchup usually happens. So, if your partner is more of a planner, you can use each other’s strengths to make balanced decisions as a team. If you are both wingers or the winging partner tends to make financial decisions, you might especially want a planner. Wise people seek experts in life- medical decisions, education, home repair, couple counseling, and financial planning.

6. I am a saver, and my partner is a spender. We are really different in how we manage our money, and it often ends up being a fight. What kinds of things might help us come together and resolve our different financial ideas?

Chris says: Having a trusted, neutral third party is definitely a solid option. Almost all of my couple clients find themselves with vastly different financial personalities. Being present in the moment to hear both sides give voice to their ideas and concerns gives each the chance to be heard. Sharing those ideas and concerns with a neutral outsider allows each to remain open to a pathway forward that may or may not be their personality preference. The other idea I often suggest is to not fall under the tyranny of the urgent. Most bad financial decisions are bad because they were also quick. A comprehensive plan eliminates tons of the seemingly urgent because a plan inherently prepares.

Jen says: Fights are really hard. They can be painful. And they also are illuminating events in a couple. They illuminate something that is happening under the surface. Have you processed the fight yet to illuminate what is under the surface? There is something called the Zeigarnik effect in couple conflict. The Zeigarnik is named after a psychologist observing wait staff and their memories. They were able to remember many orders until they were filled, and then quickly forgot the order. This applies to couples too- we remember an unfinished and unprocessed argument. Perhaps you have had this phenomenon where after a fight is resolved you forget what it was all about to begin with. That’s the Zeigarnik effect. It’s important to kindly listen and curiously understand what the fight is about for each of you. A financial planner can help you with making good decisions from an outside perspective. If arguments persist beyond finances or are really distressing, some couple’s counseling can help you with the processing.

7. We would really like to instill values of good financial responsibility to our children. What would you recommend we do to teach our children?

Chris says: Invite them into your financial world and decision-making thought process. Far too often, myself included, we seek to insulate those we love from the financial world and its chaotic pull. I am not saying you should share everything with your children…what I’m saying is don’t live like finances aren’t a thing to be addressed. Where age and situation allow, take the time to explain the why and how comes of a financial decision. Why do you drive past five gas stations before stopping to get gas? Is it just because it’s cheaper, or do the ripples of the gas price spread out further? What does cheaper mean? Why does a 5-cent difference matter? How does the price of gas affect other expenses in your budget? Grocery shopping, buying new clothes, water and power bills, and so on. These are daily or at least monthly opportunities to invite your children into the financial world while you can shepherd their understanding.

Jen says: Chris is so right here- many values like responsibility are more caught than taught. Children watch what we do and “catch on” to what is important by what we do, more than what we say. Part of what therapy offers is a chance to explore the (often unexplored) underlying assumptions they live with. Common problematic assumptions are “It’s all or nothing for this decision,” “I am not important enough to plan for the future,” “I need to fight to get my way,” or “I can’t trust experts to take care of me.” Looking with clarity at ideas like that can help illuminate it and change our underlying attitudes. When our children become teens, one of the difficult things for most of us is that they see the inconsistencies really well and point them out to us. That can be really painful! But it’s also an opportunity to listen to the immature but perceptive observations of the young ones in the family. There’s an opportunity there to listen and help teens understand and grow. It’s great that you have a mindset to train children to be good financial decision-makers! Keep up the good values parents!

8. I love her/ him, but the spending is out of control! I've been lied to and trust is broken. I can't take it anymore. I'm so afraid that being married is going to ruin my own financial future too.

Chris says: Honestly, this is outside the scope of a financial, so I am shooting from the hip a bit here. If I were meeting with a couple where one of the spouses told me the above information, I would suggest we pause financial planning until they had had the time to work with a marriage counselor and/or faith leader. It would seem a logical answer would be to separate the finances, and each person manages their own money. However, while I can’t prove this with overwhelming data, I can say that many of my peers have seen a similar trend in their practices. It’s actually quite startling in its truth. Ready? The only couples who have gotten a divorce while working with the financial planners. I know are couples with their finances separated. Read that sentence again. I have peers with hundreds and hundreds of clients, and not a single couple they work with who have joint/merged finances has ever divorced in the planning process. Does it mean that if you have separate finances you are going to definitely get a divorce. Not at all. It simply illustrates that having your finances merged seems to provide a measure of protection against divorce. For what it’s worth, it seems clear to me that separating the finances is not the answer.

Jen says: This sounds like a real cry for help. There has been a major rift in the trust in the relationship. Perhaps there is an underlying problem like ADHD, bipolar disorder, substance abuse, or a gambling problem? Psychological problems can cause spending problems. Perhaps spending has been a long-standing problem prior to your relationship and is a way of self-soothing from trauma or depression. I would want to ask for help with the problem from the triple threat: a physician to check for medical needs (Lord forbid it’s an organic brain functioning problem that is missed), a psychologist for emotions, cognitive and behavioral change, and a minister to connect to the divine and provide the long-term care a minister can provide your family. If your partner isn’t willing to get help for this, seek help yourself on how to manage the everyday complex decisions like what to do with finances. Many couples with gambling, substance abuse, or chronic mental illness do have to keep finances protected for both partners’ sake. Keeping things together is ideal- and most couples should build trustworthy behaviors so they can do that. But if you are living with a chronic spending problem now, then making thoughtful and wise decisions to protect that person from their decisions harming others around them may be needed.

8. We are getting married and getting all kinds of advice on whether or not we should blend our finances, share all expenses, or leave some of our money separate. What do you recommend?

Jen says: Great question for a new couple to ask themselves. For most couples, especially going into a young first marriage combining finances as much as possible is protective of the relationship. As Chris observed earlier, the decision to keep separate finances often reflects a lack of trust or self-focus that will erode a family over time. Building a long life together involves deep trust, including financial responsibility. There are exceptions to this, including people marrying late in life with family trusts to manage or step-families needing to use portions of their money for child support and care. In those cases, the decision to separate some or most funds is to protect children and their needs. If you are outside of those situations, then finances and financial planning is a great way to learn the essential goal of blending a life together: to kindly put aside your own needs for the sake of the family. Right now, that might just be the two of you, but most couples end up having children. The decisions you make now on how to manage your finances reverberate into your children's lives- their opportunities as they grow, their college, or their launching into adulthood. Small decisions now, like saving for college, retirement, and life insurance, express love for your future family. There is a line in the musical Hamilton that applies to this “I may not live to see our glory. But I will gladly join the fight. And when our children tell the story, they will tell the story of tonight.” That legacy can be responsible financial planning throughout your lives together. The decision to prioritize them will deeply bless the future in wisdom, even if your finances are quite modest.


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