Ask couples what they fight about most, and money is sure to be at the top of the list. Decades of research have shown that common clashes are sparked by different spending habits, different financial values (which influence spending habits), and how to raise financially smart kids.
While dealing with money isn’t always easy, it doesn’t have to drive a wedge in your relationship. These strategies will ensure your financial discussions with your partner are productive and — dare we suggest — maybe even something to look forward to.
Meet Regularly — but Don’t Discuss Money
When couples fight about money, the classic mistake is to think that having a regular “money talk” will help solve things. Unlikely.
That’s because the source of most financial disagreements is that one person’s values don’t line up with the other’s. In order to truly ease money stress, you have to start by understanding the bigger wants and needs and priorities of your partner.
Make time to meet regularly and focus on things you both want out of life. It doesn’t have to be a long conversation — maybe 30 minutes, or an hour.
Consider bringing a list of topics to each meeting, but don’t expect to cover them all. There will be other meetings, and it’s more important to leave each conversation with a sense that you understand each other better. You might raise some common questions:
Do you want kids? Do you want pets? Do you want to live a certain lifestyle? Start a business? Retire early? Send the kids to private school vs. public?
How important is it to have a vacation each year, or is it more important to have a beautiful home — or both?
Do you both believe in working hard and playing hard? Working to live or living to work? These may sound like cliches, but dig into each topic to get at each person’s core feelings.
Create a Safe Space
A key aspect of these non-money talks has to be a spirit of openness, not criticism or judgment. You’re trying to get to know one another in a slightly different way. Ask questions, take time to listen to each other’s answers.
While these sessions may seem uncomfortable at first, having these non-financial conversations may actually prevent important issues from causing conflicts.
Again, keep these conversations fairly short. The idea is to find common ground, and that may not happen right away. So don’t expect to agree, expect to learn something new about your partner.
Look for Shared Goals and Points of Agreement
Even couples that fight about money, also agree on plenty of financial issues. Be sure to pay attention as you discover these points in common, and celebrate the fact that you have them.
Knowing that you have financial goals and priorities in common, not just pain points, can build your confidence and momentum and lead to the good part of all this: Having more fun because you’re not stressed about money squabbles!
Address Financial Topics as Organically as You Can
Rather than set up more meetings (who has time?), you can use your newfound empathy and sense of shared values to tackle topics as they come up naturally in your day-to-day lives.
Now you can talk about spending when you get the credit card bill, or when you have to make a tough choice between two competing priorities. In some ways it’s less stressful to discuss whether to refinance the house or set up a Roth IRA when that question comes up organically, rather than trying to anticipate bigger issues.
Be sure to take the opportunity to make sure you’re including something fun in your financial plan. Money is for the future, and it’s also for the present, so make sure you enjoy it.
Let Go of Resentment
Financial inequity between partners — say, if one person has a lot of debt or there’s a large disparity between incomes — can be a common source of tension.
If you feel like one person’s debt is holding you both back, remember that it doesn’t have to last forever. There are many strategies for paying off debt — talking it through will help you find the right path for you both. You might also decide to meet with a financial advisor who can help you prioritize, budget, and sometimes even refinance to break even faster.
In cases of income disparity, it may help to reframe each partner’s contribution to the household. Yes, one person may bring in more (or all) of the household income, but be clear on the non-monetary intangibles that the other person is contributing. Cooking, cleaning, watching the kids, caring for aging relatives — these duties all add up and represent what each of you is bringing to the household.
Create incentives to stick with your financial meeting schedule. Maybe that means taking your laptops to your favorite coffee shop, or treating yourselves to a movie night afterward.
Another idea is to reward yourselves as a couple after you hit a predetermined financial goal or milestone. For example, every month you successfully increase your emergency fund by a target amount, you might choose to enjoy a nice restaurant meal.
Even a free indulgence — like a walk around your favorite lake after the discussion — can be effective. Just make it something that you both enjoy (bonus points if it’s something that you don’t do all the time so it feels extra special). That way, you’ll look forward to it.
The best way to take the sting out of discussing finances with your partner is to start by getting in sync as people, understanding each other’s values and perspectives. Scheduling time to talk monthly (or whatever cadence works for you) allows you to also savor the ways you are on the same page already, and what some of those shared goals are.
Don’t try to meet about big hairy financial goals that aren’t on the table yet. You do have to plan ahead, but it’s also important (and less stressful) to address money matters as they arise naturally. Then, get back to the fun of living your lives together the rest of the time.
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