Let’s set the scene: a newlywed couple is discussing their financial values. She wants to travel to Europe and experience the finer things in life. He wants a saving strategy to pay for their retirement and day-to-day expenses. Because she values experiences and spending time with her partner, she feels like she is missing out… and she blames him. Because he values saving and security, their financial lives are less stable than he’d like… and he blames her. Can you imagine the level of tension in this room?
We see these types of conversations all too often at Guiding Wealth. When you aren’t on the same page with your partner, you both feel unsettled. Even if you’ve been married for years (and sometimes decades!), these money disagreements may still arise. Finding consensus with your spouse is essential to having a stable financial life, and financial harmony within a marriage is critical to financial success.
“It shouldn’t be this difficult!” you’ve probably thought to yourself — but as many couples know, it is. However, it is possible to remedy.
Talking About Money Can Feel Threatening
Regardless of your financial situation or how long you’ve been married, 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.
Money is so deeply rooted into our lives that, when it comes to money conversations, we’re not talking just about money. We’re talking about values.
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 retirement. Setting aside money is great, but what about spending a little on that trip you’ve always wanted to take? Understanding your own values is tough enough. When you have to factor in another person’s values to your own financial strategy, things can get tense. The opportunities for conflict are endless.
Money conversations might feel threatening, but they need to happen. So what do you do about it?
Establish Ground Rules for Money Talks
First, it helps to establish some ground rules to give your money talks a little structure. Have a productive money conversation by asking yourself the following questions beforehand:
- Which topics will you talk about? Which are off limits? 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.
- What happens when you or your spouse gets overwhelmed by the details? You might stop the meeting and pick it back up another time, or take a fifteen minute break before reconvening. Know what your triggers are and plan for them before you walk into the discussion.
- How much time will you set aside for your conversation? One person may not be able to focus longer than 30 minutes, making anything discussed after that point fruitless.
Make Conversations About Money Safe
The fastest way to make a conversation feel threatening is to start accusing your spouse. Remember, this is a values conversation, not just a money conversation. Neither of you wants your values to be minimized or insulted. You may also have long-standing habits or conversation styles, depending on how long you’ve been together, and this is where extra attention may be required.
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 a certain thing, but respecting and accepting their decision is the important thing here.
Here are some practical steps you can take to make 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. Set aside a chunk of time that’s dedicated to talking about money only.
- Recognize 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 equivalent to torture. Find a middle ground and play to each other’s strengths.
- 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 you begin to feel tense and irritable, refocus your attention. It’ll make a difference in the way you speak to your spouse and approach the conversation.
As you work through your finances, commit to talking about what’s below the surface. Try not to become defensive over numbers; rather, share what they represent and why they’re important to you. Use this phrase:
“This line is important to me because …..”
Remember that your spouse may not know your reasons why you are spending, saving or investing your money a certain way. That’s what communication is for. Having these conversations will help you discover those underlying reasons so you can better understand each other’s choices.
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. However, financial conversations are never a one-and-done type of deal, so it’s important to keep your expectations in check.
Your first money conversation may simply identify a problem. That problem won’t be fixed at the end, but future conversations will work towards a solution. Turn your expectations into goals and realize that it may take time before you end up where you want to be in the end. And remember… patience is a virtue.
There’s nothing to lose and everything to gain when you take the necessary steps to open lines of financial communication with your spouse. Take the time to plan money talks so they can be safe and productive. Ultimately, this communication will help you understand your spouse’s values. Thoughtful, deliberate conversations about money in marriage can bring you one step closer to financial harmony.
Share Your Communication Preferences
We all have our own money values, and we all have a preferred style of communicating when we talk about money. Sharing your communication preferences with your partner can help keep emotions in check during money talks. It can even help when you’re meeting with financial advisors to receive information and make important decisions.
Our Communications Preferences worksheet is a great tool that can help you and your spouse understand each other’s communication habits. You might prioritize straightforward, blunt conversations that get to the heart of the matter. But your spouse may prefer slower-paced conversations that consider information from all angles and give you time to process. Once you understand (and leverage) each other’s communication preferences, you can work toward reaching the goals that are important to you both.