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9 signs your spouse is a financial bully

Plus tips on what to do about it

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Many couples argue over money, but what if your spouse yells at you for overspending, takes away your credit cards or even demands you turn over your paycheck? Watch out: You might be married to a financial bully.

Experts say financial bullying can have several causes, from desperation to get out of debt, to anxiety stemming from past experiences, to control issues. "If somebody is just using money for control, it's a huge red flag," says Brad Klontz, financial psychologist and author of "Mind Over Money."

financial-bully

In a 2013 online poll by CreditKarma.com, one in 10 American adults in committed relationships said they were being financially bullied by their spouse or live-in partner.

Here are nine pushy money behaviors that could signal a problem in your relationship. It might be bullying if your spouse:

  1. Chides you for going over budget. This is a common form of financial bullying, Klontz says. "Very often, someone freaks out about spending." So, if you agreed to stick to a $100 grocery budget this week, then splurged on fine wine and filet, does that give your mate the right to berate you? It's normal to get angry and feel betrayed if your spouse breaks an agreement, he says. "But it's not OK to yell and lecture and point your finger at the other person."
  2. Divvies up extra cash unfairly. Each spouse should get an equal amount of discretionary money to use for anything from gifts to going out to lunch to getting a new gadget, says Mary Gresham, a financial psychologist who practices in Atlanta. So, when the higher-earning spouse takes more than half of the disposable income, it can be a sign of a control issue, she says. A bullying spouse might say, "I earned it. It's mine. I'm going to feel free to play golf, but you can forget about buying that new sweater," she says.
  3. Controls the credit cards. Sometimes, a spouse might go overboard and take away the plastic to try to rein in a seriously overspending partner, experts say. In that case, partners should talk to come to an agreement on when it's OK to use credit cards -- such as for convenience purchases on gas or for discretionary spending, says Katie Moore, a financial counselor for GreenPath Debt Solutions. However, controlling the credit cards might be the behavior of a domineering spouse. "When you take away the credit card, you take away their access to money," Gresham says.
  4. Belittles you for the size of your salary. This type of criticism tends to come from wives who stick to traditional gender roles, Klontz says. A woman who looks at life this way might tell her husband, "It's your job to make money," he says. Traditional roles are fine if both spouses agree, he says, but being rigid about your views usually isn't healthy. When one spouse complains that the other doesn't make enough, "I tell them to focus on themselves and increase their own earnings," Gresham says.
  5. Tries to curtail your earning power. The flip side: Some spouses, often husbands with more traditional views, try to prevent their wives from making too much money, says Klontz, who has done research on women who make more than their husbands. So, for example, a husband might discourage his wife from starting a business or going to law school. "Very often, it's a man whose entire self worth is wrapped up in his net worth," he says.
  6. Demands you hand over your paycheck. It's often the spouse with the bigger salary who can wield more power over finances, experts say. But sometimes a spouse just takes control, such as when one commandeers the other's paycheck. This is a scenario Klontz has seen happen with both husbands and wives. "It's terrible," he says.
  7. Put you on an allowance. In some cases, a spouse who works while the other stays home -- or one who makes more money or came into money through an inheritance -- might give the other spouse an allowance. "Unless both of you are on an allowance, this is a red flag," Klontz says.
  8. Dictates the details of your monthly budget. Sometimes one spouse manages the finances, and that can be perfectly healthy, Moore says. However, in other cases, it can be "kind of a negative thing that's going on." In some cases, a spouse will blame the other for debts and just take over the finances, she says. Instead, she recommends couples "look over the situation together and look for ways to fix it."
  9. Controls the big money goals. Maybe he stashes money in a savings account to fund his dream of buying a boat, but pooh-poohs her wish to take a romantic vacation in Paris. The healthy thing to do instead? Compromise. Says Klontz, "Agree to disagree, but find an agreed-upon solution." 

Being bullied over money? 7 tips
If your spouse is displaying controlling behaviors around money, these seven expert tips can help deal with the problem:

  1. Ask yourself: How bad is it? In extreme cases, financial bullying can be a sign of an abusive marriage, Klontz says. "The person might actually be in physical danger," he says. If this describes your relationship, put safety first and get help from a therapist.
  2. Have an honest talk. Maybe your spouse is just a bit overbearing. In that case, ask questions to find out what shaped their attitudes and beliefs toward money. "A lot of couples will have a dating history conversation, but they never have a financial history conversation," Klontz says.
  3. Keep an open mind. "You need to be receptive to what you're hearing and not view it as ammunition for later," Klontz says. Ask questions and try to understand, he says. Maybe your wife grew up poor and is afraid of not having enough money. Or, perhaps your husband's workaholic dad died young and never got to enjoy life, and that's why your spouse wants to spend now.
  4. Talk about your feelings. Focus on how you feel rather than what your spouse is doing wrong. "You can talk about feeling controlled and how bad that feels as opposed to attacking your partner for being a control freak," Gresham says.
  5. Get money advice. If you're at an impasse, it might be a good idea to meet with an expert such as a credit counselor, especially if you're in debt, or a fee-only financial planner. It's a good way to get an objective opinion, Klontz says. "They might say, you can afford this, or you can't afford it."
  6. Switch roles regularly. Often, one spouse starts out as a little more of a saver while the other is a little more of a spender, Gresham says. A power struggle can polarize the couple, causing each person to get more extreme, she says. One way to solve the problem: put one person in charge of the monthly budget and spending, while the other heads up long-term savings. Then switch periodically, she recommends.
  7. Seek marriage help. Financial bullying can damage a relationship, especially if it drags on for years, experts say. The average couple fights about an issue for seven years before seeking help, and that can do a lot of damage to the relationship. "I would encourage them to seek help sooner rather than later," Klontz says.

And finally, if you're the financial bully, beware, because it will come back to hurt the relationship and, ultimately, you, Gresham says. "You might get your way, but it comes at a pretty big cost."

See related: Is it time to consider financial therapy?

Published: March 7, 2014


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