When was the last time you had a really fun discussion about money with your significant other?
If you are like many of the couples I work with as a therapist, the answer is pretty much never. In fact, research has found that disagreements over money issues is one of the main sources of marital conflict and the one of the most likely issues to be mishandled, remain unresolved, and be associated with negative emotions.
But wait! Don’t stop reading, you have come this far! Conversations about finance shouldn’t be avoided, and they don’t always have to result in an argument.
I’m happy to report that it is possible to discuss finances and have it be a positive and productive experience. To prove it, I asked ten couples how they successfully handle their finances. What better way to learn than to hear from married couples who’ve mastered it? Here’s what they have to say.
Play to Your Strengths
While your end goal is to come to an agreement with your significant other about your everyday spending habits and long-term financial goals, it’s important to acknowledge that you both come from very different financial backgrounds. Nowhere in the relationship rule book does it say that you have to have the same approach to finances as your spouse. You are two different people who bring two different expectations and past experiences about money to the relationship. While this may seem like a recipe for disaster, it can also be an opportunity for each of you to embrace your strengths.
For example, Maria shares that in her marriage she embraces her talent for being detail-oriented and keeps an eye on the family’s day-to-day finances. She notifies her husband of any concerns or adjustments they need to make. She describes herself as “neurotic about money” while her husband is “really chill” and trusts her advice on whether or not to spend since she is “watching the budget like a hawk.”
Similarly, Rachel shares that: “At the end of the month, my husband reconciles our budget with our bank account, and it's best if I give him peace and quiet to do that. Then he fills me in on where we were over or under that month. For us, it's important to have one person in charge of the financial planning for our family.” Elizabeth and her husband also focus on their strengths. “We divide and conquer,” she says, “He gets bills; I get food, clothes, and household.” She says that she enjoys the challenge of making her tight budget work and was even able to save enough money to give her husband an envelope of “free money” for his birthday.
Use each other’s strengths to your advantage. Do you love number crunching? Put yourself in charge of setting the budget for different categories. Or, maybe you love finding creative ways to stay within your budget. Put yourself in charge of purchasing groceries, clothing, and other household items. Sit down with your spouse and identify each other’s strengths so that you can work together to manage your finances.
Banish the Word ‘I’
A key part of having a positive and productive conversation about finances is talking about how you are going to work together towards your shared goal. For example, Cat, a stay at home mom whose husband works full time, says that, “talking about finances can be tricky because the paychecks only have one of our names on them.” She says that she and her husband avoid arguments when talking about finances by banning the use of “I” and “you.”
For example, she says, it feels a lot less accusatory to hear the words “'WE need to spend less in this category’ than it does to hear ‘YOU need to spend less’.” Cat says that watching the language they use helps to “reinforce the idea that you're partners sharing a budget (and a life) together [and] not just two people who happen to withdraw from the same bank account.” Using language that emphasizes your partnership with one another will help you stay focused on your common financial goals.
Work Toward Goals . . . Together
Dr. John Gottman, a psychologist who specializes in relationships, writes in his book, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, that, “What’s most important in terms of your marriage is that you work as a team on financial issues that you express your concerns, needs, and fantasies to each other before coming up with a plan.”
My interviews with couples bears Dr. Gottman’s research out. Many of the couples I spoke to shared that identifying and agreeing to specific financial goals was very helpful to their successfully talking about money. Alexa shared that she and her husband “both have the same goal: financial freedom.”
She says that when they sit down every six months or so to re-examine their budget, they start by discussing both their more immediate and long-term goals. “This helps us decide how much to save and how aggressive to be when attacking debt,” she says, and while “typically we both have different ideas about what to pay off first or how much to put away,” Alexa shares that “we are able to talk through each idea and will typically end up with a hybrid that works with our budget.” Having a common goal can help you keep you and your spouse focused on the bigger picture even when you initially disagree over how to make that goal happen.
Keep the Lines of Communication Constantly Open
Almost all of the couples shared that reviewing their finances regularly and keeping the lines of communication open were crucial to keeping the anxiety about “The Money Talk” at bay. For example, Tiffany says that she and her husband practice “complete financial transparency” with each other and set aside time each month to discuss their finances. David Bach, author of Smart Couples Finish Rich, recommends setting what he calls “money dates” each month and plan for them to last an hour. That way, you’ll ensure your finances don't get away from you.
Many of the couples I talked to used a budgeting software (such as mint.com) or created a shared spreadsheet so that they could both monitor their finances. Cat says that the spreadsheet they both have access to helps them to “discuss the budget pretty regularly (there are less surprises that way!), and talk about future purchases that we're considering for the month ahead.” Kathleen said that she and her husband compare their spending for the month with their budget and that, because they talk about their money so frequently, “finances have never been a touchy subject for us.” James shared that sitting down after each payday to discuss their finances helped he and his wife bridge his tendency to spend with hers to save. He credits these regular discussions with helping them to make the reality of buying a home happen sooner than they thought possible.
Part of keeping the lines of communication open when it comes to finances is being honest about your spending habits and speaking up if you have a problem or don’t understand the plan you have laid out together. Kimberly says it best when she states, “Honestly, just state the facts.” If you’ve overspent or made some other mistake, don’t try to sugarcoat it. Alexa says, “Just be open and honest and come up with a plan together to help you both get back on track.” And, if you don’t understand why your spouse is pushing for a certain investment strategy or why you even need to invest in the first place, don’t be afraid to ask. Kim says it’s important to “ask questions if you don't understand, so you can be involved in decision making.” When you understand the reasons why your budget is set up the way it is, you’ll feel not only more invested in it, but you will also feel more motivated to do what you can to make it work.
You might dread talking about your finances, especially if it pertains to debt or past financial mistakes. But incorporating these tips from couples who’ve made talking about their budget a normal thing or even something fun, will help you to face family finances head on and have a happier, healthier marriage as a result.
Photo Credit: Olivia Leigh Photography