Money Talks: Speaking With Your Partner About Money
Victoria Araj6-minute read
September 21, 2020
When I was in my early 20s, my then-boyfriend and I were on our way to a picnic with some friends. We stopped by a supermarket to pick a few food items for the gathering. While winding through the aisles, he passed over the hot dogs that were on sale and dropped a pack of premium sausages into the shopping cart instead. I had a mini freak-out moment. I gave him a side-eye and scolded him for not minding his money.
Being broke 20-somethings, money was tight. He was between jobs at the time. And as I was extremely frugal, tried to shame him, and make him feel like he was a spendthrift who was terrible with his finances.
In retrospect, I feel bad about shaming him over a pack of wieners, of all things. That being said, it was telling of our money dynamics. I felt anxious about spending money when times were tight, when he didn’t feel a similar tinge of apprehension. He was more concerned with showing up to the party with food that everyone would enjoy. On some level, I also think he felt pressured to keep up with appearances, and didn’t want to come off broke.
As you can see, my anxiety about money and my partner’s anxiety about looking broke caused us to have different spending behaviors. Talking about money with your loved ones, whether with your parents or kids, can be tough enough. When you’re in a romantic partnership, talking about finances is crucial to building a shared life. So how can you have conversations about such a sensitive topic?
Here’s how to talk money with your partner:
Know Your Money Story
Similar to food and one’s eating habits, money is emotional. Both you and your spouse come into the relationship with your own beliefs, fears, insecurities and experiences about finances. It’s usually rooted in one’s upbringing, and in your parents’ relationships with money. One’s money story is deeply rooted, and is largely telling of why we make the choices that we do.
For instance: One partner in the relationship might struggle with money scarcity. In turn, they have trouble spending money and tend to hoard it, putting it all into savings accounts. They might be wary about what the future holds, and fear that, due to unforeseen circumstances, the money might one day run out.
On the flip side, someone who is optimistic about money has an unfounded belief that they will soon have what they need to never stress about their finances again. They might bank on a windfall of cash to fall into their lap, or anticipate a large end-of-year bonus.
Another common dynamic: One partner might prioritize security over enjoying the present, but the other bases their day-to-day choices on living in the moment. As you can see, there’s a multitude of money scripts, and how they’re shaped is as complex as the nature of these narratives and beliefs.
Get Financially Naked
Understanding each other’s money scripts or stories is an important first step in figuring out the why with one’s moves. Next, you’ll want to share where you’re at financially:
- How much do you have in savings? In retirement? Stocks?
- What is your credit score?
- Where do you want to be in 5 years? In the next decade?
- What fears do you have about money and your future?
Again, it could take a while to reach this level of transparency, especially if one partner in the relationship feels shame or avoidance about their money situation.
Besides being as transparent as possible with your respective money situations, start by asking one another the following questions:
- What makes you the most anxious about money?
- What makes you feel secure?
- What makes you feel restricted?
- What do you enjoy spending money on? What gives you joy in general?
- If you could spend less on X, what would it be?
If someone gave you $10,000 and you had to spend it within a month, how would you spend it?
Be Open With Your Debt Situation
If not aired openly, debt can really create a rift in a relationship. Even if you won’t be responsible for each other’s credit card payments, student loans, or car loans, or you decide to pay it off together, it’s important to know your partner’s debt load, and how they feel about it. Otherwise, it could potentially lead to financial infidelity, which is when one partner hides a money secret from the other.
If you’re married, you could inherit your spouse’s debt if you were joint account holders on a credit card. You could also inherit their debt if you live in a community property state and you inherited the debt after your marriage.
Focus On Shared Goals
What is most important to the both of you? What are you building toward? Perhaps it’s starting a family, saving for a down payment on a home, or going on amazing vacations. Or maybe you envision a bohemian lifestyle, where you have the means to pursue passion projects and embrace a vagabond existence. The key is to home in on what you value the most.
The second piece is drumming up a plan on how to reach those goals. When creating goals, be specific and realistic. How much would you like saved by when? You’ll want to talk about whether these goals are reasonable for both you and your partner. For instance, if you are earning more and carry a lighter debt load, would you be willing to put more aside each month toward these goals?
Respect Each Other’s Ways Of Being
You don’t have to necessarily see eye-to-eye to work toward shared goals.
The important thing is to understand why they might treat their money a certain way, and lead with compassion, and come up with a solution that works for the two of you.
Case in point: Let’s say you feel restricted by putting all the “extra” cash toward debt or for retirement. You want to live in the present and enjoy some of that hard-earned money. But your partner won’t feel at peace until that credit card balance gets to zero, or until they max out on the annual contribution for their IRA. If one partner steamrolls the other’s needs, comfort levels, or desires, that could lead to resentment.
Consider coming up with a pact. If one partner won’t feel comfortable until there’s $5,000 in the joint emergency fund, agree that for every $1,000 saved, the next $100 can be spent on a night out on the town. Or once you hit a certain amount in the house fund, you can spend a certain percentage of your take-home pay.
Joint Or Shared Accounts Is Purely About Preference
When it comes to whether you should open joint or shared accounts, there’s no “best” or “right” approach. It boils down to preference, the dynamics of the relationship, and what works best for the both of you.
Some partnerships thrive on having only joint accounts, others prefer to maintain separate accounts. Others have a combination of shared and joint ones. For instance, they might keep a shared account for shared expenses, such as rent and groceries, and a separate one for their own spending.
Talking about money is never easy with anyone. And in trying to figure out how to talk to your boyfriend or girlfriend about money, remember that it’s more than someone simply being “bad with money” or “good with money.”
In trying to have healthy, candid discussions about money, we’ll have to understand the emotional aspects about money, and lead with compassion. It’s only by having an understanding about your partner’s beliefs and experiences about money that you can work on shared goals based on your values. For more content on how to handle personal finances, visit our resource center for more information.
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