Talking about money with your partner or spouse might not be easy. Or particularly fun. But other than that, it’s great! (Trust us.)
After all, a calm conversation about finances and budgeting now might head off a fight later—not to mention a lack of funds in your various banking accounts. (Or worse: A study by Jeffery Dew at Utah State University revealed that couples that fought about money more than once a week were 30 percent more likely to get divorced.)
So now that we’ve established why you need to have this conversation, here are some things to keep in mind for when you do.
1. It’s only money
We’re kidding, sort of. The reality is, for better or worse, many of us connect at least some of our self-worth to money—how much we make, and how much we have. (And what we get when we spend it.) That’s why it becomes such an emotional issue.
So because you’re not a robot, keep in mind that emotions might run a little high during this conversation. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but you’ll want to make sure any discussion remains civil, constructive and productive. That starts with having a little humility and even humor about the topic, and continues with… well, keep reading.
2. Money is a big topic. Break it down into smaller topics.
We suggest tackling the following topics in this order:
Budget. Start by adding up what you’re bringing in every month after taxes. Then look at a few predictable-ish expenses: Your groceries, your energy bills, your rent or mortgage. Account for any debt that either of you is paying off. And make a record of, say, the past few months’ expenditures on niceties, from eating out to travel to clothes. There are no wrong answers in this exercise—you’re simply trying to create a record of what you’re earning and what you’re spending. (There are plenty of online tools you can use, not to mention a bumper crop in budgeting apps.)
From there, you can start creating expectations about future months, and prioritizing what you spend. You’ll learn what you’re spending too much on (if anything), and where you have a little wiggle room. More importantly, you’ll be able to determine if you’re happy with where your money is going.
Savings and retirement. This should be part of your budget conversation, of course, but it’s also its own topic. Simply put, you’ll want to discuss your current state of savings, and your goals, and how those goals relate to your values. Is either of you maxing out your 401k? Have you considered an IRA? What other savings accounts do you have? Do you have access to enough money to cover roughly 3-6 months’ expenses, in accordance with expert guidance? Get this all down on paper, if you can. Talk through your dreams and your goals, and use your budget to inform your priorities and decisions.
The fun stuff. If you’re fortunate enough to have money left over after considering your budget and long-term savings goals, decide how you want to spend it. Perhaps you want to invest in the market or put it toward a housing upgrade (or even a vacation). Maybe there’s a meaningful opportunity for philanthropy, or maybe you can just afford a regular splurge night out. And even if you don’t have the funds now, make time to outline some realistic goals for the future.
3. You have nothing to hide
Unless you’ve been laundering money or something similarly nefarious, you probably want to be as honest with your partner as possible. If anything, admitting past or ongoing mistakes (not keeping up with your student loan payments, or spending too much on ostrich-skin jackets) will make it easier for your partner to admit theirs.
Some experts recommend starting by letting your partner note any questionable expenses on a recent bank statement quietly, in writing. This will allow you to acknowledge mistakes, or even explain why an expense was necessary. This will also create an environment of trust, and let you take a look at small expenditures in the context of the bigger picture.
Remember: This isn’t about punishment or a reckoning, this is about an honest assessment of your finances, and where you want them to go. Which brings us to the next point.
4. Be goal-oriented. And schedule follow-ups.
Getting out of debt. Buying a house. Putting the kids through college. Retiring comfortably. These are some fairly common financial goals, and each one will benefit from advanced planning. They’re also the kinds of things where one half of a couple might have different priorities than the other, so a conversation now will keep you on the same page later.
But just as important: A goal deserves a plan. Create realistic savings milestones that you can measure, then start meeting monthly or quarterly to check in on how you’re doing. Once you start this conversation about money, you’ll want to keep it going as long as the relationship does.
5. Sometimes writing is better than talking
Consider writing down your personal and even your family’s financial history, including your perspective on what your family did well and what it could’ve done better. This will help you articulate your own goals and even your own viewpoint on money. For example, you can simultaneously feel grateful that your family was thrifty and feel remorse that your parents didn’t treat themselves more often with some of that money. It’s good for your partner to know how you feel, and writing is a good way to do so dispassionately, without getting sidetracked.
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6. Ask questions. Listen more than you talk.
That old saw about why you have more ears than mouths applies here. Your mission here is to understand your partner’s point of view on money, and ensure that you’re aligned (or if not, if you’re misaligned in a way that’s still compatible). If there’s something you really don’t understand, don’t be afraid to ask. Avoid accusations or an accusatory tone. Offer to come back to a topic if things get heated. Resist any urges to cut someone off, or crack a joke. A little self-deprecation here and there is fine, but this is serious stuff. Treat it with respect.
7. Choose a quiet, distraction-free environment. Leave the house if you must.
It’s easy to get sidetracked when you’re at home, where there’s dishes to wash and TVs to watch and on and on. Go to a quiet coffee shop, or even your office if it’s the weekend, so you can buckle down and stay on task. Or find a space in your house where you’re unlikely to be distracted. Clear off your dining table, or just sit on the couch with your stereo and your TV turned off. And your iDevices at a distance. If you have kids, wait until they’ve gone to bed, or take advantage of your family’s offers to babysit. Crowd out interruptions as much as possible.
8. Make the conversation fun. Maybe even treat it like a date.
Related to the above, try to make this something you can look forward to. Either by baking in a fun activity (say, a nice dinner or a hike afterward), or by meeting at a favorite spot (that cafe with the delicious lattes, or the quiet afternoon bar that pours perfect pints). Many of us dread this conversation, but think of it this way: You’re putting in some hard work now to help secure your financial future later. Might as well enjoy it. (NOTE: We’re mostly referring to follow-up conversations here, as the first conversation might involve disclosing sensitive financial information you’d want to keep private.)
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9. Call in a pro
And if all else fails, there are experts (like financial advisors and financial planners) who specialize in this sort of thing. Now, ideally, you’ll have done some prep work and talking with your partner before your meeting, rather than having those conversations while the proverbial meter is running. But if you really can’t tackle this on your own, or if you think a third party is what the two of you need, turning to an impartial, unbiased, professional with experience with these conversations can be a huge help.
Don’t lose sight of what really matters… Each other
While money is obviously important, try to approach this conversation with honesty and a pinch of levity. After all, you’ve already experienced so much together: dating, maybe planning a wedding or even having children. Surely, you can go about balancing a budget like two, responsible adults. Better yet, it’ll be less awkward than a first date, and less messy than changing diapers. (We hope.)
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Louis Wilson is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in a wide array of publications, both online and in print. He often writes about travel, sports, popular culture, men’s fashion and grooming, and more. He lives in Austin, Texas, where he has developed an unbridled passion for breakfast tacos, with his wife and two children. This article is sponsored by Haven Life Insurance Agency. Opinions are his own.