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How to Survive Pandemic Money Fights

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For some couples, the continuing stress of the pandemic and the economic downturn have fueled new disagreements about money and intensified existing ones. Financial advisers say they are hearing from more partners who aren’t seeing eye-to-eye about how much to save, invest and spend.

“The nature of this pandemic, characterized by job losses and business setbacks combined with more day-to-day contact than many spouses have had in years, can raise issues,” said Robert Friedman, a financial planner in New York.

Not only are many couples confined together, but some also are facing new challenges in uncertain times. In the past, they might have quarreled about how much to spend on their children’s tuition or where they could afford to go on vacation. Today, they might be more likely to fight over how much to save for a rainy day or the best time to move to a new house.

Advisers say they are helping clients by running the numbers to find more common ground.

Since the pandemic, how much to save in an emergency fund is the largest point of friction, says Ryan Bayonnet, a Green, Ohio-based financial planner.

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One couple Mr. Bayonnet works with has struggled with this issue. While her husband, who works at a construction company, sees investment opportunities in energy and banking stocks, she is worried her job as a specialized doctor is no longer recession-proof. The husband has seen business booming during the pandemic, but at the wife’s hospital, many patients have elected to defer care.

“Our economy splitting in different directions is causing rifts between couples,” Mr. Bayonnet said.

To resolve the conflict, Mr. Bayonnet created a financial plan that included this potential scenario. He determined that if she got laid off, they would have enough money in their emergency fund to cover six months of expenses. This is the amount he now recommends two-income households have on hand.

After seeing the calculation, the couple agreed that any additional money could be invested.

“The worst case is investing money, then having to sell and withdraw earlier than expected due to an emergency,” Mr. Bayonnet said.


‘Our economy splitting in different directions is causing rifts between couples.’


— Ryan Bayonnet, a financial planner

Fights about housing finances have also changed and intensified amid the pandemic, said financial planner Ross Levin in Edina, Minn.

For example, he has seen some situations where one spouse thinks the family’s home is too small and convinces the other spouse to quickly move to a larger house in a new neighborhood. Then, the financial pressure of a larger mortgage or rent payment will cause tension, often leading to complaints about the neighborhood or resentment over chores.

Mr. Levin cautions couples against making a fast decision to move because of a temporary situation such as the pandemic.

Make time to consider whether you can afford to take on higher housing costs in the event a spouse loses a job, he said. Also think about how the commute will change for both partners if you are eventually required to be back in the office. Other considerations include property taxes, utilities and the upkeep of the home.

Ashlee deSteiger, a financial planner in Birmingham, Mich., has seen an increase in disputes about credit-card spending during this time.

For example, one spouse might now rationalize spending on clothing and home-related items since less is being spent on travel and dining out, she said. Others are bored from staying at home and are sometimes overspending for a diversion, she said.

To avoid further strife this holiday season, create a gift budget now that includes presents for each other, any children and family and friends. The goal is to strengthen the lines of communication before another disagreement arises and an unexpectedly large postholiday credit-card bill arrives, she said.

In general, Ms. deSteiger suggests establishing a dollar threshold to trigger when a conversation is deemed necessary about whether both spouses feel comfortable with a purchase. For example, one couple might decide that any transaction over $500 warrants a conversation first.

“Not having the conversation is the biggest mistake,” said Ms. deSteiger.

Money fight tips

Some big triggers of conflict with couples around finances, especially during the pandemic, are secrecy, changes in roles and lack of communication, says Karol Ward, a therapist and confidence coach. Here are some techniques from her to resolve money conflicts.

  • Think in terms of partnership:

    Start investing the time you need just to talk about money. Set aside a time and begin all conversations with the premise that you are a team working together to resolve financial issues that are exacerbated during the pandemic.

  • Acknowledge roles that have changed during Covid-19:

    Due to the impact of the pandemic, financial responsibilities and roles might be different. Give your partner the space to grow into their new roles and allow for a period of adjustment. Acknowledge each other for embracing new roles and communicate which responsibilities you can or can’t handle.

  • Find ways to stay connected:

    It can be tempting to isolate and shut down when dealing with a newly tightened budget and an uncertain world. Keep sharing your thoughts and plans about what you think is important in terms of financial spending and listen to your partner as well.

  • Adjust to new financial priorities during the pandemic:

    Negotiate together and get clear on what you will now spend your money. What is needed to keep yourselves both financially stable and emotional sane? Focus on what you can do now with the finances you have available, and how to stay stable until the pandemic ends.

Write to Veronica Dagher at veronica.dagher@wsj.com