*Guest post: I often get messages from readers who are struggling with how to have productive money conversations with their significant others, so I’m excited about this post! Money is such a huge part of relationships, and a source for arguments in said relationships. I could have easily written an article about this myself, but I thought it would be way more interesting (and let’s be honest, way FUNNIER), if it came from my husband. So here we go, a “how to talk to your partner” article with a twist: real-life examples from our own lives, and from the unique perspective of someone who doesn’t just feel weird talking about money, but kind of dislikes it.*
Let’s say it’s 10:30 on a Sunday night. The house is blissfully quiet. I’m settling into bed, gently winding down, maybe reading a few pages of a book beside the mellow light of the table lamp. I feel cozy and relaxed and in a few minutes I’ll peacefully drift off into a nice deep sle–
“Hey, why is our food spending so high this month?”
“What was this check for $89 about?”
Oh my God, please please please not now.
“Sometimes I can’t believe how much money we spend! WHERE DOES IT ALL GO?”
That’s right, everyone…my wife, as she sometimes does, has whipped open the laptop and is loudly revving up the engines on Mint, taking our monthly budget for a spin, peeling out and doing donuts right there in FLAGRANT DISREGARD of my strict 10:30 bedtime.
Doesn’t she care that I’ll get fussy if my sleep needs aren’t religiously observed? LOL…nope!
On the other hand, do you think I’m up for some money-talk just as I’m winding down for the night? LOL…also nope!
To say that Luxe and I have different approaches when it comes to talking about money is…an understatement. Ask her a simple question about what kind of credit card to open and all of a sudden she lights up as though it’s time to gather round the campfire to tell ghost stories and roast marshmallows.
I, on the other hand…am not like that at all. I am not an easy person to talk to about money.
I am reluctant.
I am avoidant.
Also, It’s just not something I feel super-passionate about, despite its importance. Though I’ve gotten A LOT better, I have a long history of clinging to my safe little not-talking-about-money zone and letting things work themselves out. I am sort of like a groundhog–all snug and happy in my comfy little den. It’s nice and warm in there. I’ve got my straw-bed, my water bottle, maybe a chew toy, and I’m just chilling out, a carefree little furry guy but then–BAM…all of a sudden I get dragged out on some frigid morning in February with hundreds of people prodding and shouting stuff at me. You know what’s going to happen when you accost me like that? I’ll see my shadow and freak out and you’re going to get SIX MORE WEEKS of me not talking about money!
Your money is an essential product of your lives together as a couple–so much of your life’s work and goals all wrapped up in one category. Other than raising a child you could argue that it’s probably your most vital collaboration. But what if you don’t see eye to eye, or even worse, your partner just doesn’t take it seriously?
If you have a skittish little money groundhog like me in your life, then I have good news! First, if you’re just starting to get serious, and have never talked money with your significant other before, check out this piece full of icebreakers and conversation scripts. But if you’re already in for the long haul and still struggling, here are some of the tactics that have helped us talk money without Luxe getting annoyed or me having a heart attack.
Be Conscious of Your Timing, and Your Tone
But wait, first let’s back up for a second first, rule #1 is never ever feel apologetic about bringing up money, or feel that you need to avoid it, or tip-toe around it. Not only are you entitled to know exactly what’s going on and discuss it regularly, I would argue that a good relationship in part depends on having open lines of healthy communication about how you handle money.
That said, you should keep in mind that, since it can be an acutely sensitive topic, when and how you introduce it can dictate your result, for better or worse. The bedtime example I shared above? A 100% true story. Needless to say it did not yield a pleasant and fruitful conversation about our monthly food spending. Of course, you can bring up money any time you want, but if your partner isn’t up for it right then, you should probably respect that. At the same time, however, make sure you get him or her to commit to scheduling a time to talk things over. For me, weekend afternoons are perfect for sitting down to engage about money and plan what we want to accomplish with it. And, if Luxe plays her cards right I might even show up to our Sunday afternoon Money Talk with a tray of fresh-baked cookies!
Similarly, how you start the conversation can help influence where it goes. Luxe and I have this “catchphrase” to help us preemptively defuse tension. Instead of saying something like “Why haven’t you still called Chase yet about getting that late fee reversed??” she’ll say, “Honey, it would make me happy if you called Chase today about that late fee.”
See the difference?
“It would make me happy…” is like a miracle drug for me! It communicates the urgency (and yes, the irritation) but with a softened edge. Of course I want to make Luxe happy, who wouldn’t!
INSTEAD OF shouting across two rooms while your partner is making dinner to ask why he spent $6 on avocados
TRY approaching him when he is more relaxed and primed for conversation.
Be Specific and Give Examples
The quote I shared earlier: “I can’t believe how much money we spend! WHERE DOES IT ALL GO?” is also 100% real. And, as you might imagine, it was a complete non-starter for me. In that situation, I felt convinced the only satisfactory answer was “Honey, it’s because I am self-indulgent and not laser-disciplined like you and moreover can never hope to achieve your level of financial nirvana, but thank you for continuing to let me exist, nonetheless.” A better way for Luxe to have started the conversation would have been to isolate something specific and give an example of what was bothering her.
Specific examples are important because they can help de-personalize an issue. If you point to something specific it signals that the action itself is problematic and not me in general.
A specific is actionable, like: “Hmm, last month we spent $400 on restaurants. We usually only spend $300. What do you think happened?” Or “It’s bothering me that we’re still getting charged for Cable TV every month when we decided to get rid of it. Can we make a deadline for cancelling it so we don’t get charged again next month?”
If you feel anxious that you and your partner don’t have enough savings or that you’re spending too much money, then, once again, communicate those feelings with specifics.
A couple of weeks ago, Luxe said something like “can we spend some time this weekend going over money stuff?” My groundhog brain immediately read that as “oh no that could mean ANYTHING! Run away, run away…” But, brave little creature that I was, I stuck around and asked for specifics and she responded “Well, it feels like we could be saving more money than we are.” Ah! a specific conversation subject…now we’re talking.
INSTEAD OF saying “OMG your spending is starting to look like that runaway train from Snowpiercer!”
TRY saying “Hey, I was looking at our [specific problem] and I saw we ate out [quantity] last month. Can we try [concrete action step] next month?”
Have Goal-Oriented Conversations
Framing your money conversations as steps toward achieving future goals one of the best ways to have a painless and productive conversation. Even better, if you and your partner already have monthly spending budgets and savings goals, that means you also have perfect source material for these kinds of conversations. You have actual numbers and targets you can point to, and you also have actual goals and dreams you’ve always wanted to fulfill. Sounds like the perfect opportunity to talk about them!
Case in point, because I am royally indulgent when it comes to food, I don’t like packing my lunches for work, which means I usually spend about $10-12 a day on a sandwich, chips, a cookie, and a bottled water (and yes, I do eat the exact same lunch I did in 3rd grade.)
Now, you could just say something like “Look at how much your lunches cost, that’s insane!” (and you would be 100% right, though it wouldn’t get me to change), OR you could frame it around a goal.
“It sure would be nice to go Paris later this year, but the travel budget is kind of tight. I wonder…if you packed your lunch three days a week instead of eating out every day, that means you could save enough for a round-trip plane ticket to Paris in six months.” OR “Have you ever thought about how much earlier you could retire if you increase your savings another 10%?” Wait, what? PARIS…NOT HAVING TO WORK ANYMORE? Now I’m ready to talk!
INSTEAD OF getting frustrated with your partner that you aren’t saving enough money
TRY selling a shared dream first; then talk logistics.
Appeal to Your Partner’s Desire to “Help” You
If you feel your significant other isn’t treating your money seriously enough or is somehow working against your best interests, it can be infuriating. Maybe you’ve tried gently pointing it out, nagging, or even lashing out, and chances are those tactics haven’t worked out all that well. What really gets me inspired to buckle down and start working through a money issue is when it gets framed as a problem that needs my attention or help. If I feel like I’m helping my partner fix a problem I will buy in 100%. And if she explains how important the issue is to her, that will help even more.
Let’s say you have some shared credit card debt. For whatever reason your partner isn’t as concerned and it bugs you. If you ‘invite’ rather than ‘confront’ you may be surprised how receptive he or she is. You could say something like: “You know I’m really struggling with what to do about our debt situation. I’m not really comfortable letting it just ride like we’ve been doing. Do you think you could help me look at a few ways to start tackling it more than we’ve been doing?”
At this point in the conversation you’re not asking for the solution, just a commitment to sit down and talk. You’ll get to the potentially thorny stuff later, but by that point you will at least have some “buy-in” to help you address the issue.
Full disclaimer, I’m not a trained psychologist (or even an untrained one). But I can tell you that these are the kinds of things that totally work on me. It goes back to the “It would make me happy” line: tiny changes in communication style can leverage big changes in how you and your loved one handle money issues. By the way, this Jedi mind trick works on Luxe, too. I use it sometimes to gently prod her into doing the dishes, which she hates, muahahaha. It’s more effective than silently fuming about it and wishing she would just do them as part of our mutually agreed upon chores.
INSTEAD OF lashing out at your partner for generally not seeming to care about money
TRY asking her if she’ll help out by tracking her spending for a month so you can both start becoming more aware of where your money is going.
Don’t Judge…At Least Not Out Loud
Did you notice there’s one thing missing from all of these sections? That’s right, no judgments! To help illustrate this I’ve decided to share some archival footage of Luxe, in the early days of our relationship, reacting to some upsetting piece of information I’ve just shared about my money habits:
Maybe this was around the time we first started looking under the hood of my 401K, which at that point was basically just a sad old broken-down car with steam billowing out of the engine. And also, by the way, about that loan I had taken out against it about five years ago…which, folks, I NOW KNOW PERFECTLY WELL is a terrible idea. But at the time, I didn’t. Here’s the *super-productive* money conversation we had about that particular topic:
Luxe: “Why did you do that?”
Me: “Um…I don’t know. I just…I felt like I needed some extra cash just in case.”
[long, utterly excruciating pause]
Luxe: “But like…why? Did you not know all the compounding you missed out on?”
Me: “I– well, um…no”
Luxe: “I guess I’m just trying to understand the thought process behind this.”
[DEATHLY silence. Like, I literally want to fold myself like a Murphy bed up and out of the scene]
Me: “Well…uh…I guess maybe there wasn’t much of a thought process?”
Not fun! The phrase “I’m just trying to understand the thought process” actually came up a lot in those days, usually spoken by Luxe from the opposite end of the couch, arms severely folded and eyes downcast. Getting money information out of me was like pulling teeth.
Partly I was naturally uncomfortable talking about money and partly I was afraid of being judged. I would always interpret the “thought process” comment as an implied judgment and eventually start getting resentful and think “Hey, I totally made mistakes but I am trying to be better now. Cut me some slack!”
You don’t have to embrace or even agree with your partner’s decisions, but if you are committed to the relationship and to making your money work, then passing judgment can be undermining, and also risk making your partner less inclined to work with you toward your money goals.
Eventually we got to a point where Luxe would preface any critical or investigative question with words like “I promise not to judge…” or “Whatever the answer is, it’s fine, we’ll figure it out, but I’d still like to know…” Even better, we decided that whatever stupid money decisions I made before we were in a relationship were off limits for judging. Our working motto became “If it happened before, just close the door.”
INSTEAD OF saying “OMG you have the money IQ of a seven year-old. Whyyyy?”
TRY saying “You know I’ll always love you, but I also need you to know that it’s important to me that we talk more about our money.”
And Lastly…Start Slow, and Consider Your Patience an Investment
Like any big improvement you try to make in your life, getting your partner to better engage with you about money will probably take some time. It’s not like you’re going to fall asleep one night and wake up in the morning next to Warren Buffett holding forth on the virtues of compounding interest (which also, WOW, that would be weird).
Start slow. If your partner’s spending habits are bothering you, ask if the two of you can sit down and look at ways to improve your savings rate. You’ll be introducing it as a goal and framing the discussion as something positive. Yes, down the road you will get around to specific expenses that would need to cut, but by that time you’ll probably have his or her buy-in and commitment to helping you do better. Especially if they know it is important to you.
Give it a try, and I bet your groundhog will eventually see the light instead of just seeing his own shadow.
What about you? Do you have a money groundhog in your life? What frustrates you and how do you work around it? Folks, “it would make me happy” if you shared your stories in the comments…