Love and Money: Do Savers Seek Spenders?

Social psychologists have found that people tend to choose their significant other based on similarities—similar attitudes, values, and even similar names.

Those findings would seem to suggest that people with similar spending habits would be attracted to each other, too. But a working paper published last year found the opposite to be true. In “Fatal (Fiscal) Attraction,” Rick, Small, and Finkel, professors of the Wharton School of Finance and Northwestern University, found that while most singles say that their ideal mate would have similar spending habits, when it comes to feelings toward spending, opposites attract.

The spendthrift-tightwad spectrum
Rick, Small, and Finkel used a survey to establish where study participants fell on a spendthrift-tightwad spectrum. According to the paper, each of us feel a degree of “pain of paying.” Spendthrifts feel too little pain, causing them to spend more than they ideally would want. Tightwads experience too much pain, causing them to enjoy their money less than they would like. It is important to note that the survey was created so that those on the extreme ends of the spectrum were not simply savers or spenders, but also were the most unhappy with their emotions toward spending.

Opposites attract
If people choose their spouse based on similar attitudes and values, then why would a tightwad fall for a spendthrift, especially if her ideal mate is a tightwad, too?

It turns out that while we look for similar traits in most cases, it depends on whether a person likes or dislikes a trait in themselves. The study found that the more unhappy someone is about their own emotions toward spending, the more attracted that person will be to his or her financial opposite. Deep down, a tightwad might dislike how crazy it makes her to spend $10 to see a movie with her friends, even though she can easily afford it and wants to go. Because she finds it painful to spend and dislikes that about herself, she's likely to fall for a guy who spends more liberally.

Bad news for marriages
Unfortunately, the attraction to one's fiscal opposite doesn't bode well for the marriage. The study found that the degree to which spouses differ in the tightwad-spendthrift spectrum is negatively related with marital bliss. Rick, Small, and Finkel wrote:

Husband/wife differences in emotional reactions toward spending are associated with greater financial conflict in the marriage, which is in turn associated with diminished marital well-being.

And while there's no scientific proof that money is the root of most divorces, money does create conflict in 84 percent of marriages, according to the findings of a 2007 Money magazine survey.

How to adapt

They strained their chests against enormous weights, and with mad howls rolled them at one another. Then in haste they rolled them back, one party shouting out: “Why do you hoard?” and the other: “Why do you waste?”

Rick, Small, and Finkel start their paper with the above quote from Dante's Inferno, and the results of the study make a marriage of opposites sound doomed from the start. But marriages of tightwads and spendthrifts can thrive if they can manage to find common ground.

  • First, accept that your spouse isn't likely to make drastic changes. Also, if you were attracted to their relationship with money, even on some subconscious level, you probably don't want them to do a 180 anyway.
  • Find balance. According to the study, one possible explanation for why tightwads and spendthrifts seek their opposites is a desire for balance. They want someone who can help them overcome their emotional reactions toward spending. In other words, a spendthrift may seek out a tightwad because he or she thinks the tightwad might help reign in the splurges. Before you wish your spouse saved more or could loosen the purse straps, consider whether their habits have changed your emotions toward spending for the better.
  • Stay on the same side. It's easy to see someone with opposing views as your adversary, but you'll be more productive if you approach your situation as a team. I want to spend thousands on a luxury vacation, you want to spend a few hundred to stay at a nearby B&B. Is there a solution that would make both of us happy? Find common goals and work from there.

My own experience has been that differing traits can be a positive thing. While neither my husband nor I spend excessively or save compulsively, he is much more easy-going in general, whereas I fretted for months over buying a computer I needed for my freelance work. (I couldn't actually complete the online order for my laptop until he was sitting next to me. I need moral support for big-ticket items.) I appreciate the way his influence has helped me lighten up, yet it was my geeky love of spreadsheets and math that helped us develop a concrete plan to pay off our debt and build up our savings. Differences can help you grow as a person.

Are any of you a spendthrift in a relationship with a tightwad, or vice versa? How do you successfully deal with your different approaches to money?

More about...Psychology

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Mrs. Money
Mrs. Money
10 years ago

Oh gosh, April. When I was first with my husband, I found what I coined the “Debt Shoebox” (http://ultimatemoneyblog.com/the-debt-shoebox) that contained all these collections notices! I was scared out of my mind. I always thought that I would be with someone that was a saver too. Thankfully, he’s turned around and now is great with money and even helps keep me on track! We are both pretty well disciplined now.

Kyle C.
Kyle C.
10 years ago

My wife and i are a lot like you only swapped. I also balk on the checkout button for things I know I need while my wife is much more care free about purchasing decisions.

I tend to think ahead to the overall financial impact of a transaction where as my wife deals strictly in the now most of the time.

Mrs. Money
Mrs. Money
10 years ago

I also should mention that I let him borrow money to get out of debt… not sure that’s something I’d recommend though. 😉

http://ow.ly/11jGs

basicmoneytips
basicmoneytips
10 years ago

My wife tends to spend more than I do, but it is within reason. She is a stay at home mom with our young son. There is the trips to the mall to get him a new pair of pants or something like that. I tend to be very thrifty, even to the point of being tight. She would love to shop at every opportunity. What I do is allocate a portion of my check to goto her. She can do with it what she likes, we have a separate account just for this money. Maybe this seems somewhat childish,… Read more »

Sam
Sam
10 years ago

I’m more of the spender in the realtionship, although Mr. Sam isn’t really a saver but he’s not a spender. But both Mr. Sam and I, since we got married in 2006 have made some significant changes in how we manage money. So I reject the idea that one cannot change how one deals with money. First I took over management of all aspects of our finances b/c it wasn’t something Mr. Sam cared to do and as a result certain things fell through the cracks (at the time we got married I was managing my finances and all finances… Read more »

Ted @ Cubicle Warrior
Ted @ Cubicle Warrior
10 years ago

My fiance (1 week until wife!) and I are not as polar opposite as the example but we do take differing approaches to finance – sometimes complementary. For example, I like to solve problems once and move on. She calls me more ‘big picture.’ I’m the kind of guy who likes to identify a goal in the future, automate the savings or deferrals, and then move on with my life. This kind of an approach was very helpful as we set aside $ for the wedding & honeymoon. She is very much into details, spreadsheets, and the minutia that I… Read more »

C.R.
C.R.
10 years ago

I’m the tightwad in the relationship, with my new husband more a spendthrift. He definitely helps balance me out! We are in the process of buying a house, and I’m finding it tough to realize that when we close, that lovely big balance that was our downpayment will be gone, and converted into a house. The house will be great, but there was a lot of comfort for me in seeing that balance saved up!

guinness416
guinness416
10 years ago

I’m a saver from the cradle and married to a very spendy/free spirit type of guy, although he’s somewhat less so since we bought a house. As long as the agreed percentage of his paycheque goes into savings and he pays the phone bill on time I don’t really care what he does with the rest (as I would resent intrusion into how I spend my cash), he’s a big boy and works very hard for it. We balance each other out and rarely if ever argue over it so it isn’t a big deal. At the end of the… Read more »

quinsy
quinsy
10 years ago

I think it works fine as long as your overall philosophy is the same. My husband is definitely more laid back with money, he’ll do things like get a hotel room where I would have slept in the car to save the $. And then I realize that sleep in the car is pretty bad sleep, and can get really freezing cold. But I’d never get a hotel room if I didn’t have him. And that’s why I love him. He reminds me that money isn’t worth much unless you spend it on things that help make your life better.… Read more »

Lisa
Lisa
10 years ago

While I’m more frugal than my partner, for the last few years we’ve gotten into a great routine with tracking our personal spending and creating a budget each year. We actually look forward to sitting down each month to “do the budget,” and check to see how well we’re saving. This has helped my partner save his money better, and it helps us create and reach our long-term goals.

sandycheeks
sandycheeks
10 years ago

I am a lifelong saver married 10 years to a former spender. Compared to me he is still a spender, but compared to our friends, family etc. he is now a saver. Some of that may be my influence but since we got married in our 20’s, some of it is likely age-related.

Debra
Debra
10 years ago

My dad is a tightwad and knows it, while my mother is a spendthrift and knows it. She doesn’t make as much money as he does, so early in their marriage they agreed that my dad would take care of the bills and retirement and her money was the “fun” money: clothes, vacations, decorating the house, etc. That way she gets to spend on the fun stuff she likes to buy, but they’re safe financially. They do have a bit of a game where if my dad really wants something but can’t bring himself to spend money on it (like… Read more »

Red
Red
10 years ago

I’m the tightwad in a relationship with a spendthrift. When D and I first started dating, he would get all kinds of calls during the day that he would ignore. I googled the numbers and found out that they were debt collectors calling to collect on medical bills. To say I was terrified is the least of it. Since then, we’ve both agreed that we’d like to be debt free by the time we get married. Also, keeping our money completely separate and splitting bills down the middle has helped me – I think of his money as his to… Read more »

Manisha Thakor
Manisha Thakor
10 years ago

April, Great post! Totally concur that “financial otherness” can be very intoxicating in the early stages of a relationship. One tactic I’ve found very useful in helping couples who live on opposite ends of the saver/spender scale is the following: * Set a dollar amount that you each are allowed to spend (or save) a month no questions asked * Se a dollar amount above which you each agree to consult each other before making a purchase. These seemingly simple steps, I’ve found in my work, can go a loooong way toward helping savers & spenders feel like each of… Read more »

Nicole
Nicole
10 years ago

We’ve been dating each other since we were 16. I was brought up frugal but not a tightwad (that is, I felt if after obligations to saving etc. were met, I was free to spend). I have seen my husband go through many different phases with money. Originally if he had money he would spend all of it, but he would never get into debt. That caused him unhappiness because he never had a safety net. After we got married we hit upon the allowance idea, so he was able to spend all his money within limits. He really liked… Read more »

Oleg Mokhov
Oleg Mokhov
10 years ago

Hey April, Opposites attract. The ying connects with the yang. But naturally, a close partnership with an opposite attitude towards something as important as spending & saving will create conflict. I really like your last tip: to remember that you’re on the same side. It’s not that both of you want different things. You both want a place to stay on your trip. As long as you can be conscious of that–that you’re playing for the same team with the same goal–then any differences in the type of accommodation or where to eat or whatever can be worked out. And… Read more »

Budgets are the New Black
Budgets are the New Black
10 years ago

My husband could walk around a store randomly putting things in the basket and be flabbergasted at the total at the checkout. Then 10 minutes later he couldn’t even tell you how much it was, it was already out-of-mind. We used to fight about it, but of course that doesn’t do any good. I’ve always made sure the bills get paid, but it wasn’t until we discovered Dave Ramsey that it clicked and we were able to get on the same page financially. Now he’s volunteering to me how much something cost, or how he wanted to buy something but… Read more »

Jacque
Jacque
10 years ago

Husband = Spendthrift; Me = Tightwad From my experience, the most constructive things my husband and I have done to overcome this “otherness” is: 1. We set our financial goals together. After going through a personal finance class (Ramsey), we decided to start setting goals together instead of having finances be entirely my domain (the tightwad). Its significantly reduces arguments when you both know you are working towards the same thing. 2. We have our own “allowance” money. Our budget is set up on a monthly basis, but I get paid every other week so in May and October I… Read more »

Des
Des
10 years ago

When is Adam going to finish his story about the apartments? That was a cliff-hanger and it has been more than a week now. It’s like having a TV season end on a cliff-hanger, then the next season’s premiere just keeps going like nothing happened.

Did I miss it??

Dustin | Engaged Marriage
Dustin | Engaged Marriage
10 years ago

Based on most of the relationships I’ve observed including my own, friends and folks I’ve interacted with at Engaged Marriage, I would agree that opposites to tend to attract in a lot of ways and finances is no exception.

In our family, I’m the “nerd” and my wife is the “free spirit” but we make it work well for us. I manage the details but gather her input on financial issues. We’ve become debt-free (to the tune of $58,000) and are working toward our long-term goals…I just happen to be the one handling the specifics on the journey.

Sarah
Sarah
10 years ago

I’m very cautious with money, and my husband generally isn’t. Over the 11+ years we’ve been together, we’ve definitely both become more like each other, and that’s a very good thing. He’s more careful about buying things and we have no consumer debt. I’m more open to spending money and don’t get as obsessed as I used to about saving.

Caitlin
Caitlin
10 years ago

My husband is the tightwad and I’m the spendthrift.
Well, I now consider myself a “recovering spendthrift”. While I still spend money a lot more freely than my husband, I’ve taken control of my situation and am now “spending” my money paying off debt instead of buying new things.

I need to have a good talk with my husband about our finances, but it’s hard since he really, really hates to talk about anything to do with finances or money.

Crystal
Crystal
10 years ago

I think the findings of this study are just proof that you have to be comfortable with yourself in order to accept others. My husband and I met our freshman year of college in 2001. We both knew we wanted a stable and happy middle-class life. We didn’t know each other’s spending habits, but luckily they are similar. We both love saving for big goals like early retirement and will both make small impulse buys if we’re not careful. I’m only a little cheaper than he is, but we do make a great team. It took us two or three… Read more »

sandra jensen
sandra jensen
10 years ago

I’m with Des – #19!!

Craig
Craig
10 years ago

I don’t think one type seeks out the other because finances wouldn’t come up in conversation till awhile anyways. They are kept personal unless things got very serious.

EscapeVelocity
EscapeVelocity
10 years ago

Why am I not surprised that most of the people responding are saying they’re the tightwad and their spouse is the spendthrift? 🙂

Fred
Fred
10 years ago

Long time reader, first time commenter; great post, but I need to pick the research you use as the basis for this post apart a little bit. In my opinion, the issue here isn’t about money – it’s about happiness. As you wrote in bold above, “…the more unhappy someone is about their own emotions toward spending, the more attracted that person will be to his or her financial opposite.” Look, some people are happy people and some people are unhappy people. (With effort, people can and do change.) One thing we know is that people who are unhappy about… Read more »

LiveCheap.com
LiveCheap.com
10 years ago

@DES Waiting for that article too! This article took me a couple reads just to understand and I’m married to a Psychologist. Academics are usually like that with their studies. @Budgets are the New Black: Have the same issue. I can tell you what the shopping cart will come up to within $3 and my wife couldn’t tell you what anything in the cart costs. Over time though, I have noticed my wife adopting some of my cheap ways. She even bests me for really good cheap deals now and then and comes home proudly to let me know. But… Read more »

Kathy
Kathy
10 years ago

I liked this article. I’ve often pondered the different financial styles between my husband and me, trying to figure out how we can better mesh and leverage our differing attitudes and habits.

E
E
10 years ago

Ha! Hubby and I were definitely at extremes when we met. I was the tightwad, never spend unless I absolutely have to and always depressed/worried/upset about money. He was the spendthrift, with debts and collection calls and terrible credit. Being together has definitely helped us balance out and move toward the middle. He has gotten a handle on most of his debts, and I no longer stress about paying bills. However, he remains the spender and I the saver, and we still have to keep up the communication and work on ourselves and balance each other out.

HollyP
HollyP
10 years ago

As a saver, I successfully dealt with a spendthrift husband by divorcing him and marrying another pennypincher. It is a match made in heaven, even after 10 years, 3 houses and 2 kids.

Ace of Wealth
Ace of Wealth
10 years ago

My girlfriend and I truly are opposites when it comes to money and spending. I tend to be a lot more conscious of my financial situation, but I also have a tendency to want to make big electronic purchases. Whereas, she doesn’t track her fiances very much, but rarely makes big expensive purchases.

Your tips for coping with this is great. The best one is “First, accept that your spouse isn’t likely to make drastic changes”, this was hard for us at first, but overtime we found a system that would work.

Nate
Nate
10 years ago

My wife and I are pretty much on the same page. We have one bank account. We write a spending plan together (every 2 weeks — not monthly — this allows us to adjust). Then we save — and do the things we want to do while saving. She used to spend a lot more — but we had a HUGE money talk (short / long term goals etc.). We made we were, “pulling in the same direction” financially (toward shared goals — otherwise their can be some resentment). We do sometimes fight about a money related issue — but… Read more »

Susan
Susan
10 years ago

I recently realized that my partner and I have different approaches to money, although our underlying values are the same. I’m the track-every-penny, active manager of our money (and my own), and he has a much more passive approach (stick it in the bank, spend only what’s there). It’s really hard to get him to sit down and discuss budgets or the nitty-gritty. However, I think that since we have the same underlying values (ie, we hate debt, we have no desire to keep up with the Jones), overall we have few serious conflicts about money. I dated a guy… Read more »

Ronnie
Ronnie
10 years ago

@25: I don’t necessarily think that’s true. I think you can guage a lot about a person just from watching them when they’re out. When you go to the movies, do you sneak food in order buy there? At a restaurant, do you only order the appetizers or actually an entree? I’m not saying that those things in particular mean one thing or another, but that you can look at how your partner spends or refuses to spend and tell a lot about what their money personality may be.

Toni House
Toni House
10 years ago

April, Your article is right on. But finding someone that is willing to find common ground is not easy at least in today’s thinking. (Although I guess that may be changing now at least some what with the economy like it is) But the thing to remember most people will not change totally, some will be willing to compromise. This article fits me perfectly. I was with a person that was a such a tight wade except for the outwardly things that others could see that he wanted. Then I was with a person that could not keep a dollar… Read more »

chacha1
chacha1
10 years ago

I would agree that unhappiness may be more of a factor in marriage un-success than an incongruity in financial styles. However, this study and articles about it have provoked A LOT of “me too!” anecdotes, so there must be something there. I’m the big-picture person and DH is the detail guy. If we’re planning to get a new TV, he’s the one who reads the Consumer Reports and the Amazon reviews and generally obsesses about the best choice. He is also the one likely to pull out a credit card to pay for something random, an issue we are still… Read more »

TosaJen
TosaJen
10 years ago

Interesting article. I relate to having moral support on hand to submit expensive online purchases. 🙂 I agree about unhappiness with one’s attitude making the opposite attractive. I was happy with how I was handling money, so I found someone roughly the same in the ways that mattered. When DH and I were first together, we made about the same amount of money, and spent pretty much all of it. DH had some bad debts, and I was paying off a car loan. We ruefully joke that we would have a lot more money now if we hadn’t spent as… Read more »

Cindy Brick
Cindy Brick
10 years ago

When we first got married, I would have said that I was the frugal one, and Husband the $$-waster. (He did lavish things like ORDERING TAKEOUT!! God forbid.) He has had one very good influence on me, though, over the past 28-some years:

Whatever you spend, buy quality.

Cheap stuff will break much more quickly, and you’ll be frustrated, in the process. Good brands, do your research, whatever — it doesn’t matter whether you buy it at the thrift shop (which I often do) or elsewhere — buy stuff that will last.

K.L.
K.L.
10 years ago

I’m really finding it hard to agree with the point of the study here. Are people REALLY attracted to one another b/c of how they spend money? While I agree wholeheartedly that being able to manage differences and work together is very important in a marriage… I doubt money has all that much to do with the relationship in the beginning. Perhaps someone is attracted to other features of their partner’s personality which tend to go along with the person’s spending habits – someone who is more impulsive in general may be more likely to act the same way with… Read more »

Dan
Dan
10 years ago

If we were left up to our own devices, my wife would spend more than I would. I can’t say that it’s driven toward my desire to save, but more because day-in and day-out, she finds more stuff that she would by than I would. She’s more “stuff” and I’m more “experiences.” I’m a math geek for a living, and my wife can’t stand the stuff. So I take on the larger tasks of retirement planning, long term savings, and what not. Once that’s done, the rest is fair game. We actually sat down this year and planned our budget… Read more »

Becca
Becca
10 years ago

Interesting ideas. I would actually argue that we’re both spendthrifts and savers. I max out my IRA and 401K each year and set aside extra savings for my emergency fund, house, and other long term goals. However, I’m somewhat free-spirited with my everyday purchases or anything on a short-term savings plan (electronics, etc.) He isn’t as committed to the long term (we’re working on it) but flinches/analyzes more about the everyday expenses. He’s also better with investing knowledge whereas I’m much more conservative and hesitant about the market. Overall, we have the same goals but different approaches. We balance each… Read more »

JM
JM
10 years ago

I am extremely fiscally responsible, and I was in long term relationships with some guys that were bad with money. One of them was in about $200k in debt (that I knew of) from going to law school and credit card debt. That wasn’t the reason why I dumped him, not at all, but his careless philosophy on money carried over to other parts of his life. My husband, on the other hand, is just as responsible with money as I am, and we have no arguments about money. Since we’re newlyweds I’m sure this will change, but it’s nice… Read more »

psychsarah
psychsarah
10 years ago

Thanks for this great post. I’m excited to hear that there has been scientific research on this. I’ve been theorizing (in my head, not in the lab unfortunately) that although there are individual differences in approaches to spending, inevitably, one person in the relationship will lean more toward saving than the other, and vice versa. If, like many other individual differences, data on this variable falls into a normal curve, most couples will both be in the middle somewhere (not extreme spenders or extreme savers) but because when we’re forced to make many decisions with another person, it’s easy to… Read more »

smirktastic
smirktastic
10 years ago

My husband is the spender. I wouldn’t go so far as to call him a spendthrift becuase he does do the research to find the best deal. However, he still qualifies as the spender in our house becuase he skates past what should be the very first question, which is “do I really need this?” His philosophy is that one can always make more money. He grew up poor, so I accept that this has shaped his views of money and spending. I would call myself sensible about money, but I have migrated towards frugal/tightwad tendencies simply as a matter… Read more »

Tammy
Tammy
10 years ago

I’m the saver, my husband is the spender… Before we got together, he trashed his credit. We spent seven years getting it back on track, and for the most part that meant him forking over his paycheck and me dividing it out. He still likes to have his discretionary spending money, of course, but since he quit his high paying job to start his own company, there isn’t as much fun money as there used to be. So I get the occasional whine…”I really want a new computer/book/video game!”. But I just keep saying, “Sorry, when the debt is paid… Read more »

Eric
Eric
10 years ago

I’m a spender; she’s a saver, but there isn’t much difference between us on the continuum. It’s relative–actually, I’m quite happy on the way we balance each other.

Avistew
Avistew
10 years ago

When I moved in with y husband and realised he didn’t have any savings and lived paycheque to paycheque, I thought “oh got, what did I get myself into”. Later I realised that it could have been worse… So many of his friends were in debt! At least he wasn’t. His attitude to money seems to be “if it’s here, I’ll spend it”. My attitude to money is to spend as little as possible. We eventually found a balance… I deal with our automatic savings, and he spends the money that’s left on the account. It’s weird how it doesn’t… Read more »

Anonymous
Anonymous
10 years ago

My spending is perfectly balanced, of course. But compared to other people, I am extremely frugal. I don’t expect to ever find someone as frugal as me, but I do at least find people who respect my style. My current guy is above average financially, not living beyond his means. He is good at looking for deals and finding a good compromise between quality, cost, durability, and features. However, he buys a lot of stuff just because he likes it without any sort of notion of the meaning of “enough.” And he has expensive hobbies that involve lots of space-consuming… Read more »

David/Yourfinances101
David/Yourfinances101
10 years ago

I can tell you one thing–if you’re a saver and you’re even considering being with a “spender”, you’re a complete idiot. I don’t care what study has been done on the topic, or anything else.

This will lead to tension in the relationship, and, coming from someone who knows, could lead to much worse problems.

More importantly, I think it is pertinent to have that “money” talk with your siginifcant other prior to tying the knot

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