Why You Need to Have 'the Money Talk' ASAP

Unfortunately we can't avoid this one!
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Unfortunately we can't avoid this one!

I’ve never been a fan of finances. At its most harmless, the topic bores me, but at its most toxic, it causes deep anxiety. Truly, I avoid it whenever I can—you’ll never find me on the floor of the NYSE—but unfortunately for me, and others like me, finances are a huge part of living as an independent adult, and there’s no escaping them.

I begrudgingly force myself to budget and make retirement contributions, recognizing the importance of those tasks, and I’ve managed to make it so far. Although my natural inclination is to procrastinate, I’m generally able to force myself to tackle these tasks in the end. Regrettably, I have not always exercised the same discipline when the topic has come up within the context of relationships.

I learned the importance of having the “money talk” the hard way. Several years ago, I was in a long-term relationship with someone who had much more money than me. This was not a simple matter of him having a nicer job than me—this was a big league, incomprehensible difference made possible by long-standing family wealth. There may or may not have been a trust fund involved. My background, in comparison, was decidedly in the working-to-middle class range.

In hindsight, the difficulties we faced due to our different economic backgrounds were myriad. On the one hand, he, like many people from wealthy families, lived under a cloud of understandable and constant anxiety regarding the people surrounding him (do you like me for me, or for the free trips to Los Angeles?). On the other hand, I, as the non-monied partner, felt like a leech (you have given me this amazing, free trip to Los Angeles, and there is no way I can repay you), ever-conscious of the difference between our means. Our friends would make jokes: “So what if he doesn’t do the dishes? He’s rich!” Our families made awkward comments: “He got you such a nice present for Christmas, do you feel bad not getting him something similar?” And in spite of the hugeness of this elephant, he and I managed to say nary a word to each other about these differences, not in the two years we were together.

The toll this eventually took on our relationship was disastrous.

There were reasons for our reticence, of course. The practicalities of having “the money talk” were overshadowed by so much emotion: his anxiety, my feelings of embarrassment and inadequacy, and, frankly, the awkwardness of the entire thing. In the short-term, it was easier for both of us to ignore it.

Eventually, though, our refusal to ask and answer the hard questions hollowed us out. Tensions built until there was no way to discuss our issues civilly, and partially for this reason, we went our separate ways.

This is, admittedly, an exercise in extremes. But even those who are not living the Dirty Dancing love story can face similar difficulties when it comes to how you think about finances. Here are three reasons not to put off having the “money talk”—as painful as it may be:

01. Financial life and goal compatibility is a fundamental part of “getting to know” a partner and deciding on ultimate compatibility. It is almost like having the “children or no children” talk—it is easy to assume that someone is on the same page as you, but can potentially set up major disappointment and heartbreak if it turns out that there are strong differences in vision. You may be picturing a life of hard work, long hours, and an eventual retirement mansion on Martha’s Vineyard; he may be looking forward to a more modest future with extra emphasis on fishing and relaxation. Either way, one’s approach to finances sets the tone for how life is lived, and if you are to be bound with someone, it only makes sense to determine fairly early if you are each on the same wavelength.

02. Having “the talk” without delay is good for your relationship, even when the financial news is bad news. Many people avoid discussing money because they have bad news to share. In an age of heavily indebted college graduates and readily available credit cards, it’s an increasingly common issue, and it can cause shame and embarrassment on the part of the debtor. It’s easy to want to hide. A relationship, however, is a team project, and although it may be difficult, a struggle provides an opportunity to build trust and intimacy. Long-term relationships and marriages are full of trials, and the couples that last are the couples that can surmount them. It is important not to delay if there is a big financial skeleton in the closet–the surprise of finding out about it later will only compound the shock, and potentially elicit feelings of betrayal or deception.

03. Similarly, avoiding “the talk” creates a void that can be filled with potentially unhealthy and inaccurate speculation. This is perhaps the most salient moral of my own story. It is not as though avoiding difficult topics makes them disappear. Rather, they gain strength behind the scenes, fueled on paranoid visions of worst-case scenarios. Similar to the way that night lights conquer childrens’ fears of monsters in the dark, a little conversational sunshine on the topic of money has the power to shrink issues down to size, rendering them supremely conquerable.

With these points in mind, I’ve been purposefully more diligent in having “the money talk,” to great success. I hope that others, especially those who, like me, have no particular inclination to topics of finance, do the same.

Text from this article was missing and updated on 1/7/15