couple discussing finances

When Your Partner is an Over or Under Spender

“Be frugal, save for the future, live on less than you make.” It’s common—and important—advice for building wealth and securing a comfortable retirement.  Most Americans don’t follow that advice. Overspending is close to being a financial epidemic. For some people, though, underspending is the problem instead.

Either extreme can adversely affect the quality of your life. For couples, the impact is multiplied because it involves the dynamics of the relationship. The behaviors threaten, not just the financial health of the couple, but the relationship itself.

In working with couples, I’ve seen five common combinations of overspending and underspending in relationships.

1. Both partners are overspenders. Often, the spending is an addiction. It gives both partners a physical high, similar to that experienced by an alcoholic or a drug addict. Like other addictions, it has really destructive consequences like creating overwhelming debt, draining life savings, destroying outside relationships, and even stealing from other family members or employers. 

The reasons for overspending are almost always emotional. Typical money scripts of overspending couples would be similar to, “We deserve it and we work hard,” “Spending makes us happy,” and “You only live once.” These are typically held by inner parts of the person that are protecting other inner parts with feelings of worthlessness, hopelessness, low self-esteem, and shame.

A result of this can be a couple going from financial crisis to financial crisis to financial crisis. They’re often unable to provide the life and the security that they really want for themselves or their children.

However, even couples who seem to live moderately and manage their money responsibly can be therapy shoppers who spend in order to make themselves feel better. The emotional impact of joint overspending can add stress to the relationship even if the spending itself is not jeopardizing their future security. The problem is not the amount of money they spend but the reasons behind their spending.

2. Both partners are underspenders. Such a couple is likely to have plenty of money, but the threat to their mental and physical wellbeing may be significant. Extreme overspenders go beyond living frugally to living as if they are financially deprived, to the point of not spending money on the essentials for basic self-care. I’ve seen couples, especially after retirement, whose underspending results in their failing to get adequate medical care, eat a healthy diet, live in a well maintained and comfortable home, or pay for support and help that would make life easier.

3. One partner is an underspender and the other is a balanced spender.

4. One partner is an overspender and the other is a balanced spender.

5. One partner is an overspender and the other is an underspender. The result of these two extremes is not balance. It’s more like a person standing with one foot in a bucket of ice and the other foot in a bucket of embers and pretending that on average they are comfortable. In fact, both feet are in trouble. This union of people with opposite dysfunctional spending behaviors is probably one of the most chaotic financial and emotional partnerships.

Any of these five combinations can result in financial and emotional stress. It’s important to note, as well, that all the behaviors are on a continuum from mild to moderate to severe. The degree of stress and the level of damage to the coupleship will vary. As always, the key to recovery and change is for partners, with professional help if possible, to explore the underlying good intentions and issues driving the overspending or underspending.

Check out The Financial Therapy Podcast by Rick Kahler concerning this topic.

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