Money is the leading cause of arguments among married couples, as well as a leading cause of divorce. And financial fights involving children are among the most common money squabbles of all.
They're also among the most dangerous, because when you quarrel with your partner over the kids and money, you risk not only damaging your relationship but also giving your children some very misguided notions about family finance. "Even very little kids who don't know exactly what's being said can sense tension and anger when their parents argue," says financial educator Ruth Hayden, author of For Richer, Not Poorer: The Money Book for Couples. "What they learn is that money makes Mommy and Daddy unhappy."
Here, reasons for the most common money arguments, and how to defuse them.
Contributing editor Diane Harris is coauthor of It Takes Money, Honey, a book on personal finance for women.
Overspending on the Kids
"You spent what on WHAT?!?" "Just how many toys does one kid need?" "How much did that outfit cost?"
Bickering about overspending often comes in a familiar form: The parent primarily responsible for the child's everyday expenses --clothes, food, toys, and the occasional gift for a playmate's birthday party --is periodically taken to task by the other for overspending on necessities and otherwise frittering away money.
To stop the cycle, you have to figure out why the two of you are at such odds. One reason the parent who doesn't usually pay may react so critically is because he's genuinely clueless about how much kids' stuff really costs. To close the knowledge gap, take a few shopping trips together. "Whoever hasn't been doing the spending is often shocked and humbled by the experience," says Hayden.
Then comes the hard part: You have to sit down together and work out how much money you think is reasonable to pay for the children's clothes, toys, and activities. The key is to recognize that each of you has valid reasons for wanting to spend or limit spending, and to resist the impulse to simply label your spouse a congenital tightwad or spendthrift. Come to the discussion prepared to be flexible; showing that you're willing to change your ways may motivate (or shame) your partner into making a similar effort. "One parent is likely to end up spending significantly more than he's completely comfortable with, and one parent will spend significantly less," says Hayden. "But both should be able to walk away from the table saying, 'I can live with that.'"
Rules That Conflict
You believe your child should get a regular allowance, no strings attached, so she learns how to manage money. Your partner thinks kids should earn every penny. You allow your child to pick a treat when you shop together to teach him about making choices (and to stave off tantrums). "You're spoiling him," growls your partner.
Recognize first that it's natural to approach teaching your children about money differently, since you didn't grow up with the same values, expectations, and rules. What's not okay is to impose your financial policies unilaterally, or, worst of all, overrule your spouse in front of your child. Not only is the lack of respect for your partner's views belittling, but you'll inadvertently teach your child to play one parent against the other.
So agree to present a unified front whenever possible. If you disagree with the way your spouse handles a particular financial situation with your child, keep your mouth shut at that moment. Bring it up later, when you're alone. "When the fight is about the child, keep the disagreements private," says Jayne Pearl, author of Kids and Money. "Then find some rules that you can both stand behind."
Try to find some financial common ground before the next incident arises, suggests Adriane Berg, editor of the financial newsletter Wealth Builder. "If you start the conversation by articulating your financial goals honestly, you can probably come up with a strategy to achieve what you both want," she says.
An Ex Factor
In an ideal world, you'd be able to have a civil conversation with your ex-spouse about your kids and money, since you both have your children's best interests at heart. Then again, in an ideal world, you wouldn't have gotten divorced in the first place. "If the two of you fought about money while you were married and fought about money while you were splitting up," says Pearl, "you can't expect to miraculously not fight about money now."
Sure, you should make every effort to keep your discussions about money civil. Failing that, you must pledge never to put your child in the middle of your money arguments. If your ex has fallen behind on his support payments, for instance, don't have your son ask for the check; make that phone call yourself, privately. If your ex refuses to help pay for an item that wasn't spelled out in your separation agreement --summer camp, music lessons, a computer --don't blame Daddy in front of your child; keep your comments to yourself and either find a way to foot the bill yourself or resign yourself to your child's forgoing the item for now.
You'll probably also just have to suck it up when it comes to the way your ex spends money when your child is in his care. You may be concerned that your child is being spoiled by a Disneyland Dad, or get fed up with hearing, "Daddy lets me have..." when you turn down a request. Rather than starting a war with your ex, focus on making the financial rules in your own household as clear and consistent as possible. Just say matter-of-factly, "That's fine if that's the rule in Daddy's house, but here we follow Mommy's rules."
You might fret about there being two standards, but kids can handle the differences as long as each parent is clear about the rules in his or her home. "It's a lot easier for children to understand 'two houses, two rules' than it is for them to sort out different rules under the same roof," says Berg.
And, says Pearl, "have faith that as long as you make your expectations clear, and provide a good role model yourself, you'll inevitably have a positive impact on how your child manages money."