3 signs your relationship is headed for financial trouble

By Emma Lunn

How do you know when your money disagreements move beyond the inevitable marital spat into the danger zone?

Money is a top topic of rows between married couples (along with sex, untidiness, children and housework), according to relationship guidance organisation Relate. And, with the economy still struggling, quarrels about money and credit card debt could be causing even more marital strife.

"I think if you're affected by the economic downturn, whether that's directly because you or your partner have lost your job or had your hours cut, or indirectly because of all the uncertainty about the economy, it's likely to mean more arguments," says Sarah Pennells, founder of the female-friendly finance website SwavvyWoman. "Often it's when a crisis happens that the difference in a couple's attitude to money comes to the fore." couple-argument

Here are some signs your marriage is headed down for financial trouble.

Secret debt
It's common -- and even healthy -- for each half of a couple to keep a separate savings or checking account so they can occasionally splurge without asking the other spouse's permission. But secret credit cards and debts are a problem.

"Keeping a big debt secret from your partner is almost as bad as an affair," says Christine Northam, a counsellor with Relate. "The other partner will feel betrayed, and even if they've not been lied to, it can be a shock finding out about the debt and that the other person didn't do what you expected them to do. It all comes down to trust."

Hiding debts can be a sign of deep-set issues that probably extend to other areas of the relationship, Northam adds.

"If you can't be open and honest with your partner about money, this will be reflected in other areas too," she warns. "If your partner is keeping money secrets from you, what else are they keeping from you? Money issues can be about power and control, and most couples' difficulties are to do with power and control."

Abuse of shared credit
In the UK, you can't have a joint credit card in which both parties are equally responsible for the debt. One person has to sign the credit agreement and be ultimately responsible for the bill. You can, however, get a second card for your partner.

Yet that presents the opportunity for one spouse to rack up debt in the other's name.

"I'd think carefully before you let your partner have a second card. It can be useful if one of you is earning while the other isn't, but if your partner runs up debts you'll have to pay the bill," Pennells says.

If your partner is abusing a credit card account in your name, that's a sign of trouble -- because it means your partner is willing to destroy your credit for personal gain.

Even if you haven't given your partner a card, keep in mind that couples often have other shared credit agreements (like mortgages) that entail your credit files being linked. If your partner is responsible for paying the mortgage bills and gets behind, it will affect your credit rating.

Unwillingness to talk about money
Talking about money can be uncomfortable. Yet, if you or your partner is refusing to do so, that's a problem.

Ideally, discussions about money should take place long before the marriage -- and can be key to helping even a spender and a saver live in harmony. For those who are already married and having difficulties talking about money, couples counselling can be a productive way to air problems and make sure each partner is involved in the solution.

"You don't have to have the same attitude to money as your partner but you do have to be able to talk about it and have some give and take," Pennells says. "Money can be a very emotional subject but there's often no right or wrong way."

See related: Marriage and money: Should you keep them separate?, Are you committing financial infidelity?


Published: 30 July 2012