Talking Money Matters In A Marriage

Written by on September 10, 2012 in Relationships - No comments | Print this page


When I told my husband I was writing an article about how to avoid fighting with your significant other about money, he said with a wry smile that the article could be one line long: Don’t talk about it.

While that may be the preferred method of dealing with touchy subjects in some relationships, it has actually never worked in ours. Like all potential sources of conflict, money talk can bring out the worst in people. It’s not because money itself is inherently good or bad, but because, like sex and division of household chores (the other two things couples argue most about) it is loaded with emotional baggage.

Despite wanting to think of ourselves as rational creatures, we humans each have a relationship with money, one built since childhood. Whether you grew up poor, rich or middle class, you have interacted with and been affected by money, for better or for worse, your whole life. Money triggers profound emotions, ones we are not likely to always understand or recognize, and we bring those emotions with us to any conversation about finances. While some financial history can be built and shared in the course of a relationship, those attitudes developed in one’s formative years will set the tone.

It is possible to change the tone, however, to break out of the confines of these emotional responses or even to use them to one’s advantage. When it’s time to talk about money (or anything, for that matter), use these tools to be most effective.

1. Act, don’t react.  As money is a trigger for most of us, it unleashes a flood of preprogrammed emotions and responses. When you feel flooded, rather than playing out these responses–reacting–take a moment to breath and to choose your behavior–to act. This may take more than a moment. You may need to say, “I am flooded right now and need to talk about this later.” This doesn’t mean endless delays, though; set a specific time at which to continue to conversation.

2. Analyze your relationship–with money.  Just as you would in any dysfunctional relationship, take the time to try and understand the origins of your reaction to money. In my case, I was able to trace an illogical fear of losing money back to several traumatic childhood experiences where I was punished severely (or saw a family member punished) for losing money or items of value. Furthermore, in my house we grew up with little money to spare, so I never learned anything about money–how to spend it, to save it, to manage it in any meaningful sense. My husband, on the other hand, saw his family become financially dependent on others after his father died and his mother lost the life insurance money in a bad investment. These not-insignificant events in our lives were all being brought to bear on our conversations about money, and they clouded our abilities to think and act objectively.

3. Use it, don’t lose it.  Because these responses were formed around trauma does not mean they are without value. The lessons learned about money frequently come from common life experiences, ones that may affect us as adults just as they did when we were children. Despite the grief losing money as a child caused me, it has taught me to keep careful track of those little pieces of paper we call cash, and to carry and use a sturdy wallet. My husband knows too well the frailty of life and has prepared well with ample life insurance to protect his family in the event of his death. And knowing how little I know about money, I have wisely given over the management of our family’s finances to my husband, with the  benefit that I have been able to learn from watching him manage them over our fifteen years together.

4. Create shared goals.  No relationship can be successful without common goals. Whether it’s to get married, start a family, move to Wichita or live on a boat, these goals must be discussed and agreed upon in advance. Save the big surprises for birthdays. It’s the same with financial goals: do you want to buy a house or rent? Save for retirement or depend on Social Security? Pay for the kids’ college or get loans? But it’s the little things, too: do you want to buy a $100 couch or a $1,000 couch? Store brand groceries or brand name? Clothes from Goodwill or The Gap? By setting spending and savings goals in advance, it will be easier to make these daily decisions, if only by necessity. There is a key element to all of this: You must both not only agree on these goals but live them as well. Without mutual effort, you will never get the desired results.

5. Be honest.  As much as humans lie about matters of the heart, we lie as much–if not more–when it comes to matters of money. We lie, not only to each other but to ourselves, because money makes us feel so many things about who we are and the value of our lives. As the recent wave of suicides in Europe due to economic hardships has shown, money–yes, money, those insignificant little slips of paper, those numbers flashing on the screen at the ATM–can cause profound despair and fear unrivaled by most of life’s trials. So when you talk about money, don’t lie, not even a little bit to shave a few dollars off here, or the full impact of your spending there. Tell the whole truth, because the whole consequences (and benefits) will affect you both, and better to face (and enjoy) them together.

The more effectively you are able to talk about money and rent problems with your significant other, the more it will come to characterize your relationship as a whole. These tools–action instead of reaction, self-awareness, shared goals, honesty–will serve you well in all aspects of your life together. When you’ve had the chance to weather a few challenges together, and worked well as a team through it all, you will find those challenges easier to face when they inevitably arise again. Money will come and go, but nothing pays the bills like a partner in a storm.

This is a guest post.  Ruth is a finance writer and after a long marriage knows the importance of being open and honest about the money in her personal life too. No marriage can survive on secrets and sometimes money secrets are the most dangerous of all.

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