Why All Couples Need to Have the Money Talk — And How to Get Started
September 20, 2016
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When you're in a relationship, you share everything — but here’s a question: Do any of your intimate convos include discussions about saving? Spending? Your shared money goals? Chances are, they don’t, for fear of turning a relaxing time into a stressful fight. But staying in the dark financially (or keeping your partner there) could be preventing you from making the progress you both desire.
“A couple is a team, and when we work together, we can accomplish more than if we were pursuing our goals as individuals,” says New York City-based financial therapist Amanda Clayman. “But for a team to be successful, the steps to work toward those goals must be mutually understood.”
Unfortunately, many people aren’t necessarily functioning as a team in their financial lives: According to the 2016 LearnVest/Barclaycard Financial Literacy Research survey, more than a third of respondents said that they either didn’t have a budget in their household or indicated that it was someone else’s responsibility to manage.
If you think you and your partner could stand to use a little more teamwork when it comes to your money, the first step is to start fostering some open dialogue. But that can be easier said than done. So we’ve rounded up some tips from financial and relationship pros to help make the money talk less painful and more a part of your routine — in the hopes that you’ll eventually land on the same page when it comes to your budget, financial goals and everything in between.
1. Start With the Big Picture
When you hear “money talk,” you likely imagine you and your sweetheart staring at a spreadsheet together as you try to calculate every line item of your budget. But before you sweat those details, it’s important to understand what all that budgeting is actually for.
“Money is a resource that we use as a means to an end, but what are those ends?” Clayman asks. Is it to retire early? Travel often? Send your kids to college? Choose work based on its meaningfulness and not its income? “Talking about values is a great way to form a bond of trust and understanding beyond who is ‘right’ when it comes to setting the family’s financial goals,” she adds.
Nick Foulks, a financial advisor with Drake & Associates based in Waukesha, Wisconsin, even suggests writing down a financial vision statement for your family. “Define the type of lifestyle you hope to provide for your household and then make a list of what it would mean for your family to achieve that vision,” he says. “How would it change your marriage, your parenting and your children’s future?”
Once you think you know what your shared visions and dreams are, consider categorizing your list of joint goals into short-, medium- and long-term, suggests Olivia Mellan, a psychotherapist and money coach based in Washington, D.C. This can help you prioritize how your money gets allocated and make you feel less overwhelmed about what you’re hoping to accomplish.
2. Set Some Conversation Ground Rules
If you’ve found in the past that money talks often devolve into money arguments, set up some guidelines to help minimize heated confrontations and keep the discussions productive. Here are a few basic rules you and your spouse should try to agree on:
Avoid the blame game. Don’t waste a lot of energy on who did what and how that may have prevented you from reaching your goals as a couple. “Instead, take ownership of the choices you've made together,” says Foulks.
Strive to be empathetic. Mellan suggests couples build goodwill by starting the conversation with appreciative comments about each other, whether or not they’re money-related. Then, once you start talking money, try repeating each other’s concerns in order to build empathy.
For instance, saying something like, “I hear that you’re anxious we’re not saving enough money. Is there more?” Or, “It makes sense that you’re worried we don’t have enough saved, since that’s important to both of us and we tend to spend our money.” Once both partners feel they’ve been heard and their opinions have been validated, they are in a place to negotiate.
Make compromise a goal. Agree that you’ll both have to give and take a little to overcome an impasse. “You need to respect each other and come up with a plan that you’re both comfortable with,” Foulks says. “For example, if a saver is married to a spender, it’s a good idea to earmark some money every month for both saving and fun purchases.”
Create concrete action steps. The reason for a money talk is, of course, to incite action. So make it clear what you and your partner have to do when you end a meeting. Set attainable benchmarks to build momentum, suggests Foulks, and assess your progress against each checkpoint. And don’t forget to celebrate the wins. “Oftentimes people focus on where they might be failing with managing their money, but it’s important to celebrate accomplishing your goals,” he says. “Maybe once you reach your savings goal or pay off debt, you celebrate with a date night at your favorite restaurant.”
3. Keep to a Schedule
Making ongoing money talks a part of your routine may sound about as appealing as regular dentist visits, but they don’t have to be unpleasant. Choose a cadence that makes sense for you and your partner and try to remember the benefit of planning ahead.
“One of the worst things a couple can do is only talk about money when something stressful comes up,” says Clayman. She likes the idea of framing a monthly money talk as a “Review-Predict-Plan” session. “See what money has gone out and come in since your last talk; look at what is coming up in the weeks and months to come; and make a mutually understood and agreed-upon plan to prepare,” she says.
To encourage you to keep your money date, surround it with something fun, suggests Mellan. “These conversations can be hard to have, so couples should reward themselves for doing it well,” she says. "Maybe you have the conversation and then go see the movie you've both been wanting to see."
Above all, “Don’t feel let down if the first conversation isn't ideal,” Mellan says. "Practice makes perfect." Not only will these financial discussions get easier with time, but they'll also be more fulfilling as you start to see the progress you're making together.