Money Talks. At Least to Lovers

Opposites attract when it comes to handling money, researchers say.

September 16, 2009, 5:24 PM

Sept. 17, 2009— -- Like to spend money? Spouse doesn't?

Big trouble ahead, and maybe it's because your own weakness drove you to marry someone who is your precise opposite when it comes to handling finances.

Researchers at three universities have concluded that while we tend to look for a mate who is like ourselves, that doesn't always apply when it comes to handling money.

"Opposites attract when it comes to emotional reactions toward spending," the researchers argue in a working paper entitled "Fatal (Fiscal) Attraction: Spendthrifts and Tightwads in Marriage."

"Tightwads" and "spendthrifts" may be attracted to each other because they hate being what they are and want a partner who can reel them in, said Scott Rick of the University of Michigan, and the lead author of the study.

Rick along with Deborah Small of the University of Pennsylvania and Eli Finkel of Northwestern University surveyed more than 1,000 married and single adults to see how their spending habits influenced their mate selection.

Their conclusions, if correct, throw an interesting curve into the old question of why Jack and Jill went up that hill. Maybe Jack, or Jill, had a real problem with money.

In a telephone interview, Rick estimated that about half of us are so hung up on money that it has become a serious emotional issue. That half is divided among spendthrifts, who love to spend, and tightwads, who hate to let loose with even a little cash.

Tightwads, incidentally, outnumber spendthrifts by a ratio of three to two, according to an earlier study by Rick, so not every tightwad is going to find an ideal spendthrift.

"Spendthrifts do not experience enough pain for their own good, leading them to generally spend more than they would ideally like to spend," the study notes. "Tightwads, by contrast, experience too much pain for their own good, leading them to generally spend less than they would ideally like to spend."

Do People Deliberately Seek Their Opposites?

The other half of us fall somewhere between those two extremes, so the findings would not apply to everyone.

But does that mean someone with a spending problem deliberately seeks someone of opposite persuasion?

"It's totally unclear whether this is a deliberate decision," Rick said. But even his own research, he added, suggests the opposite. In the surveys, most people cited the desire for similarities in their mate, not dissimilarities.

Yet many of those who said they had sought someone with whom they had much in common actually married someone who was quite different, fiscally speaking. So it would seem that something else is at work when it comes to money.

That something, the researchers suggest, is that deep down inside you hate yourself for being too reckless, or too stingy, with your money. So you look for a mate who can balance your act. In psychology that's known as "complementarity."

In the end, people "are attracted to mates who possess characteristics dissimilar to those they deplore in themselves," the researchers contend. So tightwads and spendthrifts unit in holy matrimony.In the beginning, it's can be fun Rick said, himself newly wed.

A tightwad falls for a spendthrift because - and this may come as a shock - its fun to spend money.

"Perhaps it's just more enjoyable at first, kind of a breath of fresh air," Rick suggested. "But then they have an array of financial decisions that have to be hammered out, and maybe it's not so much fun anymore."

As so many studies have shown, money, or especially the lack of it, can be devastating to a marriage. But people can change, at least somewhat.

Rick said newlyweds seem to be the most different when it comes to attitudes toward money, "but the differences get somewhat attenuated over time." Maybe they grow more mellow, work out some of their differences, or get divorced and drop out of the sample, he added.

Little Research on Whether Love of Money Drives Search for Opposite

Despite the fact that there is a huge amount of research showing that people generally tend to find mates with whom they have a lot in common, there is very little research into the question of whether the love of money compels someone to pick an opposite. So much more research needs to be completed.

At least Rick will have a chance now to see in real time if his conclusions hold up. He's only been married a couple of months, and he admits he's a bit of a spendthrift. He stops short of calling his new bride a tightwad.

"She's just a little tight," he said. "I leave lights on, and she goes around and turns them off."

Not exactly grounds for divorce.