Couples and money: How to talk about finances without fighting

When buying a house or making any big purchase together, it’s important for couples to be on the same page financially.

The truth is most couples disagree about money at some point. But couples who fight about finances on a regular basis are 30% more likely to divorce — and divorce can be REALLY expensive!

Fortunately, it is possible to discuss money matters in a more positive and collaborative way. Consider the following ideas for having those important money conversations without fighting.

Spender vs. saver

I dislike these labels for so many reasons, but the part of this that I actually find most offensive is the word “versus.” These labels immediately put couples on opposite sides, making your partner “the enemy.”

I’ve got news for you: In this scenario, even when you win, you lose!

Instead, treat your personal finances like a family business, with everyone on the same side with the same goals, such as buying your first house, becoming snowbirds, creating an emergency savings fund, or some other goal. Most businesses focus on financial growth and security. In this scenario, some departments need to generate revenue (combined income). Others need to purchase raw materials (groceries) and invest in human resources (partner and/or kids). Suddenly, everyone is responsible for the bottom line regardless of role, and each “department” is just doing their job. It all makes sense and takes a lot of the emotions out of the equation.

Nobody is wrong

So often in arguments, the need to be right overrides the need to resolve the problem. Consider flipping this idea on its head and assume that nobody is wrong.

Everyone has their own unique relationship to money — a financial personality, if you will. Olivia Mellan writes in her book, Money Harmony, that people generally have a primary motivation in their relationship to money: freedom, security, power, or love. Watch for more information in the next article in this series about how to determine your money motivator.

Understanding your own motivations behind your behaviors and the motivations of your partner will help you work together more cooperatively in meeting each other’s financial needs.

One way to start understanding what money means to you and to your partner is to think back to your childhood. Close your eyes and think about how you felt about money as a kid. What is the first childhood money memory that comes to mind? What were the circumstances? Was it positive or negative? What does it tell you about how you view money now? Understanding how the past affects us and our money habits can help diffuse the power these past experiences have on us today. And it’s a good, nonthreatening way to start a conversation with your partner.

When you take the perspective that there is no perfect approach — or personality — then there is room for everyone to contribute to your family’s financial success.

Schedule money meetings

One of the best ways to have a constructive conversation about money is to schedule a meeting to make decisions. If you spring a conversation on your spouse or partner, it may raise everyone’s anxiety levels and bring guilt, shame, blame, and other emotions into the discussion. Conversely, if people are prepared for the conversation, it’s usually much more productive and often stays on topic.

If we go back to the family business analogy, set up your money conversation like a business meeting:

  • Choose a meeting date and time.
  • Set a time limit. A good range is usually somewhere between 20–45 minutes. If one person is more anxious about the conversation or tends to avoid money talk, let that person set the time limit. Consider using an alarm or timer with a snooze feature. Set the alarm for five to 10 minutes BEFORE the end of your meeting so you each have a chance to wrap up your thoughts. Attention often starts to break down if you go beyond an hour, which can lead to emotions creeping back into the conversation.
  • Have an agenda. I also highly recommend that you stick to the agenda, so you don’t bring up past problems or worry about future issues. Just make decisions about the task at hand. If something new comes up during your discussion, set another meeting to talk about it later.
  • Choose a place that sets the tone and isn’t the normal place you fight about money. For example, take a walk or sit outside on the patio or make yourself comfortable snuggled up on the couch.
  • Bring reports or research, if needed. A business meeting might include a budget, a company balance sheet, the profit and loss statement, and so on. What information do you need to make an informed decision based on data instead of emotions? For guidance, check out the various calculators on the State Bank of Cross Plains website.
  • Don’t force it. This is going to be uncomfortable — especially at the beginning — but if either person starts to feel overly frustrated or anxious or downright angry, it’s vitally important to step away from the conversation for at least 20 minutes. A “time out” agreement can make all the difference in maintaining a respectful and productive discourse.

Be open to hiring help

Businesses often hire experts or consultants to handle a particular area of weakness. Consider partnering with an expert if needed, including:

  • An accountant;
  • Financial planner;
  • Debt or housing counselor; and
  • Marriage and family therapist.

That might sound like an unnecessary expense, but these experts will almost universally save you time, money, or perhaps even your relationship in the long run.

By partnering rather than competing, understanding each other’s approach and motivations, treating your family finances like a business, and bringing in advisors when necessary, you can start having conversations about money that bring you closer as a couple and closer to your financial dreams.

Ellen Bernards is assistant vice president-mortgage loan officer at State Bank of Cross Plains (SBCP) serving the Cross Plains and Black Earth markets. Bernards brings a wealth of experience to her role, having specialized in the housing industry since 2004 as both a mortgage lender and counselor, assisting and educating countless Wisconsinites along their personal journeys toward homeownership.

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