You're the Next Contestant . . . Why It's Hard to Talk About Money in Marriage

They could have been contestants on The Newlywed Game, their answers revealing how little they were in agreement on matters of married life. She wanted to travel to Europe and experience the finer things in life. He wanted to know how they were going to pay for their retirement and day to day expenses. She was missing out on life and she blamed him. Their financial lives were unstable and he blamed her. You could feel the tension in the room. The meeting could have used the experienced refereeing of a game show host. These conversations are all too common in my work.

Finding consensus with your spouse is one of the most important aspects of your financial life. Financial harmony within a marriage is critical to financial success.

Why is this so hard? It really shouldn’t be, but as many couples know, it is.

Talking about money is threatening

Regardless of financial situation, something about money strikes at the core of who we are. It defines our status in the world, what we can and cannot have. Money is integrated into every area of our lives, whether we like it or not. Even the most basic choices in life, like the shirt you are wearing or what you do for dinner tonight, is the result of a money decision.

There are conflicting values within each of us when it comes to money. For example, will it really matter if you eat out for lunch today? Surely it won’t affect your college savings. Setting aside money is great, but what about spending a little on that trip you’ve always wanted to take? Add another person into the equation and you have all the makings of an uncomfortable, but entertaining game show: the conflicts are endless.

When it comes down to it, we’re not talking just about money, we’re talking about values.

Ok, so these conversations are threatening, but they need to take place. So what do you do about it?

Make the conversation safe

The fastest way to make a conversation not feel “safe” is to start accusing your spouse. Remember, this is a values conversation, not just a money conversation. Neither of you want what is important to you to be minimized or insulted.

The goal of each conversation is to understand your spouse and for your spouse to understand you. Granted, sometimes you may never understand why your spouse has to spend money on that, but realizing it’s important to your spouse allows you to respect their decision.

Practical steps to making the conversation safe:

  • Find a time that works for both of you. Trying to have a financial conversation when you are multitasking or concerned about everything else in life will only lead to frustration.
  • Know each other’s strengths. If one of you hates math, budgeting can be more difficult. Forcing a spouse who hates math to balance the budget to the closest penny may be the equivalent to torture. Find a middle ground.
  • Remember the person you fell in love with. Conversations can be tense, but remember what drew you to your spouse in the first place. If this is your focus, the edge will come off your voice and your spouse will feel the difference.

Establish ground rules

Which topics are off limits or which topics need to wait until the end?

What happens when you or your spouse gets overwhelmed in the details? Does the meeting stop? Do you take a fifteen minute break? Know what your triggers are and plan for them before you walk into the discussion.

Other ground rules may be to limit the amount of time you spend on the conversation. One person may not be able to focus longer than 30 minutes, making anything over that time fruitless.

Some people may want the numbers ahead of time. They may need time to process and think through their feelings before the discussion, allowing them to not feel blindsided in the conversation.

Go beyond the numbers

As you work through your budget, commit to talking about what’s below the surface. Instead of becoming defensive over numbers, share what they represent and why their important. For example,

“This line is important to be because .....”

Being aware and identifying why you are spending, saving or investing your money is incredibly important for yourself and your spouse. You have to lead the conversation to find the underlying issues.

Lower your expectations

You may walk into a financial conversation with your spouse and expect to come to a conclusion by the end of it. Anything short of this may be a failure in your mind. Lower your expectations. Financial conversations are never a one and done type of deal. The first conversation may simply be to identify a problem. Turn your expectations into goals and realize that it may take time before you end up where you want to be.

There’s nothing to lose and everything to gain when you take the necessary steps to open the lines of financial communication with your spouse. While it may be difficult to return to the rosy glow of honeymooners, thoughtful, deliberate conversations about money in marriage can bring you one step closer to wedded bliss.