With spending, opposites attract. And repel

NEW research on married adults finds penny-pinchers and squanderers are attracted to each other, often with detrimental consequences for their relationships. In the working paper, “Fatal (Fiscal) Attraction,” researchers from the University of Pennsylvania and Northwestern University found opposites attract when it comes to extreme spending styles.

NEW research on married adults finds penny-pinchers and squanderers are attracted to each other, often with detrimental consequences for their relationships.

In the working paper, “Fatal (Fiscal) Attraction,” researchers from the University of Pennsylvania and Northwestern University found opposites attract when it comes to extreme spending styles.

Tightwads, who spend less than they would ideally like to spend, and spendthrifts, who spend more than they would ideally like to spend, marry each other.

“When you ask divorced people what led to the demise of their marriages, money is always at the top of the list, but just a handful of studies had investigated how couples handle financial arguments,” says co-author Rick Scott, now an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Michigan.

“The source was always that couples were struggling financially. We had all observed in our own lives couples not struggling at all with money but who still fought about it quite often, so we knew lack of money was not the only reason. We thought conflicted feelings toward spending could be the source.”

Tightwads and spendthrifts

A previous study published by Scott and two others found that individuals differ in their tendency to experience the so-called “pain of paying.”

Spendthrifts don’t feel enough pain for their own good, leading them to splurge too much and fall into debt. Tightwads experience too much pain, leading them to pinch pennies, and miss out on positive experiences.

The researchers developed a simple four-question “Tightwad-Spendthrift scale,” and in a survey of 13,000 participants, found that the test strongly predicted savings and credit card debt. They also found extreme spender/penny pinchers are conflicted; they dislike their own spending style. Tightwads differ from frugal people, for example, who enjoy saving and feel virtuous about their behavior; tightwads end up with savings because it’s too painful to spend.

“They develop a kind of pain or distress to protect from overspending,” Scott explains. “Some develop too little or too much, and that can lead to problems when life circumstances change. You have much more money and can afford more but you can’t get rid of the pain so you don’t spend; or you have less money and don’t have the pain to stop you, so you keep spending at the current rate.”

While earlier psychological research has found that people tend to choose partners with similar demographics, values and attitudes, there are exceptions. Studies have found that people are also attracted to mates who possess characteristics that are dissimilar to traits they hate in themselves. Thus the researchers theorized that tightwads and spendthrifts might be attracted to each other.

The researchers asked more than 450 married adults to take the Tightwad-Spendthrift test for themselves and their spouses. Then they asked several additional questions, including how conflicted participants felt about their spending style and their marital well-being. (In a second study, both spouses took the test.)

High scores for conflicted feelings correlated positively and significantly with high scores for “opposite direction” -- that is, having a spouse with opposite emotional reactions toward spending. “We find that the extent to which people are attracted to mates with opposing emotional reactions toward spending is significantly correlated with the extent to which they are dissatisfied with their own emotional reactions toward spending,” the researchers write.

The potential for conflict

“The most counterintuitive finding is that they were attracted to each other in the first place,” says Scott. “We find birds of a feather flock together on a lot of dimensions; but these are (spending) traits people don’t like in themselves, and that’s where you get opposites attracting.”

And that’s where the conflict begins. “It’s fine at first, but then during the marriage you have to make big important financial decisions, often together, and that’s where complementary attraction takes its toll,” Scott says. (His co-authors are Deborah Small of Wharton and Eli Finkel of Northwestern.)

Of course, it could be that people feel conflicted precisely because their spouses have opposite spending styles, making them feel badly about their own. But newlyweds in the sample, who presumably wouldn’t be together long enough to nag each other about opposing spending styles, scored similarly to couples who were together for years.
Moreover, the degree to which spouses differed in their emotional reactions toward spending was also negatively associated with marital well-being. “We find the more difference between the spouses, the more they argue and therefore the less happy they are with the marriage,” Scott notes.

While opposites attract, apparently it’s not something they do consciously. “These extremes experience conflict before they are with someone else, and that conflict leads to attraction to the opposite,” Scott says. “We found, if anything, people look for (someone like) themselves. But the more conflict they feel internally, the more likely they are to like their opposite when they stumble upon them.”

Scott, who got married this summer, suggests couples need to pay more attention to their potential spouses’ feelings toward spending.

“Put some weight on it when making that ultimate decision,” he advises. “People may know it matters, but they underweight just how profoundly important this will be. When you’re going out you only have so many financial decisions you have to face together, but after the wedding they come fast and furious.”

Laura Rowley is a journalist specializing in personal finance and values, and author of “Money & Happiness: A Guide to Living the Good Life.”

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