There are bullies on the playground, in the classroom and at the office. Or perhaps right beside you at home.
Financial bullying among couples, whether they're married or not, is a less visible but insidious type of intimidation and control. It can take many forms, from withholding money from a spouse's bank account to demanding to see receipts for every shopping trip.
And it may be more common than we think. One in 10 respondents say their spouse or partner is a financial bully, according to a recent survey by CreditKarma.com, a personal finance website based in San Francisco.
"It's eye-opening. A lot of people don't realize the things that could be construed as bullying," said Greg Lull, Credit Karma's vice president of analytics.
With money often cited as one of the top causes of divorce, it can be extremely important to sort out financial conflicts that trouble a marriage or relationship.
"It comes down to using money as a weapon of power," said Peter Cole, a Sacramento chartered financial consultant and marriage therapist. "Financial abuse is used in almost identical ways to verbal, sexual or physical abuse:to control somebody and express anger and unresolved emotions."
He has seen couples where the wife was berated or overly scrutinized for almost any purchase beyond groceries. In another case, one spouse had access to the other's 401(k) retirement account and secretly used it to invest in highly speculative stocks that drained the $500,000 account down to almost nothing.
"What happens with financial bullying is that communication has been really stymied," said Cole, an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of California at Davis medical school. Although he keeps his marriage counseling separate from his financial advising practice, Cole says all too often financial and emotional issues overlap.
Battling over money can run the gamut, from financial bullying at one extreme to mere grumbling and irritation over mismatched expectations.
In some instances, couples may be unaware of their fundamental differences toward money, even when living together. If they have separate credit card accounts and pay bills separately, they may not realize that one is teetering on the brink of insolvency while the other is diligently saving dollars toward bigger goals.
When there is a clash of money management styles, it can breed resentment, arguments and worse. One partner thinks nothing of maxing out credit cards and never worries about paying bills on time. The other partner is horrified by overspending, late fees and other uncertainties.
And the holidays — when it's easy to get swept up in a gotta-spend-money, gift-buying frenzy — can be especially trying.
In a recent survey of couples' holiday spending, more than one-third of married couples say they disagree on, lie about or hide holiday spending. Specifically, more than 50% said they've paid with cash to conceal a large purchase and more than 10% took out a credit card in their own name to hide spending, according to the survey by McGraw-Hill Federal Credit Union, a New Jersey-based network of East Coast credit unions.
A lot of it is simply how we were raised. Someone who grew up in a very tightfisted household can't understand why a partner spends freely, which feels wasteful and risky.
On the other hand, the person who grew up with plenty of money "cannot understand why their partner is being such a control freak," Cole said. "A lot of times they just stop talking about (money) … but they're disgruntled with each other."
Miscommunications and misunderstanding may not rise to the level of financial abuse, but they can create tension and bad feelings.
The cure, experts say, is to talk: Talk about your past and how it affected your attitude toward money. Discuss a budget and establish shared priorities on spending. Listen to each other in order to reach compromises. And, experts say, these conversations should take place in a calm setting, not while you're still steamed up over the latest Visa bill.
For instance, one spouse may resent what the other spends on clothes for work. But if a professional wardrobe is important to that person, then a couple needs to find a compromise: an amount of spending that each can live with. Or a stay-at-home parent may feel bullied about everyday purchases by a working spouse who is stressed as the sole wage-earner. In that case, Cole said, they need to sit down and listen to each other's worries and concerns. It may be helpful for them to do the grocery and household shopping together. Or take a joint look at the checkbook, in order to get a handle on financial realities and shared priorities.
Although Credit Karma's survey was based only on 1,036 U.S. couples, the overall point is to inspire couples to start talking honestly.
"I hope it's a place to start a discussion," said Credit Karma's Lull. "In my perfect scenario, a couple in this situation … is able to broach the topic and make their financial relationship better."
According to a recent survey of committed couples, those who feel financially bullied say their partner uses these tactics to control or intimidate them:
Makes me feel guilty about my shopping habits: 37%
Limits my monthly spending: 34%
Makes me show receipts for all purchases: 20%
Gives me an allowance/limits my spending: 18%
Keeps me from having credit cards: 17%
Doesn't let me go shopping alone: 11%
Forces me to use coupons: 8%
How to get help
There are many routes to financial harmony. It might require working with a marriage counselor or a financial adviser to untangle the unhealthy patterns and habits involving money.
Nonprofit credit counseling centers: Including ClearPoint Credit Counseling Solutions, (800) 750-2227, and the National Foundation for Credit Counseling, (800) 388-2227.
Locally: Some churches offer money management workshops for couples; some nonprofits offer counseling on marital communication. And if the financial bullying is extreme, anger management classes or other professional help may be in order.
Online: Tech-savvy couples may prefer using sites like CreditKarma.com or Mint.com, which let you track your finances together. You can follow spending patterns and set financial goals, such as buying a new car, taking a ski vacation, saving for a down payment on a house. Or even determining how much to spend on holiday gifts.
The reporter can be reached at (916) 321-1968 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her Personal Finance columns at sacbee.com/claudiabuck.