Talking about money with your spouse or partner isn't easy, but these helpful bits of expert advice should help make the conversation a healthy and productive one.
Maintaining a healthy marriage or long-term relationship takes a lot of work and communication. But if you and your spouse or partner aren’t talking to each about money, specifically, it could be undoing all the hard work you’re doing in the other areas of your marriage.
“Occasionally I’ll meet with clients and can tell that they’re on different pages financially,” said Holly Peterson, owner of Elite Retirement Strategies in Pocatello, Idaho. “When I meet with a couple and one indicates that they are an aggressive saver and the other is laid back and doesn’t track their spending, I know immediately that they are not on the same page in multiple ways. Each person will have a completely different attitude when it comes to money and how they treat it.”
If you and your spouse are unable to communicate about money, then neither of you is setting your partnership up for success. Don’t let that happen. Here are twelve pieces of advice from financial and relationship experts that can help you and your partner start a healthy, productive money conversation.
1. Be honest and be open.
Chad Rixse is the founder of Far North Capital in Anchorage Alaska. He cited “honest and open communication” as a crucial component in successful marriages and long-term relationships. “Relationships that harbor secrets or are dysfunctional on the communication end rarely, if ever, work out long-term,” he said.
“Even if you and your spouse (or significant other) share different financial principles or goals, if you are able to be open and honest about your current individual financial pictures, expectations, management styles, and habits, it’s far easier to find common ground and align your financial lives together.”
Personal finance educator Denise Myhand, founder of The Wealth Culture, an organization dedicated to the narrowing the wealth gap for women and minorities, agreed that partners being honest and open in their communications is key to successful money conversations.
“Let your partner know what is going with you financially or if you have any concerns,” she said. “Do you have debt that the partner needs to know about, maybe you have nothing saved for retirement or you don’t like combining your money because you feel like you are being controlled. Whatever the issue is you have to share it to resolve it. You and your partner can not address issues if you both are not aware of them.”
2. Don’t wait. Start talking now.
Syble Solomon is the creator of Money Habitudes, a personality profile and financial conversation starter game for couples. Her advice is to quit waiting and start talking about money with your partner ASAP.
“Start by acknowledging to your partner that talking about money can feel awkward, but it builds trust and lays a stronger foundation for your relationship,” she said.
Sounds scary, right? Don’t worry, Solomon offered some other helpful tips to help you ease into the conversation:
- “H.A.L.T.: When getting started, give yourself the advantage of a time and place where you can relax; planning a quiet evening to talk about money over coffee is much better than right after fighting about the credit card bill. Think of the acronym H.A.L.T.; don’t try to have this conversation when someone is hungry, angry, lonely or tired.
- “Avoid numbers—at least at first. There seems to be a lot of advice that tells couples that the first money conversation they should have is doing a budget or going over credit reports. Think about working up to that and first get comfortable talking about finances in more general terms.
- “Reminisce. An easy way to begin is to just share your memories. Remember the first time you bought something with your own money? What did you buy? How did you get the money? A simple conversation like this proves that you can talk about money in a constructive way and lays the foundation for future conversations and understanding. Then you can talk about debt and credit scores, etc.!”
3. Pull your credit reports and go through them together.
Todd Huettner is the president of Huettner Capital, a residential mortgage bank located in Denver, CO. He recommended that you and your spouse start your financial conversation by going through your credit reports.
Credit reports document your history as a borrower and contain the information used to create your credit score. Most information on these reports goes back seven years, while some information (like bankruptcies) stays on your reports for longer.
You actually have three different credit reports, one each from the three major credit reporting agencies: Experian, TransUnion, and Equifax. You can request one free copy of each report annually, just visit www.AnnualCreditReport.com.
Huettner suggested that you pull your credit reports and walk through them together looking for the following:
- “What are your credit scores? Similar scores can highlight common attitudes toward risk and finances including savings, borrowing, managing debt. Vastly different scores are definitely something to discuss. If you both have low scores, now is the time to look at how you can improve your finances together.
- “Why are any scores low? There are perfectly understandable reasons why someone may have bad credit. However, repeated mistakes can indicate something other than bad luck.
- “Look at prior names and name variations. Now is the time to fess up if you were previously married. It is much uglier to find out later.
4. Learn your partner’s underlying values.
The way your partner deals with money might completely confound you. If that’s the case, it’s safe to assume that you don’t just find their behavior confounding, but extremely frustrating as well. So instead of looking at the things they do with money, take the time to figure out why they’re doing them.
“When it comes to communication about money between partners, I like to take a holistic approach,” said money coach and founder of Bountiful Money Cecilia Case. I ask my clients and their partners to both go through exercises that help them understand their underlying values. They then compare their answers.”
“This provides a basis for understanding what your partner is valuing when they do something with money that isn’t what they would do. When they understand their partner’s values and motivations, it becomes easier to see that the spouse wasn’t doing it to make you mad, they were doing it because it made sense to them. That can be the start for a supportive and understanding give and take between loving partners.”
Certified Financial Education Instructor Kassandra Dasent likewise stressed the importance of “how each person’s experience with money in the past has shaped their understanding and interaction with it in the present.”
“Through open, honest and non-judgmental communication, couples will be able to make financial decisions that meet their needs, address some of their wants and overall improve their quality of life,” she said.
5. Decide on one common financial goal.
They say that opposites attract. And they’re often right. This is just as true for money as it is anything else—maybe even more so. The odds are good that you and your partner have very different approaches to money and financial issues.
That’s why Holly Peterson suggests you and your partner pick one common financial goal and work towards it, “whether it’s creating a budget, getting credit card spending under control or pledging to put a portion of your income towards retirement.”
“It’s also important to be on the same page for overall goals,” she added. “You both probably want to retire by a certain age, now you need to work together to figure out how to make that a reality. Have regular check-ins with each other for support and accountability.”
Additionally, focusing on one financial goal will also help you and your spouse from biting off more than you can chew!
6. Make regular appointments to talk.
Dasent recommended that couples in a marriage or a committed relationship set aside time regularly to talk about finances. She also specified that these sessions should be held on a minimum monthly basis.
“Regardless if one partner is responsible for the day to day financial decisions, it is important that both partners know what their money is being spent on and how that may be affecting the progress of their financial and life goals,” she said.
“Expect to talk about money in casual spontaneous times but also in scheduled and routine times,” offered Carrie Krawiec, a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist at Birmingham Maple Clinic in Troy, MI. “Monitor your body for signs of getting overwhelmed or frustrated and plan to take breaks, limit time, or reschedule if either person gets too heated.
“If you must take a break or quit early,” she added, “make a concerted effort to return as avoiding only makes it harder to come back and makes it more difficult as a couple to resolve money problems.”
7. Don’t make it personal.
A marriage is a very personal thing, but talking about how money works in your relationship is going to require a bit more detachment. Otherwise, the conversation could go off the rails fast.
“When discussing past mistakes or current debt, don’t make it personal, just remain objective,” said Rixse. “Ultimately, your goal is to move forward in harmony and work towards mutual goals that will benefit not only each of you individually but your marriage as well.
“If objectivity is difficult to obtain, bring a third-party in like a financial planner or trusted family member that can remove any negative emotions that might be wrapped up in the conversations together and help you see each other’s side in a healthy way.”
8. Be proactive.
Are things going okay between you and your spouse right now money-wise? Great. That means this is the perfect time to start talking about finances.
“Be proactive,” said Myhand. “Discuss your finances regularly and be planful. Don’t wait for something to come up to discuss what you are going to do.
“Waiting till something happens can create extra financial and emotional stress that can be a burden on your relationship. Setting financial goals and budgeting regularly will help you be proactive and keeps everyone on the same page.”
9. Learn healthy problem-solving skills.
Identifying a problem is step one. Step two is actually fixing it. The more tools and positive problem-solving skills you have at your disposal, the better.
“Create a goal, Brainstorm objectives for reaching the goal, choose a handful of objectives that make sense,” said Krawiec. “Rough out a plan saying who will do what and then meet weekly to track progress and troubleshoot as necessary.”
She also offered the following guidelines for healthy problem-solving:
- “A goal should be positive and future-focused so not ‘Spend less’ but rather ‘Put 20 percent of income in savings each month.’
- “When brainstorming each idea should not be judged. Then cross off ideas that don’t work. Choose a few you are willing and able to do.
- “Don’t expect 100 percent success.
- “Meet weekly to congratulate successes and rework problem areas.”
10. Practice positive reinforcement.
When you’re part of a couple, you divide the chores and other household duties. Money is no different. One person is going to end up being responsible for the couple’s finances. That’s no small job, and it’s on the other partner to give them positive reinforcement.
“Give frequent gratitude and praise to the person responsible for managing the household finances,” said Krawiec, adding that, “Happy marriages have five positive interactions for each one negative.
“If you are the person responsible for money give specific directions of your expectations and frequent positive feedback for cooperation. If you are the person who is not the household accountant give thanks that this important job function is done for you.”
More than simply offering positive reinforcement, Krawiec laid out how you can avoid negative behaviors and modes of communication:
“Avoid criticism (character attacks; “you are so stingy” or “you think money grows on trees” and stick to factual complaints “I dislike when you spend cash on out to eat meals when you can pack a lunch or eat at home.” )
“Avoid defensiveness (cross-complaining, rebutting, denying). Avoid contempt (which is eye-rolling, sneering, sarcasm, name-calling) and lastly, avoid stonewalling which is shutting down.
“These are John Gottman’s 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse or 4 behavior characteristic of marriages that end in divorce,” she added.
11. Choose success over shame.
Do you and/or your spouse have trouble maintaining positive financial behaviors over a longer period of time? You’re not alone. Here’s Huettner’s description of what he calls the “Financial Shame Cycle”:
“Paying your bills on time, spending wisely, saving money are all things people could tell you are good financial habits just like eating right, exercising regularly, and getting lots of sleep are good health habits. Then why are they so hard to do?
“The Financial Shame Cycle is something I created to explain why personal finance can be so difficult for many people even though we “know” the basics.
“Shame is different because we do not feel we simply made a mistake. With shame we feel we are bad inherently and ‘just aren’t good with money.’
“The stages in the cycle are:
- “We don’t know what to do/how to start so we don’t do anything.
- “We know what to do, but we don’t have a plan that we feel will succeed, so we don’t start.
- “We don’t see progress/success so we reinforce our belief that we are not good and start back at one.”
“If you or your significant other experiences these feelings, you need to do a little more work,” said Huettner. Luckily, he also offered the steps that a couple can take to exit the “Financial Shame Cycle” and enter the “Financial Success Cycle” instead:
“It all begins with the acceptance that we are not the only ones who have these struggles and we just need to get learn to handle our finances.” The steps for Huettner’s Financial Success Cycle include:
- “Information: get help and informed on where you are financially.
- “Confidence: create a plan to achieve your goal.
- “Progress: create small steps to take to see your successes.
“Communication is a key part of building a strong relationship and financial conversations are no different. You will have this conversation at some point; either now to start your relationship or far too late when it is ending. There is too much at stake to wait,” said Huettner.
12. See how one CFP talks to their spouse.
Getting your finances together can seem like a pretty daunting task. And it’s certainly going to take some hard work—from both you and your spouse. The other 11 tips contained in this article can help you out, but it’s always nice to see healthy financial practices in action.
That’s why we’ll leave with you with this snapshot from Certified Financial Planner Krista A. Cavalieri, owner of Evolve Capital, of how she and her husband talk to each other about money:
“My husband and I have a pretty decent baseline of healthy communication which is key to any conversation but especially so when it comes to money because as we all know, money is a very sensitive topic.
“We do not have formal monthly or weekly meetings, which are sometimes needed depending on the couple. We have a very open line of communication and both log into our budgeting tool quite often to ensure things are moving along. We casually chat about money about once a week often in relation to going to dinner or a possible weekend trip. These conversations help us reconnect and confirm that we are on the same page about the overall goal of our money.
“We often clear out of the ordinary purchases with one another. While it used to be of a certain dollar amount (about $100) we have found that because of the Amazon prime and the good old add on items, we talk about purchase more frequently.
“We also discuss activities for the children and try to come to a common ground on what activities we feel are worth spending money on and when. Such as gymnastics for our middle child, we both agree it might be better to wait until she can do it without needing a parent.
“While we haven’t settled on a date for retirement we talk about it in theory, such as if we might relocate and also to confirm with one another that we would like to travel.”
Talking to your spouse about money isn’t something you can do in a one-time-only session; it’s a conversation you two will be having for the rest of your lives.
Cecilia Case is a Money Coach and founder of Bountiful Money. Money intertwines with nearly every aspect of our lives, and its power can make it an intimidating problem to fix. Cecilia uses a direct but gentle method of exploring your past, understanding your values and goals, and helping you find your own path to money health and success. You can heal your relationship with money, and find peace and prosperity in your personal finances!
Krista Cavalieri started Evolve Capital when she realized there was no way for young people (like her) to get good financial advice tailored to them. Not one size fits all financial products or minimums they can’t reach. Just because they are young doesn’t mean they should be ignored. Krista has been in financial planning since 2010 and prior to that traded foreign exchange with UBS after graduating from The Ohio State University. She also holds the CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNING designation.
Kassandra Dasent (@kassandradasent) is a Certified Financial Education Instructor, certified credit analyst, and personal finance expert. “Minding Your Money” is what Kassandra Dasent specializes in. Focusing on how the emotional quotient can have a direct and lasting impact on one’s relationship with money, she successfully communicates to her audiences practical ways on how to improve their financial circumstances. To learn more, visit KassandraDasent.com.
A recognized real estate and personal finance expert with over twenty years of experience, Todd Huettner is frequently quoted in the business press including The Wall Street Journal, CNBC, Credit Karma, and Realtor.com. He is President of Huettner Capital (@HuettnerCapital), a residential mortgage bank located in Denver, CO. In addition to earning an economics degree and an M.B.A., Todd has held his real estate license in multiple states and been an underwriter, financial analyst, and consultant.
Carrie Krawiec (@CarrieJKLMFT) is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist at Birmingham Maple Clinic in Troy, MI. Carrie provides individual, couple and family therapy with interest areas including a variety of relationship issues such as adult family conflict, family business conflict, family conflicts between parents and teens, relationship and marriage counseling, peer relationships, communication, and emotional regulation. Carrie has specific training in Parent Management Training-Oregon (PMT-O Specialist); a behavior management technique for parents to utilize with children to prevent and reduce behavior issues in children age 7 to 17.
Denise Myhand is a personal finance advocate who is passionate about people, life, knowledge and new experiences. She is the founder of The Wealth Culture, an organization dedicated to the narrowing the wealth gap for women and minorities where they advocate four core principles: budgeting, debt repayment, generational wealth, socializing financial responsibility and empowerment. In addition to the Wealth Culture, Denise has recently completed her first ebook: The Debt Slay Guide – An autobiographical and instructional guide to paying off debt.
Holly Peterson is the owner of Elite Retirement Strategies in Twin Falls, Idaho.
Chad Rixse was born and raised in Anchorage, Alaska until the age of 18. He then spent the next 11 years in Seattle where he graduated from the University of Washington and got his start in the financial services industry. Chad has since moved back to Anchorage to found Far North Capital (@farnorthcapital) and continue pursuing his lifelong passion for helping others. He finds the positive difference he’s able to make in people’s lives the most rewarding aspect of his work. Outside of work, Chad loves enjoying all that Alaska has to offer. In the summer, he loves to camp, hike, fish, and golf. In the winter, he downhill skis and gets to the rock gym a few times per week. Chad is also active in the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce’s Young Professionals Group.
The creator of Money Habitudes (@moneyhabitudes), Syble Solomon, is an educator and coach who specializes in the psychology of money. Since 1995, she has been an executive coach and adjunct faculty member with the Center for Creative Leadership. She was a doctoral fellow at University of Pittsburgh, received her Masters in Education at George Washington University and her B.A. in Economics with a minor in psychology from Rutgers University beginning her career as a Peace Corps volunteer, teaching in the Philippines.
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