Recently, I asked some friends to tell me how they talk to their spouses about money, and the first response I got was “I don’t know…it’s mostly screaming and yelling when we discuss finances”! Sound familiar? If so, you are not alone. A 2014 Money magazine survey found that 70% of married couples fight about money. Why? “Money is an anxiety-provoking topic,” explains Stacey Brown, a licensed mental health counselor and owner of Stacey Brown Counseling. “Anxiety triggers the infamous ‘fight or flee’ response, leading us either to respond harshly or to shut down.” So, how can couples avoid fighting or fleeing when it comes to talking about money?
Setting yourselves up to talk money, honey
- Consider yourselves equal partners. If you are married, understand that your financial success depends on both partners in the relationship. Financial guru Suzy Orman says it doesn’t matter who makes what. In your financial relationship, you are equals because you both have a stake in it, no matter who makes more money. Make decisions together. Both partners need to know what’s going on financially in case something happens to one of you.
- Talk regularly. If the only time you talk about money is when you’re mad about your spouse’s spending, you won’t solve anything. Lou Scatigna, a.k.a. The Financial Physician suggests you set aside a time each week or each month to talk about money. Look at your financial picture, figure out what you spent, what you saved, what you earned. Make it a date. Pay the bills and check the financial picture, then treat yourselves to a meal or a walk in the park as a reward.
- Agree on your financial goals. “I believe the key is having the same basic goals in life. Other things fall into place when you are working toward the same end zone,” says Elaine Dorsett who’s been married to her spouse for 61 years. The key is focusing on goals, not bills. Look at where you want to be in one year, 5 years, 10 years, 30 years, and write it down.
- Decide who’s good at what, who wants to do what, and choose the roles each spouse will have in managing the joint finances. The best financial decisions are made when both partners agree on their roles. “John has mainly handled the money since our marriage for two reasons: He really enjoys it and he’s really good at it,” says Jo Brown of Portland, OR. Laurie Metz of Fort Myers, FL handles the day-to-day finances “because I need to… I sleep better that way, and he really doesn’t care.” Work it out. Who’s good at paying bills, investing, saving? Choose your roles, respect your boundaries, but keep each other informed.
- Don’t keep secrets. From the time you know your relationship is serious, be up front about your debts, your spending habits, your savings, your desires. Hiding credit card debt or buying that $300 dress or skill saw on the sly won’t be secret for long. Be honest. Admit mistakes. Put it all out there. You’re in this together now.
- Talk about what you each value. Money talks are often just about the numbers, but consider what you each value as well. According to Bethany & Scott Palmer, authors of The Five Money Personalities, “we marry our money opposites.” If that’s true, then it pays to make an effort to understand each other’s perspectives. Is it important to be the breadwinner? Do you value financial security? Is having a lower-paying job that you love more important than a higher-paying job that you hate? Do you value art, travel, family time, education? All these thing play into your financial decisions. Express your values and listen to your spouse’s.
Step-by-step guide to the money talk
“Most people don’t enter a conversation with their spouse with the intention of making them feel like crap.” – Stacey Brown
When you do sit down to talk to each other, Brown recommends doing the following:
- Nourish. Eat something and drink a glass of water before you talk.
- Plan. Have an agenda with set outcomes and finish with an action plan. Treat it like a business meeting. Let the numbers tell the story.
- Focus on intention. Understand the intent of the talk. Brown explains, “Most people don’t enter a conversation with their spouse with the intention of making them feel like crap,” so focus on the reason you are having the talk – perhaps to solve a problem, set a goal, make up a budget, or plan investments.
- Self-monitor. Be aware of your feelings, your pulse, your respiration rate as you move through the conversation. Be responsible for your own emotions and responses. (If you want to monitor yourself scientifically, try wearing an oximeter.)
- Breathe. And breathe deeply to keep calm. Breathing is a powerful regulator of mind and body and can help you stay calm and focused.
By taking steps to talk regularly, focus on outcomes, monitor emotions, and work as a team, couples can have productive money talks without all the screaming and yelling.
What are your tips for talking to your spouse about money?
Additional resources on money and relationships:
The Five Money Personalities by Scott Palmer
The Heart of Money by Deborah Price
Couples Money by Marv & Chris Felton
How to marry your finances by Suze Orman