Today’s markets are causing a great deal of anxiety for anyone with a 401(k) plan. And, unfortunately, when people have money anxieties, it often leads to spousal fights.

The problem with money fights is that they are not about money. Money is the lightning rod for other things that are going on in a relationship or in our individual lives. Money is a shape-shifter, transforming abstract feelings into something concrete.

A client couple in a second marriage disagreed about how to provide support for their kids. The children had different financial situations. The parents were arguing with each other about providing some help only to the kids who needed it. This was not a money debate; it was a values discussion. Equitable or equal? My kids or our kids? The money issue cannot be resolved unless the values discussions happen. The first step is clarifying the issues. Do we believe that our children from previous marriages should be treated similarly to each other? Could the financial resources of our previous spouses affect our degree of support? Can we differentiate between children based on need? Communicating your intentions won’t alleviate all of the arguments, but it will provide a quicker out when they occur.

The markets have dropped and a spouse wants to cancel their planned trip because they can no longer afford it. While there are times when a change in circumstances (for instance, losing a job) may warrant a change in behavior, volatile markets are generally not one of these times. This decision isn’t about money; it’s about fear. Financial security can be an illusive idea because different people feel comfortable with different levels of security. Fear is real, so it has to be managed. Facts alone don’t work. Instead, go through an exercise of taking things to the extremes and seeing how you would adjust. Once you have settled on the worst-case outcome, you can probably live with almost anything else.

A spouse is frustrated with his partner who is overspending his hard-earned money. While this may seem to be about budgeting, it usually is a power and expectations discussion. If one person is in charge of the money, then the other person is captive to their whims. Each partner needs some of their own money and they need to agree on how their resources should be shared, saved and spent.

Use today’s unsettled markets to create discussions rather than avoid them.

Spend your life wisely.


Ross Levin is the founding principal of Accredited Investors Inc. in Edina.