When couples arrive in front of Laurie Campbell at Toronto's Credit Counselling Service, they are usually ready to confront their money problems. By that time, however, the relationship is often in trouble as well.
"There's a lot finger-pointing and a lot of blame going around," says the program manager at the not-for-profit agency.
The problems of love and money are so entwined, the Credit Counselling Service has produced a booklet called Couples & Money to help people learn how to manage their finances before they end up needing counsellors' services.
It unmasks the financial power plays that men and women use, including infantilizing a spouse to gain control of the finances, lying about losses and concealing documents, and thriving on the power of spending unaccountably.
Janet Freedman, president of Finance Matters in Toronto, says that money is one of the hot-button issues that any couple faces. "It's way up there in terms of stress and marriage breakdown."
Debbie Ammeter, vice-president of advanced financial planning for Investors Group Inc., notes that power, status, reward and self-esteem are all tied in to feelings about money.
"Those are pretty powerful emotions if you have partners who are not on the same wavelength," she says.
Ms. Ammeter says that many people carry baggage from their childhoods or from the years before they met their partner.
"Maybe you've always been able to manage your money and you end up with a spendthrift. You may have almost opposite money personalities."
Ms. Campbell's clients have included hoarder-saver combinations, gamblers and secret shoppers.
In some cases, both partners spend like there's no tomorrow. "Perhaps that's why they were attracted to each other in the first place," she says.
Ms. Campbell says people who hide their spending often end up so deeply in debt they're willing to come clean in her office.
"By the time they come here, they realize they've got a problem. The hiding of the problem is usually gone."
There are cases where one partner hasn't told the other, and Ms. Campbell must urge them to confess. "Obviously, that will have a severe impact on the marriage."
But in many cases, the overspending may be a symptom of a relationship already gone wrong. She notes that people use shopping as therapy when they feel neglected, depressed or lacking in self-esteem. She adds that society heaps on the pressure because frugal people are viewed as misfits.
Often Ms. Freedman, too, sees couples in trouble because one spends to fill an emotional need. In many cases, a person fighting an addiction to drugs or alcohol will use shopping as a substitute. An individual who falls into the trap of bingeing and dieting will often end up on spending binges as well.
She sees other problems when people come to view their purchases as a reward for the daily grind. When a struggling client argues that he or she "deserves" a vacation, a new car or even a daily gourmet coffee, her assessment is blunt: "You can't afford it," she advises. "It's a phrase that's gone out of fashion, but it's a very important one."
There are steps couples can take to overcome money issues.
Even people who are on the whole responsible with their money can often improve their communication about financial plans and goals, says Ms. Campbell. She recommends a monthly confab to keep both people involved and to make sure that plans are on track.
Ms. Ammeter notes couples must agree on some common goals, whether saving for retirement, a child's education or a vacation.
She says couples need to agree on who will pay the bills, whose money will be used for what, and whether they will have separate or joint bank accounts. While one person might handle most of the day-to-day finances, both partners need to be involved. "I think it is important that they both understand what is going on."
In many cases, Ms. Freedman recommends couples set up a joint bank account to which they both contribute, with the higher earner paying a higher percentage of expenses. The money they each have left over is theirs to spend.
Ms. Freedman adds some people always worry that they will run out of money, even when they have been doing all of the right things. In that case, she can sometimes reassure the tightwad in the family that they can afford to live a little.
Ms. Freedman says some clients remain secretive about their finances -- in which case they don't stay clients for long. Some don't want to disclose exactly what they're earning -- even to a spouse. If she suspects one partner is investing on the side or hiding assets, she fires them as a client.
She points to one couple who sought her advice after the husband had run up credit cards to the max and remortgaged the house. His children had bailed him out once before and refused to help again unless he sought help.
But Ms. Freedman has learned not to get drawn into the family fights. "If you need a marriage counsellor, see a marriage counsellor -- it's not my job."
© The Globe and Mail
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