Money talk can take a relationship from calm waters to feeling completely on the rocks in no time flat. Maybe your significant other has a little more (OK, a lot more) debt than he or she originally disclosed. Maybe you have a bit of a shopping habit that takes a big chunk out of how much you intend to save each month. Or maybe, you’re just not discussing your money situation altogether. Money is an emotional subject, and too often the only strategies we know are to argue or avoid. Prudential Financial recently published a comprehensive study on the state of America’s financial health, the Financial Wellness Census. The results: One-third of Americans don’t have a handle on their finances—in fact, they often think they are better or worse than they actually are. See, you’re not the only one.
As a financial therapist, almost 50 percent of my clients are couples. Even though the circumstances of each couple can vary greatly, when I talk with them about their financial health, I’ve found there are universal themes. Each couple wants more harmony, a shared effort in meeting life’s challenges, and to feel like their values and goals are represented in the family’s financial priorities. There is no magic number that works for everyone, rather, it’s about training ourselves to build good money practices that balance present and future needs. Here are a few tips I share with my clients working on their money relationship together:
1. Know your pain point.
Humans are hardwired to prefer the status quo, so in general, people don’t change unless something feels uncomfortable or downright awful. So to get started, ask yourself: What is it in this situation that hurts? Frame “the problem” as an emotional or relational issue you’d like to solve. Is it too many arguments? Worries about the future? Anxiety about not knowing where you or your partner stands? Put your attention on what needs relief.
2. Share your pain point with your partner, and invite them to share theirs with you.
Pain points (presented as “I statements”) are infinitely more relatable than blame statements. You want to use this process to bring you together, not fighting like hungry wolves over a finite financial pie. Remember, the way to financial health is by solving an emotional problem, with money simply being the means to that end. As such, hold the numbers talk until after you’ve really connected on your values and the need that’s not being met that creates the pain point.
3. Establish a regular Money Date.
It’s crucial to set aside time to discuss your money situation as a couple rather than only tackling the subject when a problem comes up. Focus these “money dates” on three tasks: Review, Predict & Plan. Together, you’ll want to review what money has gone in and out and see if it was on track with your roadmap. (For a place to start, I recommend taking Prudential’s simple three-minute financial wellness self-assessment.) Next you’ll predict and anticipate what you have coming up in the weeks or months ahead. Pay special attention to the things that are not part of your regular budget (i.e., are you traveling to a wedding? Does your child need back-to-school supplies?). Lastly, make a plan for how you might adjust your spending or earnings. Are there luxuries you can forgo? Can you pull from your financial cushion to cover unexpected needs? Or is it time to consider a job change or taking on a “side hustle” gig to increase your income?
4. Focus on behaviors, not results.
Rome wasn’t built in a day. If you and your partner struggle with consistency when it comes to talking about money, you may be trying to do too much too quickly. Money Dates should have a start time and an end time, after which you do something together that you both enjoy to reward yourselves.
If you do find yourselves falling into old argument/avoidance patterns despite your best efforts, here are a few quick tips that might help:
● Apply HALT. No money talks or tasks when you're Hungry, Angry/Anxious, Lonely or Tired. When our bodies and brains are stressed, we simply have less capacity to add on another effort. Bring yourself back into a more regulated state and try again.
● When you are engaged in a money task and start to feel yourself going into a "hot" emotional state (or notice your partner doing the same) agree to take a break and do something to interrupt that escalation. Go for a walk, take some deep breaths, look at the sky … whatever you need to bring your body back to calm. The problem can wait for 15 minutes!
● Aim for solutions and systems that are healthy. In my practice, I define a healthy system as one that meets five criteria:
○ Equal: Both parties have the same amount of power.
○ Inclusive: Both parties participate in the decisions (no opting out).
○ Transparent: Both parties have access to the information being discussed.
○ Flexible: Both parties have a right to change the system as the situation changes and/or calls for it.
○ Sustainable: The system is not unduly unfair or burdensome to one partner over another.
If you are struggling, know that you’re not alone. There are many in a similar situation, and it’s not an overnight solve. The good news is that becoming financially healthier as a couple is incremental, meaning you don’t have to be perfect to reap the benefits. Results are cumulative and grow over time. I’ve seen this work bring about huge transformations—in levels of trust and intimacy as well as in the concrete improvement in financial wellness. You just have to know what you’re working for.