Increasing levels of debt and bankruptcies are frequently blamed for divorces and conflict within marriage. But new Brigham Young University research suggests that marital woes that can result from financial ups and downs have as much to do with a couple's expectations as their paychecks and credit card bills.

The first-ever study to examine the impact of materialism on marital satisfaction found that highly materialistic spouses are about 40 percent more likely than non materialistic spouses to experience high levels of financial problems, which consequently harm their marital satisfaction. What's more, the impact of materialism held true across all income levels.

"For years there has been an emphasis on learning proper saving and budgeting techniques to avoid marital conflict over financial issues," said Jason Carroll, BYU assistant professor of family life and author of the study, in the new issue of the Family and Consumer Sciences Research Journal. "But our study found that financial problems have as much to do with how we think about money as they do with how we spend money."

Simply put, if you and your spouse don't feel the need to have big houses, fancy cars, and extravagant vacations, then it won't be a problem if you can't afford them.

Carroll's study showed that materialism has an indirect effect on overall marital satisfaction by increasing the frequency of financial problems.

"For a highly materialistic spouse or couple, it takes less financial disturbance to trigger a financial problem," Carroll explained. "Some would say, 'I'm not living a good life and I don't have a good marriage if we can't afford to go on that vacation or purchase designer décor for our home,' where a less materialistic spouse would not view these limitations as a major issue."

The study looked at a nationally representative sample of 600 married couples, selected so that it reflected national averages in terms of ethnic composition, religious affiliation and socioeconomic levels.

All spouses reported their household income level, the degree to which financial matters have been a problem in their relationship, their own level of materialism and their overall level of satisfaction with their marriage.

About 35 percent of the sample reported high levels of materialism, while the remaining 65 percent had low materialism.

Never enough

The materialistic spouses reported more financial problems on average, regardless of income.

Using complex statistical analyses, Carroll's research team found that materialism among one or both spouses was a better way to predict a couple's financial problems than their income. The model also connected this higher level of financial problems with lower marital satisfaction.

"This study suggests that spouses set their own threshold for what they view as a money problem," Carroll said. "If spouses are overly materialistic, their threshold will be quite low, thereby increasing the likelihood that finances will be a problem in their marriages."

Carroll said that materialism may increase financial problems in marriage in two ways:

  • A spouse may use money unwisely in chasing unreasonable materialistic expectations, therefore causing actual money problems
  • Materialistic expectations may cause a spouse to interpret a financial situation negatively, leading to more complaints and conflicts, even when another couple with similar financial resources won't have such conflicts because of lower expectations.

That's why expectations are a key part to solving money problems in marriage, Carroll said.

"We need to rethink the idea that financial problems are always money problems" he said. "We need to start adjusting how much materialistic issues factor into our idea of what makes a good marriage and family life."

For starters, Carroll gave the following four recommendations:

Separate needs from wants.  It is often said, "Yesterday's luxuries have become today's necessities." In today's consumer culture, it is important for couples to carefully distinguish between their "needs" and their "wants" when it comes to family spending.

Check financial benchmarks.  Many people do not see their financial expectations are too high because they compare their spending habits to others who have more. Couples who typically compare themselves to others who have more than they do frequently develop a sense of entitlement and resentment, while couples who see their situation through the eye of those who have less are more likely to foster a sense of gratitude in their lives.

Focus on the simple. The saying goes, "The most important things in life are not things." While easy to say, this phrase is much harder to live. Financial strain in marriage, brought on by high materialistic expectations, often causes couples to not fully appreciate the simple aspects of their relationship that money cannot buy.

Lower expectations.  Financial problems in marriage are as much about expectations as they are about behaviors. Lowering financial expectations can benefit marriages in two ways. First, spouses will be more willing to avoid making purchases that create debt and stress in their relationship and, second, spouses will be more inclined to interpret their current situation with more gratitude and optimism.

Study coauthor Lukas Dean, who was Carroll's master's student at time of the research, will seek to help couples do that after he completes his Ph.D. in financial counseling at Texas Tech University.

Former BYU research associate Chongming Yang also assisted with the research.