After a flash of anxiety over whether I was failing to help this couple communicate, I realized what was really going on. Of course my office was the only place they argued about money. It was the only place they ever discussed money.
For couples who want a healthy relationship with each other and with money, it is essential to break the taboo against talking about money. Sometimes, especially at first, those are difficult and contentious conversations. The following suggestions may make it easier to begin those discussions.
1. Learn one another’s money history. A common source of conflict for couples stems from their different money scripts, the unconscious beliefs about money that underlie their financial choices and behavior.
Suppose, for example, he is absolutely certain at a deep level that “there is always more where that came from,” while she is equally sure that “the only security is having money in the bank.” No wonder they are going to disagree on how much to save for the future.
Learning their own and their partner’s beliefs about money is eye-opening for many couples. Understanding that a money conflict may be based on “dueling beliefs” can help partners get past assumptions of “I’m right and you’re wrong” and make money differences easier to resolve.
2. Create a spending plan. Simply knowing exactly what is coming in and what is going out is essential. The first step is to take an inventory of current income and current spending. Then the budget can evolve into a financial plan to help couples establish and meet goals for the future.
Of course, setting up a spending plan when you can’t talk about money can be a real challenge for many couples. It can be valuable to involve a third party. Depending on a couple’s needs, it may be helpful to find a bookkeeper or accountant to help set up a budgeting system, work with a financial planner, or get help from a financial coach or therapist. A third person can provide a safe space to have a conversation about money and also help keep that conversation on track.
3. Invest both time and money in the coupleship. Budgeting for date nights, planning time together, taking annual vacations or couples’ retreats, and spending money for counseling that may be needed to help resolve conflicts are all important ways to invest in the relationship. A healthy partnership not only adds fulfillment and happiness to each person’s life; it also contributes to their financial health.
4. Understand the difference between privacy and secrecy. How much are you entitled to know about your spouse’s money decisions? Most of the time, more openness is better.
If one partner is responsible for most of the day-to-day money management or the couple’s investments, it is essential for the other partner to have full access to accounts and be involved in decisions. At the same time, each spouse is entitled to have some money—an equal personal allowance—that is private money, to be spent without needing the partner’s input or approval.
There is one simple way to decide whether keeping silent about a money concern is privacy or secrecy. Is this something you would be ashamed or embarrassed for your partner to know? If so, it is a potentially destructive money secret.
Becoming more comfortable talking about money is crucial if couples want to resolve their money differences. Couples build stronger financial and emotional partnerships when they can transform money arguments into money conversations.