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Fighting over finances? 4 tips to ease stress

Money conflicts are a big cause of marital tension — and a common reason for divorce. Protect your relationship by considering these financial strategies from Jean Chatzky.
/ Source: TODAY contributor

What do you and your significant other fight about? Chances are, it's money. I've been reviewing surveys on this topic for more than a decade, and money often finds its way to the top spot as a cause of marital tension. And, not surprisingly, the most frequent cause of divorce.

But when we fight with a partner about finances, we're not just arguing over dollars and cents; we're fighting about who is in control of the relationship. And we're fighting about stress, says John Gray, the author of “Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus.”

In his new book, “Why Mars and Venus Collide: Improving Relationships by Understanding How Men and Women Cope Differently with Stress,” Gray says that money in and of itself isn't the issue — it's the stress money causes, and how we cope with that stress, that has us butting heads.

“There's nothing that causes more stress than money, because it represents risk and danger. Are we going to use it properly? Will we run out of it? It's a charged subject,” explains Gray.The fact that men and women are worlds apart in the way they manage that stress doesn't help matters any. Women, says Gray, tend to be security-oriented. We want to ask questions, understand the problem and then make a decision. Men, on the other hand, are wired to react immediately. They want to solve the problem and move on to the next. These two different approaches clash, leaving us both on edge.

Here's how to bust through your differences and make those mutual money decisions a bit easier:

Dig deep I know I've written about the importance of actually sitting down and talking about money in this space before, but I really can't stress it enough. To understand each other's financial habits, you have to dig deep. Tell your partner how you were introduced to money as a child, whether your parents were big spenders or big savers, and anything else that helped shape the way you approach the subject today.

“Money brings so much stuff with it. You really have to go back and dig through all of that, and talk about what money meant in your household growing up,” says Laura Rowley, author of “Money and Happiness.” It's also a good idea to be upfront about what's likely to push your stress button, and how you typically handle it, so your partner knows how to react.

Know the numbers
Not only do men and women tend to argue about how to spend money, but they can't even agree on how much they have. A 2003 study published in the Journal of Socio-Economics found that when couples were asked separately about their joint income and total wealth, the husband reported 5 percent more in income and 10 percent more in wealth than his wife. On the other hand, wives on average reported total debt as $500 more than their husbands.

“I think it's really this hunter-gatherer thing. Women tend to be more focused on security and preserving wealth, so they worry more about debt. Meanwhile, men are out hunting and claiming they killed 16 lions when they really bagged a couple of squirrels,” explains Rowley.Bottom line: Ignorance is not bliss. Knowing your financial picture inside and out — that includes debt, income, net worth and investments — eliminates a good chunk of the stress right off the bat. So run the numbers together.

Abandon perfection We all seek it. It's why we have trouble delegating when we're overwhelmed, and why we find ourselves overwhelmed in the first place. Gender aside, our to-do lists are just too long these days.

“You have to release. Realize that wanting things to be perfect rather than stress-free is the problem. You have to prioritize stress-free, otherwise you'll be exhausted and your partner will only feel further away from you,” says Gray. We all mess up, and keeping on top of things is particularly tricky when you have two people pulling money from the same account, or using the same line of credit. You can do everything right, balance your checkbook down to the penny, and one silly miscommunication can leave you facing an overdraft or late fee. As long as it's not a frequent occurrence, and you learn from your mistake (filling each other in on any big expenditures is a huge help here), don't dwell on it. Move on.

Set goals as a team
Together, you have to figure out what money means to you and your family. Think of each paycheck as a tool that can be used to finance your retirement, buy a house, go on a well-deserved vacation and give your children an education. Which of these things takes priority in your relationship? Talk it over, and once you have a plan in place, designate a portion of your income every month to each goal. Set up bank accounts to help you along the way — you'll want high-interest savings accounts or CDs for short-term goals, and investment accounts for the long-term ones — and keep tabs on your progress. Let me tell you, a dollar saved toward your goal is the ultimate stress-reliever.

Jean Chatzky is an editor-at-large at “Money” magazine and serves as AOL’s official Money Coach. She is the personal finance editor for NBC’s “Today” show and is also a columnist for “Life” magazine. She is the author of four books, including “Pay It Down! From Debt to Wealth on $10 a Day” (Portfolio, 2004). To find out more, visit her Web site, .