This Book by a U-M Professor Helps Couples Manage Money

Study after study points to finances as a primary source of marital discord. A new book by a U-M marketing professor may help find common ground.

Money may make the world go round, but man, do we hate talking about it — especially when our approach to spending and saving doesn’t match our partner’s.

For those couples looking to work through their fiscal philosophy differences, Scott Rick, a marketing professor at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, has published a new book called Tightwads and Spendthrifts: Navigating the Money Minefield in Real Relationships. Filled with insights gleaned from behavioral science, the book is packed with guidance about navigating financial squabbles and was inspired by Rick’s own experience.

“I married a tightwad,” says Rick, a self-proclaimed spendthrift. “We were a blind date. [My wife] Julie was probably charmed by my very different, quirky, carefree approach to spending. … And I was quite amused by her reluctance. Like, ‘What are you talking about? You can afford that. That’s silly.’ It probably was one of the aspects that we enjoyed about each other.”

As the book explores, this “opposites attract” principle may stem from the idea that spendthrifts and tightwads often understand, on some level, that their relationship to money isn’t ideal, so they might be drawn to someone who’s completely different. (And if you’re not sure where you fall on the spectrum, there’s a handy Tightwad-Spendthrift Scale in the book’s introduction.)

Yet even those who land in the “unconflicted consumer” middle of the scale will likely have occasional dustups with a partner over money.

Why is the topic so uncomfortable to discuss?

“A lot of us have been convinced that small purchases matter more than they do,” Rick says. “That if you could just pack your lunch and avoid buying a latte, we could become rich. That’s what we’re told by the most prominent financial experts out there. But the logic defies any math that I’m aware of. So, I think there’s a lot of unnecessary friction over the small stuff.”

To solve this in his own marriage, Rick has a joint account with his wife, but they also each have individual accounts, and they funnel money into them on an as-needed basis.

“It works for us,” Rick says. “I have a sense of what my wife spends, and she has a sense of what I spend, but the details — I don’t think either of us would benefit from knowing the details, because we have different interests and hobbies, and the prices would just seem too shocking. But it’s important to have some individuality and to enjoy your own pursuits and not feel like someone is looking over your shoulder.”

Rick also suggests, in his book, small changes that can impact your spending habits, like a tightwad using apps and credit cards to make transactions less tangible and painful, and spendthrifts aiming to use physical (i.e., less abstract) money more often. However, the growing trend of “cashless” theme and sports parks, automatic payments, and other forms of frictionless spending has been making the latter adjustment more challenging.

“It’s an interesting feeling to hand a child an Amex and say, ‘OK, well, just take it easy on this,’” Rick says. “My kids, at least, do not understand that that card I was always pulling out at Target was attached to money. And how would they know?”

Other chapters in Rick’s book offer useful tips for better gift giving (heads up, bad gifters!) and explore whether kids inherit their parents’ money habits as they become adults.

“Those of us who are on the extremes — we’re not wanting to reproduce this pattern in our kids,” Rick says. “So we’re telling them, ‘Do as I say, not as I do.’ But they see what we do. … And we eventually revert to what we grew up with. I think there is this stickiness across generations. Change is possible, but it’s very slow moving. … And it’s not like we all grow up with openness around money at home, usually, or people modeling how to have reasonable discussions about this kind of thing.”

Perhaps not — but maybe Rick’s book will get some of those conversations started.

This story is from the February 2024 issue of Hour Detroit magazine. Read more in our digital edition.