More Than Money
Issue #40
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Money and Relationships

Table of Contents

“Starting with Values: A Road Map for Couples”

An Interview with David Bach
Interviewed by Pamela Gerloff

MTM : In your book about couples you wrote, “I’ve never met a couple who said, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to be together so we can fight on a regular basis about our finances!’” Obviously, couples don’t get together because they like fighting about money, yet it is such a common problem in relationships that it’s often cited as the leading cause of divorce.

Bach : Yes, that’s right.

MTM : This reminds me of a dialogue we once published between a husband and wife with plenty of money. The husband found it aggravating that even though their material needs and wants were met, they still fought about money.1 Why do so many couples fight about money, no matter how much or how little they have?

Common Mistakes Couples Make

1. Not having a greater purpose beyond the two of you. (“Those who are happiest have dedicated their lives to some greater purpose.”)

2. Not teaching your kids about money.

3. Not having a pre-nuptial agreement.

—From Smart Couples Finish Rich by David Bach (Broadway Books, 2002).

Editor’s Note: For a personal discussion of prenuptial agreements, see “To Pre or Not to Pre: Financial Agreements for Couples,” by Ruth Ann Harnisch, p. 12, this issue.

To learn more about pre-nuptial agreements from an attorney who advocates them to benefit the relationship, see “Premarital Agreements: Pitfalls and Possibilities,” by Douglas S. Segal, in More Than Money, Issue 30, 2002, “When Differences Divide: Resolving Family Tensions Around Money,” pp. 7-9. (See back issues list, p. 4.)

Bach : First, the great truth is that more money doesn’t always make people feel more secure. So it’s that element [of not feeling secure] that has to be addressed. Another big reason couples fight about money is that often—I would even say usually—they marry their financial opposite. It may sound simplistic to say, but I’ve observed that people seem to be wired in one of two ways: either with a predilection to save money or to spend it. Saving and spending money has a lot to do with values. People who like to save feel better personally when they save money; they have security and protection, and so saving money is a way for them to feel good. People who like to spend money tend to like to go shopping and to buy things (they may be gift givers), and so spending money is a way for them to feel good. These two kinds of people generally fall in love with each other. People always laugh when I talk about this in my couples’ seminars, because usually we really do marry our financial opposite. Two “savers” rarely fall in love. Sometimes two “spenders” will, but often they will divorce over money or end up in bankruptcy, even if they make a lot of money.

MTM : What do you propose as a solution?

Bach : The real secret to keeping couples on the same page is not to focus on the money. Most couples end up fighting about stuff that’s money related. They fight about the bill that wasn’t paid on time, or they fight about “Why did you go buy another black handbag? You don’t need a black handbag!” “Well, why did you get a new car, you really didn’t need it.” The fight ends up being about the stuff, instead of about the underlying issues.

For a lot of couples, money becomes an issue that affects all areas of the relationship. It becomes an issue of control and of trust. When you have control and trust issues in a relationship, you usually end up having other conflicts in the relationship, for example, around intimacy. Couples tend to talk about money at the worst possible times—like in bed or when they’re paying bills. They rarely talk about money when they’re both ready to talk about it. Usually, one person is ready to talk about money and the other isn’t.

Another factor is that, often, our values about money are based on what we saw our parents do, either positively or negatively. We tend to either do what our parents did, or we do the opposite. We seldom have a pro-active conversation with our partner about how we can work together as a team.

So I would say there are three basic reasons that lead couples to fight about money:

  • They fall in love with their financial opposite.
  • They choose a very bad time to talk about money.
  • They come from different backgrounds.

MTM : To remedy that, you say to start talking to each other about values.

Bach : Yes, you should focus on your values first and money second. The first thing we have couples do is talk about their five core values. We find that when couples focus on their values first—asking “What’s most important to us, both individually and as a couple?”—it becomes easier to talk about money. Once you’re clear about what your values are, the next most important thing is to compare your values to how you’re actually living. Are you spending money in ways that bring you closer to your values, or further away from them?

MTM : Would you give an example?

Bach : Yes. I had a couple come to me. They were highly stressed, they were both working, and they were never around to sit down with their kids. Meanwhile, they were leasing two BMWs. They told me they were spending $1,700 per month on their cars, not including insurance and gas. I said to them, “What if you didn’t drive a brand new, leased BMW and, instead, you had a car that cost you half the price? What if you could save and invest some of that money for your family’s future? Then maybe you wouldn’t feel so pressured to work so hard, and maybe you could be home more and spend more time with your family.”

For that couple, one of their original personal values was success. When they became financially successful, they bought themselves more expensive things, which then led to more debt, which then meant they had to work harder to pay the bills, so they were no longer around to spend time with their family. This happens a lot with people who buy homes. They buy a home that’s bigger than what they really need. They have to work longer hours at more time-consuming jobs to pay for it, and so they’re seldom actually around in the house with their family.

MTM : It sounds as if those people may actually have “family” as one of their values, but the things they’re doing are counterproductive, in terms of helping them put those values into action.

Bach : I have yet to interview a couple that doesn’t have family as part of their values. The interesting thing is that most couples share similar, though not necessarily identical, values. Most couples will tell you that what’s really important to them are things like family, community, God, spirituality, spouse, career. But the point is for couples to talk to each other about their values and hear what’s really important to the other.

MTM : What happens if two people have what seem like very different personal values? For example, say one values security and one values freedom—and they behave with their money in ways that make each of them feel as if they’re acting in line with their preferred value. For example, the person who values security might like to save and the person who values freedom might like to spend.

Bach : Well, freedom means different things to different people, so you have to get to the underlying meaning of what freedom means to you. A lot of people will tell you that freedom is important when really what’s important to them is the ability to do what they want to do when they want to do it. One of the greatest things money gives you is the ability to do that. For most people, it’s very hard to have that kind of freedom —which someone else might call financial security—unless you save. So, getting clarity about what your values are and what those values mean to you is important. You have to ask, “What’s really important about this value to me?”

The reason values are so important is that when your values are clear, your decisions are easier; your financial decisions become simpler.

MTM : Would you give an example?

Bach : Let’s say a couple tells me, “We’ve been thinking about buying a second home, but we haven’t done it yet.” I start by having the couple really look at their values. I’ll ask, “Why would you want a second home?” They say, “We want to have a place to take our kids because we want to be able to have a tradition of going away on weekends with our family.” When I help them focus on that family value first and the money second, often that will lead them to a decision. They’ll say, “Well, maybe we don’t need that second home. Our real value is spending time together as a family, and we can do that right where we are.” Or they might decide the opposite and say, “We could use it to bring our family closer together.”

Or maybe it’s a decision about whether to start a foundation. Let’s say you want to give money away in an organized fashion. You haven’t been doing it but it’s a core value of yours to make a difference. Setting up a foundation might be a natural step—you just haven’t done the work yet to set it up.

MTM : You’ve said that money is good for three things: for helping people be, do, and have. Would you talk about that?

Children and Values

MTM : You’ve raised an intriguing question about how a values-based approach might work with children: “If you knew what your children’s values were and you were able to help make them real, how would that affect your children and your family life?” That seems to me a different perspective than parents’ usually take. I don’t think parents usually focus on the children’s values.

BACH : I think parents spend almost zero time thinking about children’s values. We often just impose our values on our kids. We tell them to go to school, get good grades, be a doctor. But who is your child? What’s most important to your child?

What’s so funny about people is we say it’s very important to pass on our values to our children, and yet we don’t have conversations about values. If you say to the average family, “What are your family’s values? Do your children know what they are?” they’ll say, “Well, yeah, I think they do.” I actually have a friend who puts the family’s values on the refrigerator. Then, if something goes wrong, the kids say, “Wait a minute. Does that match any of the family values on this refrigerator?” The kids bring the parents back to the family’s values.

Bach : Well, what is money for? I would say it’s to help you be who you want to be as a person. That has to do with your values. Who are you? What do you stand for? And then, what do you want to do? People usually focus first on having and doing and last on being. We’re a society that’s consumed with having more things. We’re bombarded with more than 5,000 marketing messages a day telling us we need to buy more stuff to be happy. If we don’t challenge that belief, we do things like go to work for 12 or more hours a day to pay for those things. So we don’t get to focus on who we want to be. Many people who spend their life achieving wealth end up buying all the stuff they always thought they wanted. Then, in their fifties, they turn around and go, “Wow, I thought all this stuff was going to make me happy. This is not the life I always thought I wanted to have.” They have the second home and the boat, and they realize they’re not fulfilled.

This needs to flip-flop. People in a consumer society need to start focusing first on being. When you focus on values first, doing second, and having third, you can still have stuff. It’s just important to make sure that the way you plan your life, the way you do your life, and the way you spend your money line up with who you really want to be as a person.

MTM : I find it interesting that in your workshops it takes participants a lot less time to make a list of things they want to buy than it does to come up with a list of their values.

Bach : Yes. In our society, many of us spend our time flipping through magazines and sitting in front of the TV being marketed to—so we spend a lot of time focusing on what we don’t have in our lives. Conversations about values are not common conversations.

MTM : That’s actually one of the things that More Than Money does. We offer programs that give people the opportunity to come together and talk about their values in a thoughtful and reflective way. Then they’re able to look at how their money is lining up with their values or not, so they can make more effective and fulfilling decisions.

Bach : That’s really important work. When you help people get clear on their values, they can change the world.

David Bach’s purpose-focused financial plan helps you identify who you want to be (your values) and the things you want to do and have (goals) that will enable you to live in line with the values that are most important to you. He suggests that you take these four steps:

1. Choose five values to focus on.

2. Write down goals in line with each of those values.

3. Take action toward your goals within 48 hours.

4. Enlist help.

— From Smart Couples Finish Rich by David Bach (Broadway Books, 2002), p. 8.

MTM : In fact, that’s one of our underlying principles. More Than Money was founded by people who wanted to make a difference in the world, and the organization tends to attract people for whom making a difference is a high value.

Bach : That’s great!

MTM : I assume you follow your own advice. Would you talk about how you’ve applied your advice to your relationship and how it’s changed your life?

Bach : A few years ago, I became very clear that one of my highest values was to make a difference in the world. At the time, I was a senior vice president of Morgan Stanley. I ran one of the most successful groups at the firm. My team managed more than $750 million dollars, and I was making a seven figure income.

In 2001 I walked away from that, just because I wanted to try to make a difference. My wife and I left our family and friends in San Francisco and moved to New York where we didn’t know anybody —because that’s where the publishing media was. I started a business focused on writing books and teaching about purpose-focused financial planning, to help people have and use money to fulfill their values. For my wife and me, it was strictly a decision based on our values. A lot of people thought it was crazy, but it worked out. We’re now reaching millions of people around the world.

MTM : I think the most important thing you do is relate money to values.

Bach : We did a show with Oprah on couples fighting about money. The producer said to me beforehand, “We don’t understand. We’re going to go into people’s homes where couples are ready to kill each other. How are we going to get them on the same page quickly?” I said, “We’re going to have them talk about their values.” I remember the producer saying, “Do you think this is going to work, David?” I said, “It always works.” And it did. We had this woman who, in a matter of minutes, went from being really angry at her spouse to practically being in tears. It’s always amazing how people can be with someone they’ve known for years, and when they hear the other person talk about their values, they always sort of melt. When you hear the person you love tell you what’s most important to them, it’s pretty hard not to take the conversation really seriously. That’s because it’s not a conversation about stuff, it’s a conversation from your heart; it’s about who you are as a person.

Questions for Reflection and Conversation

  1. What are the values that are most important to you?
  2. Are you giving those values the attention you would like in various areas of your economic life, e.g. spending, investing, working, charitable giving, volunteering, relationships, children, citizenship?
  3. Is there anything you would like to be doing differently?
  4. What keeps you from doing it?

David Bach ( ) is the author of several best-selling books, including Smart Couples Finish Rich: 9 Steps to Creating a Rich Future for You and Your Partner (Broadway Books, 2001, paperback 2002) and Start Late, Finish Rich: A No-Fail Plan for Achieving Financial Freedom at Any Age (Broadway Books, 2005).

1 See “He Said, She Said: Arguing About Money,” in More Than Money, Issue 30, 2002, “When Differences Divide: Resolving Family Tensions Around Money,” pp. 10-11.

David Bach, author of Smart Couples Finish Rich and other bestselling financial books, left his job as a senior vice president of Morgan Stanley because he wanted to make a difference in the world. Now, through his writing and teaching, he helps individuals and couples save and invest their money for the purpose of helping them live their values. He asks, What are the values that money enables you to fulfill? Here, he discusses common reasons couples fight about money and his values-based approach to prevent and overcome money problems in a relationship.

Copyright © 2005 by More Than Money. All rights reserved. For permission to use or reprint articles, please contact More Than Money at 978-371-1726 or .