Out of interest
By Proinsias O’Mahony
WHEN it comes to money, are you a tightwad or a spendthrift? More importantly, is your partner in the same boat as you? Should spendthrifts and tightwads get together so that they negate each other’s more extreme tendencies, or are such relationships more likely to be characterised by discord and disharmony?
Being a tightwad is not the same as being frugal, according to Prof Scott Rick, co-author of Tightwads and Spendthrifts, a 2008 US study that surveyed more than 13,000 people. Whereas frugal people enjoy saving and watching their money mount up, tightwads find it especially painful to spend money. Indeed, separate research shows that the insula, an area of the brain associated with experiencing painful stimuli such as disgusting smells or social exclusion, is activated when people feel reluctant to spend money. In contrast, spendthrifts are much less likely to feel such pain – splashing the cash just does not impact their brain in the same way. Essentially, both tightwads and spendthifts behave differently to how they would ideally like to behave: the former recognise that they spend too little, the latter know that they are too casual about spending money.
Most people don’t fall into either bracket, according to Prof Rick, but tightwads appear to be more common – 24 percent of respondents were defined as tightwads, 16 per cent were categorised as spendthrifts. Men were almost three times as likely to be tightwads than spendthrifts; in contrast, women were no more likely to be tightwads than spendthrifts. There was little difference in the income levels of the two groups. Nevertheless, spendthrifts had poorer bank balances – they were more than twice as likely as tightwads to have less than ,000 in savings, whereas tightwads were more than twice as likely to have over ,000 in savings. Among those who used credit cards, spendthrifts were three times more likely to have debt than tightwads.
One might assume that spendthrifts and tightwads are unlikely to hook up. After all, various research shows that birds of a feather flock together, with people generally tending to marry people who think and act in ways to which they can relate. This makes sense, given that research also confirms that dissimilar partners are more likely to experience increased marital conflict.
However, in another study co-authored by Prof Rick, the wonderfully titled Fatal (Fiscal) Attraction: Spendthrifts and Tightwads in Marriage, it was found that spendthrifts and tightwads were actually much more likely to be married to one another than to partners who shared similar spending habits to their own. Why? It turns out that while people generally seek out partners who share their values and behaviours, ‘complementarity is likely to be observed for characteristics we deplore in ourselves’ – that is, if you don’t like something about yourself, you may seek out potential partners who are the opposite to you in this regard. Neither tightwads nor spendthrifts feel good about their spending: accordingly, opposites attract when it comes to spending traits. The more people experienced distress in response to spending situations, the authors noted, the more likely they were to be attracted to someone with opposing spending tendencies.
Unfortunately, this tends to backfire. Tightwad-spendthrift couples tended to argue about money and were less happy compared to couples where both partners were tightwads or when both were spendthrifts. Unsurprisingly, couples where both partners were tightwads are likely to be both financially better off and happier than mismatched couples. As for spendthrifts, they are likely to gain financially by marrying tightwads; despite this, however, a spendthrift is likely to be happier if he or she marries a fellow spendthrift, the research suggests.
This is, the study concludes, ‘a rare instance in which opposites tend to attract: tightwads, who generally spend less than they would ideally like to spend, tend to marry spendthrifts, who generally spend more than they would ideally like to spend.’ Unfortunately, the ensuing matches don’t tend to be marriages made in heaven.
Clearly, couples should not underestimate the extent to which money can be a major source of conflict. Prof Sonya Britt, co-author of a 2012 US study that examined the relationship between financial issues and divorce, found that arguments about money are the top predictor of divorce. ‘It’s not children, sex, in-laws or anything else’, said Britt. ‘It’s money – for both men and women’. This was the case for all demographics: it didn’t matter how much you made or how much you were worth. Nor should couples assume that they will necessarily be able to iron out early disagreements about money, with Prof Britt finding that those who argued about money early on in their relationship were more likely to go on to experience subsequent relationship dissatisfaction. Additionally, it takes longer to recover from arguments about money, she found: such arguments tended to involve harsher language, to be more intense and to last longer.
Clearly, it’s best to be neither a tightwad nor a spendthrift. If you do fall into either category, however, don’t expect your relationship to be all sweetness and light if your partner has a different financial outlook – ‘complementarity’, as Scott Rick puts it, ‘is little more than fatal (fiscal) attraction’.