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Do finances in childhood impact your marriage? Research says yes

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Couples preparing for marriage are often encouraged to think through behaviors and emotions rooted in their childhood. This is an important practice before joining together two separate lives that bring to the table different upbringings, perspectives, and experiences around various issues.

It’s especially important because traumatic events, unmet needs, and even the sorts of affection and guidance received (or not!) can all deeply shape what a couple will have to navigate in their marriage.

But very few people ever discuss finances as part of this emotional reality. We act like we start building our financial lives together from scratch, as if it were simple economics! But it’s not. 

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Research shows that children as young as 5 years old begin to develop emotional reactions to spending and saving money. We lay the groundwork for our adult ideas about money in childhood a lot earlier than most people think. These ideas usually form in little bits and pieces, becoming a “money story” as we grow up.

Our own “stories” seem obvious to us, like a cold hard fact. In reality, it’s a complicated set of emotional and moral responses — one that’s typically very different from the “story” our spouse tells about money. Some research even suggests that people with wildly different assumptions about (and attitudes toward) money tend to marry each other.

So why do so few couples address these “money stories” before getting married? Finances and financial disagreements are infamous as one of the leading issues couples argue about for the duration of their marriage. It’s the number one fight among newly-married couples. Among those who remain married or cohabiting, nearly half say they argue with their partner about finances.

Even more, 40% of couples who are living together don’t even know how much their partner makes. Bills are often divided between the two parties, and the very conversation that actually needs to happen never does. This discussion around salaries would seem to be easier than, say, unpacking feelings of shame, guilt or self-defense around spending habits; nevertheless, research shows it often never happens.

Newlyweds-to-be frequently make the mistake of thinking that finances are just math or assuming that figuring out how to deal with money won’t be a very big hurdle. In reality, dealing with finances is tricky, and it has a lot to do with childhood experiences and values that frequently become much larger sources of conflict than they ought to be.

That’s why addressing financial attitudes intentionally — and Biblically — is so important. You can look to the parable of the talents as an example of what Scripture has to say. Our financial burdens and blessings are ours to steward as well as we can! And once you marry, you steward those things together with your spouse as one.

Burying your debts, income, and “money stories” in the hopes that nothing will go wrong, like the servant who buried his talent, can lead to angst and tension in your relationship. Talk about finances. Talk about your spending ability. Talk about how big spending or penny-pinching makes you feel and where those feelings might come from.

“Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master,” is God’s word to those who are loving, charitable and biblical stewards of their marital finances.

We’re called to be those types of stewards — not just for the sake of avoiding financial conflict in our marriage, but because we cannot serve God if money is taking center stage in our lives and our relationship with our spouse. Scripture tells us, “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and serve money” (Matthew 6:24-26).

So, prioritize conversations about money — but do so for the sake of not allowing it to consume your marriage in a way that distracts you from your relationship with the Lord and with each other. Use what you have and be faithful with it. That includes any guilt, shame or anger you might have around spending or saving! It includes whatever conflict with your spouse you might have over money. It’s everything — your debts, your income, your charitable giving, and your spending habits.

Of course, getting those conversations started can be hard. When I work with premarital couples, I encourage them to use tools like WinShape Marriage’s 40 financial conversation starters or MoneyHabitudes to help them discover what they think about money and determine a financial path forward that works for both people.

Financial preparation can feel awkward, sensitive or even boring. But it is an essential part of marital preparation. Building a strong shared financial life will prove over and over again to be essential for long-term marital happiness, and — even more important — it’s part of our duty as Christ followers to steward our gifts well.

Julie Baumgardner is the Senior Director of WinShape Marriage. She has nearly 40 years of experience of helping marriages and families thrive. Prior to joining WinShape, she spent 20 years as the President/CEO of First Thing First.

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