If you and your partner have been squabbling more and more about finances, you're not alone. According to a 2012 Harris Interactive poll of 1,005 adults, the average number of money fights that couples have increases with age. Just 15 percent of 18- to 34-year-old couples said finances trigger arguments, compared with 36 percent of 55- to 64-year-olds. (Beyond that, the rate dips to 20 percent.)
"Financial disagreements among couples over 50 tend to be pretty intense," says Jeff Motske, CEO of Trilogy Financial and author of The Couple's Guide to Financial Compatibility. "Situations you never anticipated arise, like paying for the kids' college at the same time you're taking care of parents. And if you're behind the eight ball on saving for your own financial independence, there can be some major arguments."
What's everyone squaring off over? We talked to financial planners and researchers to uncover the most common later-life money fights. Then we asked for their advice.
They didn't pull any punches.
How much money is enough for retirement?
What it's about. One spouse insists there's plenty in the bank for a long, comfortable retirement and wants to stop working. The other needs more to feel secure.
Find your way out. Shoot for an annual retirement income of about $75,000, or $6,250 per month, says Michael Norton, a Harvard Business School professor and coauthor of Happy Money: The Science of Smarter Spending. His research found that once couples reach this level, any extra effort toward earning or saving more doesn't make them significantly happier. "It's not that more money makes you unhappy," he explains. "It's just that it doesn't do that much more for you" after your basic comforts are met. The number varies with the cost of living where you reside, of course. But Norton says that "when we looked at a representative national sample of Americans, the magic comfortable standard was around $75,000."
Skeptical? Do your own happiness experiment. "Practice retirement by living off different fixed income levels for six months at a time," Motske says. Note how your level of satisfaction changes. Finding your sweet spot early can defuse this argument entirely.
How should we reward ourselves in retirement?
What it's about. RV or beach house? Home renovation or world cruise? One spouse wants a Lexus; the other would rather tour Texas.
Find your way out. Make a list of your retirement dreams and have your partner independently do the same. Next, rank them on a 1-to-10 scale, estimating what each will cost. Then compare lists, looking not just for overlap but also opportunities for compromise ("You can do that while I do this!"), which will ultimately strengthen the relationship.
"The main goal is to remove the emotion as much as possible and turn this into a fact-based decision," says Mary Evans, a certified financial planner with Evans Wealth Strategies. "I've found that when couples are having this fight, they've never really asked themselves how important a certain dream is or put a number on it. Seeing things in black and white changes everything."
Should we continue to support the kids?
What it's about. One partner insists on funneling funds to an adult child, while the other argues it's high time young Cash became financially independent.
Find your way out. Develop a three-year plan, says Donna Nadler, a financial adviser and senior partner with Capital Management Group: "This gives clarity and sets limits that the child is aware of. Your support should taper over the period, and everyone should evaluate the plan each year." If you are lending rather than gifting money, then Motske recommends "treating it as a business transaction with a written agreement and a clear understanding of how it will be paid back." Putting deadlines and rules on child support eases parental conflict.
When helping others, however, be they children or aging parents, never compromise your own financial well-being to do so. "Think of when you're on an airplane and they say, 'If the oxygen mask comes down, put it on yourself first,' " says Motske. "It's the same logic when it comes to this argument. You have to make sure you're in good financial shape before you can help your parents or kids. Remember: There are no scholarships for retirement."
How aggressively should we invest?
What it's about. After a slow start on retirement saving, one spouse wants to make up for lost time with riskier investments, while the other thinks that is too much like gambling.
Find your way out. Betting your future on a stock or a start-up is dangerous. If the nest egg shatters at this stage of life, you may not have enough earning power to lay another. And deep-rooted tension over something as important as finanical welfare can undermine a marriage.
Time to bring in a pro. It's far safer and smarter to consult a certified financial planner (look for "CFP" after his or her name) with a solid reputation. Ask successful friends who they use, then review the planners' experience and disciplinary history at finra.org/brokercheck and cfp.net.
A good financial adviser will determine how aggressive you really need to be at your level of savings, help make investment decisions based on facts rather than fear, and diversify your portfolio in a way that maximizes returns with a tolerable (for both partners) level of risk.
Who gets what in the will?
What it's about. One partner wants to spread the wealth equally. The other would rather be more selective. Note: This argument can intensify with blended families (for example, stepchildren).
Find your way out. The trend, Nadler says, is toward making "more individualized decisions rather than dividing assets equally." But this demands a high level of communication not only with your heirs — yep, she recommends talking frankly with them about their finances and needs — but also with each other.
Plus, Motske suggests scheduling periodic "financial date nights" to hammer out details. "It isn't about going over the portfolio or the budget," he explains. "It's about discussing these bigger issues. When you start having these kinds of intelligent discussions, you'll have fewer arguments and more financial happiness."
If conversations like this are difficult to have, consider consulting a financial therapist, a new breed of money counselor with more behavioral training. Search by state at financialtherapyassociation.org.