Relationships with money

This thread isn't about how money effects relationships with people, but about how different people approach their relationships with money.

In a recent thread, we talked to a YNAB user who approaches money very differently than his spouse.  I was asked in a comment for the rest of the model I introduced there.  It's still a work in progress, but I'd love to hear what others think about it.  This mental model is to help people who aren't used to thinking about money strategically to understand what their relationship with money is, and that if they are collaborating with a partner who has a very different relationship to money, what compromises will need to happen.


This chart provides a summary.  I've attached a PDF for those of you who find that easier to read.  Below, I talk about what it all means in more detail.

The rows represent one's baseline tendency: to save or to spend.  Note this is a *tendency*, not the only thing one does.  Most sane people both save and spend.  However, when we are reacting emotionally rather than rationally, or when the rational analysis teeters on the spend/save line, we usually want to follow whatever our bigger tendency is.

The columns represent four approaches to money generally:

  1. Reward-seekers spend or save in order to get what they want.
  2. Reflexive spenders or savers do what they do because of what they feel or want to feel.
  3. Pain-avoidant people spend or save in order to prevent bad things from happening.
  4. Strategic spenders and savers do what they do in order to serve their priorities and constraints in total, the best way they know how.

I've never met anyone who starts out as a strategic spender or saver.  The other six archetypes seem to be natural tendencies, while strategic behavior is what happens when people build skill, confidence, and self control enough to keep their actual behavior in line with what they want.

I can describe the individual archetypes more if anyone is interested.  Here's why I find this mental model helpful:

  • Most people are very aware that tension can occur between a saver and a spender in a partnership (whether a marriage, a business partnership, or something else).  However, the tension between e.g. an Opportunist and an Impulsive Spender often get too little attention.  One is spending for future return, while the other is spending for an immediate feeling.  Imagine a wife who's always starting small business ventures and a husband who impulse buys the latest gadget whenever he's feeling stressed out.
  • Spender/Saver divides are also harder to bridge when each partner is having trouble understanding what thoughts and feelings drive the other's behavior.  A pain-avoidant spender and a reflexive saver may each think they are the financially conservative one, and feel the other is seeking a higher-risk behavior pattern.
  • Opportunists and Over-Planners usually think they are being strategic, even when they are stuck in reactive patterns or haven't thought through their priorities.
  • Anyone who needs or wants to become more strategic, but hasn't been successful in curbing their actual money behaviors, will likely benefit from better understanding what is driving those money behaviors.  I meet Impulsive Spenders who don't understand why they bought that designer purse even when they promised themselves not to, and Turtles who don't understand why they just can't bring themselves to do car maintenance in a timely manner even though they know they should.  Finding the drivers and disrupting or redirecting them can be powerful!

In case anyone is interested, I'm a recovering Opportunist who's generally become an Achiever, married to a recovering Avoider/Turtle who has become a Protector.

As I mentioned, it's all very much a work in progress.  I would value anyone's input on what they find helpful, unhelpful, confusing, or missing!

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  • This is what I was looking forward. Thank you for posting this. 

      • HedgeMage
      • Tomato_Thunder.11
      • 7 mths ago
      • Reported - view

      Sky Blue Tugboat  You are welcome!  I hope it is helpful.

  • This is amazing HedgeMage! Understanding the underlying tendencies of a partner (and self) could really help to smooth some of the bumps in those tricky conversations. I'd love to hear more about what got you interested in these dynamics and how you started building this model. 

    I also wonder if you've seen people shift from Hoarder to Protector - they seem similar enough that even though one is a spender and one is a saver, that shift might happen. 🤔

      • HedgeMage
      • Tomato_Thunder.11
      • 7 mths ago
      • 3
      • Reported - view

      Marisa My hometown is poor, and was having an especially rough time with COVID lockdowns, so I started going up a few times per month to help out. One thing I did was start a club for the 5th-8th graders at our elementary school which teaches about careers, personal money management, investing, and habits that can help one be successful:


      This summer, we're starting some outreach to parents and families.  Next school year, the club will be run by the teacher's aide who was assisting me, and I will step back to focus on curriculum development.  The new curriculum will be titled Make More Pie

      As I prepare for the summer, I have been thinking that different ways to break through the emotional ways people approach money, and especially how stressful it is for families and partners.  Since I was already familiar with the idea of reward-seeking, impulsive, pain-avoidant, and strategic behaviors from my background volunteering in psych contexts, I decided to see what happened when I applied it to how we use our money and see how well it mapped to what I see in the far, so good.


      I see all sorts of shifts happening with people as life changes, time passes, or as they become more aware of their relationship with money.  People rarely jump from pain-avoidant types to reward-seeking types, or vice versa, without spending time somewhere else first, but other than that, moving around is normal.  I hope we're all striving to become more strategic, but it's hard!

      Like 3
    • HedgeMage Such important work. If only we all had thought about these things so early in life! 

      Like 1
  • Thanks for sharing this. It is great food for thought. I am thinking how ynab helps with these different things.  I am a reflexive spender. Ynab has pretty much shifted me to a strategic spender, with categories to cater to the impulsive spending itch. 

    Like 2
  • I’m really thinking this could be a great model to incorporate in my discussions with patients facing financial difficulties. My focus with them is generally their mental and emotional health and well-being, so I don’t offer financial counseling per se. Rather we explore and make changes to their relationships with people and things in their world as per their counseling goals, including how they think about and address finances. Especially for couples this model could be a helpful way to process some of that!

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