A Penny For Your Thoughts: Helping Couples Talk About Money

Regular readers of this blog know that I’m passionate about the subject of emotions and money. In my work, I often help individuals examine the ways their beliefs about money influence financial decision-making – sometimes on an unconscious level. Recently I was asked how I could help couples work on money issues within a relationship.

Usually one person in a relationship will take care of the financial matters and accounting tasks. This role may have evolved implicitly or explicitly, perhaps early on, and may not have been openly discussed or revisited since. This is true of most couples. I believe it is a disservice to both partners. This division of labor results in a “one-sided” money relationship with many consequences.

On the one hand, the person who “manages everything,” may feel that he or she is shouldering an unequal, and perhaps unacknowledged, burden. There may have been an assumption that one person would naturally manage the finances. Knowledge that is not shared is inherently unequal.

Another consequence is that conversations about money don’t happen easily. The managing partner may say something like, “Do you realize that you spent (x amount of dollars) on such-and-such an item?” The spouse hears the question as an accusation, suggesting that he or she has an irresponsible, money-grows-on-trees attitude. Immediately the conversation is in trouble.

To help couples learn how to have constructive conversations about money I propose the following three “operating principles.” First, realize that each of you has had a very different upbringing, and therefore is likely to have quite different attitudes and beliefs about money. One partner may have a carefree attitude about money, believing that it will always be available when needed. The other person may worry there will never be enough. These are profound differences of belief, not opinion.

Such opposing views are a major source of misunderstanding, and will invariably clash unless they are acknowledged and examined. In order to work together, partners need to acknowledge and empathize with one another’s existing beliefs about money. Perhaps you have never discussed or thought about these issues. Now is the time.

The second principle is this: when you sit down to discuss money, treat one another as if you had just met. Don’t assume anything! It is time to test what you “think” you know about the other person’s values about money. Start with “big picture” topics such as retirement. Do your partner’s retirement plans conflict with your goal of saving for the kids’ educations? What about caring for an aging parent? List each of your top three to five financial priorities.

Third, treat the conversation as a mission of discovery. Your purpose is to compare your respective goals with those you shared or thought you shared years ago. Have these goals changed? Chances are you haven’t had a conversation like this in a long while. You are “checking in” to see if the two of you still have a common vision and similar financial priorities.

Obviously this is a much larger topic than the present discussion allows. I’d like to wrap up with a tip for your initial efforts. Schedule some time to talk with your partner about money matters. Avoid bringing up specific spending issues until you can begin to understand one another’s point of view. Following the steps outlined above can pave the way for couples to reconnect – not simply argue – about money. Let me know how it goes for you.

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