A TYPICAL FIGHT between Gail and Barny Foland of San Francisco goes something like this (according to Gail): “He’ll go, ‘I need to get this,’ and I’ll say, ‘We don’t have the money right now.'” Voices raise, tension mounts. “He’ll say, ‘Where the hell is all the money going?’ and I’ll say, ‘Here is the checkbook — take a look.'”
While that may sound like a familiar squabble to many couples, the Folands aren’t exchanging these heated words around the kitchen table, but rather at work in their office, a 12,000-foot training center for self-defense, yoga and fitness. It’s the third business they’ve owned in 32 years of marriage — and when it comes to money, they still butt heads, especially when times are tough. “It’s been a struggle, I’ll admit it,” says Barny. “I don’t recommend to anybody for their first business to partner up with their spouse.”
In many relationships, money is a touchy subject. For couples that run a business together, money can be a stressor like no other, prompting harsh words, accusations of mismanagement and — in the worst-case scenarios — divorce and the ultimate dissolution of the business.
“Money is one of those things we can get really bent out of shape about,” says Kathy Marshack, a psychologist in Portland, Ore., and author of “Entrepreneurial Couples: Making It Work at Work and at Home.” In general, money triggers a survival instinct, so worries about it can cause people to react “in more primitive ways,” she says. That’s especially true for couples in business together, whose livelihoods both depend on the success of the company. “If one partner makes a decision that the other feels is going to cost them, or force them to lose a contract, they can get extremely upset,” Marshack says.
Christina and Patrick Vitagliano at one of their Monster Mini Golf locations. The couple lets their accountant mediate when they squabble over money.
That’s why Christina and Patrick Vitagliano, co-founders of the Monster Mini Golf chain in Providence, R.I., “keep a pair of boxing gloves in the office,” jokes Christina. The duo got married in a Las Vegas chapel 12 years ago and have run the mini-golf business together since 2004. “One of the harder adjustments is getting to know each other, and working with each other…24/7,” she says. “You have to put your egos aside, and your stubbornness.”
The couple says they make it work by splitting up financial responsibilities — Christina reviews all bills and financial paperwork before sending them off to the bookkeeper, while Patrick handles leases and new contracts with franchisees (they’ll have more than 20 locations by the end of this year). When it comes to fiscal matters, such as cutting costs or taking on debt, “not that we always agree, but we jointly talk about all of our decisions,” she says.
And when they do disagree? They call in their outside accountant, who mediates the dispute. That’s something Christina recommends to other couples (including several Monster Mini-Golf franchisees). “You need someone you’re not related to, that has your business interest at heart, that can take the emotion out,” she says.