Pulp | The arts around Ann Arbor

In my family, I’m the one who insists on separating the boxes that can be returned for a deposit, while my husband says, “What do you get, three bucks? Not worth it.”

Maybe not. But different philosophies about money, on a macro and micro level, are all too common in marriage. I mean, there’s a reason finances are always on the list of “things couples fight about the most,” right?

To address these differences, Scott Rick, professor of marketing at the UM Ross School of Business, has a new book called Tightwads and Spendhrifts: Navigating the Money Mine in Real Relationships. Billed as different from conventional self-help or personal finance books, the book instead uses behavioral science as a scaffold for a broader discussion of how spending plays a role in our sense of personal identity; why we are sometimes attracted to people who are quite different from us (cost-wise); and practical ways to deal with money-related conflicts.

While these arguments are sometimes about small things (see cans), they can still point to a much larger dissonance of fiscal beliefs within a relationship. As Rick notes, “Our relationship with money is complicated, no matter how much of it we have. … But even if partners want to sidestep sensitive money talks, the topic is unavoidable. Most of life’s important decisions – which job to pursue or take, where to live, how many children to try for, when to retire – are inextricably linked to money and are often made within intimate partnerships.”

As a starting point, in the book’s introduction, readers can answer a few questions to determine where they fall on the tight/pollinator scale.

I scored in the middle of the “conflict-free user” bell curve, and so did my partner, which suggests we’re generally on the same page financially (regardless of the boxes). Even so, given the occasional disagreements that we do For the money, I found great value and interest in Rick’s book, which is very readable. With its friendly, conversational tone and short length (less than 200 pages), Shrews and wasters makes learning about this topic extremely fun.

Structurally, Rick begins by unpacking the psychology of frugal people, many of whom experience a kind of pain when they spend, and spendthrifts, who find the same act pleasurable. Rick is a self-proclaimed wastrel, and the book is partly the result of his personal experience, as he is married to a modest woman.

Although not as common, this principle of “opposites attract” sometimes applies because both spendthrifts and frugal people often admit that their relationship with money is less than ideal and thus are fascinated by those who are completely different from myself. However, when that attraction leads to marriage and financial choices suddenly affect the couple’s combined income – well, things get tricky, of course.

While Rick doesn’t suggest drastic fixes, he argues that small changes — like a spendthrift relying more on physical money so it’s a less abstract transaction, and a tight guy taking the opposite approach — can help, as and a joint bank account. These bills help erase the tension surrounding income differences between partners (Rick notes, “[I]in dual-earner couples, partners belong to the same or adjacent income brackets only about 40 percent of the time”), but they also help emphasize the idea that, for the couple, any money earned is “our money,” not mine and yours.

However, Rick admits that ultimately couples have to determine what works best for them. About 10 to 15 percent of couples maintain completely independent accounts, and Rick and his wife were able to have not only a joint account, but individual accounts that they put money into as needed, so while they know how much each person is spending, they don’t so caught up in the details – which may be the secret sauce of fiscal harmony.

My favorite chapter so far in the Tight addresses the less obvious topic of gift giving in relationships. As Rick points out, each year offers us up to five occasions to get our partner a gift: Valentine’s Day, birthdays, Mother’s/Father’s Day, anniversaries, and the December holidays.

“Even if direct, verbal expressions of love are limited,” writes Rick, “intimate relationships still provide many indirect, nonverbal opportunities for partners to reveal how they feel and what they know about each other. … Every gift we give our partners lets them know how much they are ‘noticed’ or understood.”

For this reason, Rick is against asking a partner what they want, but if your partner expresses a desire without prompting, you should listen. Using himself as an example, Rick recounts how he once observed enough of his wife to know she would love a Kate Spade bag, but when it came time to choose one, he opted for a flashy, expensive, and impractical clutch that caught the eye him, forgetting for the moment that his wife prefers more understated, practical pieces. “I was so excited for Julie to open this gift,” Rick wrote, “but the unanimous silence that was met still haunts me. It was just instantly obvious that I had laid an egg.

This willingness on Rick’s part to share his blind spots and experiences is a significant part of what he does Shrews and wasters such an accessible and informative read. We may all resist talking about money in relationships because, on some level, we hate mixing hard-nosed pragmatism with feelings of love; but as Rick demonstrates, if you’re building a life with someone and you want the relationship to last, you’ll have no choice but to face the problem over and over again. There may also be some tools for the trip.


Jen McKee is a former staff arts reporter at The Ann Arbor News, where she primarily covered theater and film events and also wrote general features and occasional articles on books and music.


Scott Rick will discuss “Tightwads and Spendthrifts” with April Baer on Thursday, January 11, at 6:30 pm at Literati Bookstore, 124 East Washington Street, Ann Arbor.

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