Study Explains Money Problems in Marriages

Questions about disagreements were asked during surveys conducted in only four years, 1988, 1992, 1994 and 1996. Interestingly, fights over money have declined over that period, from 1988, when 17 percent of the couples said they often argued about money, to less than 10 percent in 1996.

"That's really cool," Zagorsky says, because it shows that as personal income grows, couples are less inclined to fight over money.

"If you're just getting by, there's going to be a lot of fights over even small differences," he says. "But if you're making $90,000 and your bills are only $80,000, even if you don't agree, who cares?"

Angry, But on the Same Page

Yet some couples still fight about it, regardless of income. And that brings us to the Big Picture question. Why?

"I don't know," Zagorsky says.

He's an economist, after all, not a wizard.

But his data does tend to eliminate some of the more obvious explanations.

Like maybe husbands are braggadocios, liars who exaggerate their income to inflate their macho egos.

But at the end of each interview, researchers were asked if they thought the respondents were lying. So Zagorsky went back through the data and pulled out all the couples where the interviewer thought someone was lying.

He found that if he dropped the liars from the study, "the differences [among the remaining couples] actually got bigger, not smaller. So lying really wasn't causing it."

Maybe husbands just keep their wives in the dark when it comes to finances, so she really doesn't know how much the old boy makes, and how much debt they have. But it turns out that among most of the couples studied, the wives were handling the family paperwork, not the husbands, so they probably knew what was going on.

Since wives tend to be the bill-payers, however, that might explain at least one part of the conflict.

"They are probably much more focused on the debt of the family," Zagorsky says, and thus more likely to come up with a higher figure there.

Hot Potato Issues

So who's right in all these disputes? Who really knows the right figures, the husbands, or the wives?

We'll never know. No audits were performed on the couples' financial records, so it's impossible to tell if husbands and wives really exaggerate their own income, and deflate their spouses'.

But at least the study confirms what many couples already know. A lot of folks fight over money, and that can destroy a marriage in a hurry. The study shows that couples fought a lot less about religion, alcohol, and other women, than they did over money.

In fact, the only years that money failed to lead the list of disagreements were 1994 and 1996. In both those years, the top dog was chores.

Once they made more money, some folks seemed to have a problem in redistributing the workload. Like the old saying goes, there's no such thing as a free lunch.

Lee Dye’s column appears weekly on A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.

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