Relationships thrive when you can talk about anything. And that includes talking about money with your spouse — which can be tricky.
Many consider money a taboo topic. But for couples, avoiding it (or fighting about it) can be a recipe for disaster.
How to talk about money with your spouse – constructively as a committed couple. Plus how and when to broach the money topic if you just started dating.
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Learn to talk about money with your spouse and scratch it off the “taboo subject” list. Plus how to talk about money with your boyfriend or girlfriend, if you’re in a dating relationship.
Unfortunately, for many people, talking about money is more taboo than politics, sex, or religion. It can be a hard topic to discuss even if you’ve been married for decades. Because of emotions hidden within. Including shame.
Yet money is the fuel everyday life runs on. And the more intimate your overall relationship, the more intimate your money relationship needs to be. You need to know how to talk about money.
Learn to Talk About Money to Avoid Divorce
Unfortunately, studies show that marital money fights are more common than almost any other topic (Grable, Britt, & Cantrell, 2007; Oggins, 2003). Money disagreements are a major factor in 90% of divorces.
So how do we broach the topic of money and yet avoid “relationship crises” over money, debt, career aspirations, budgeting, saving, spending, and other related topics?
Many couples shy away from talking about money – fearing it’ll lead to arguments and a breakup. In reality, things can go sour much faster when we postpone “those talks” until there’s finally a real financial storm brewing.
Worse, many couples avoid these discussions when they’re dating. Then they set themselves up for financial shocks after the wedding. At that point, the bills may pile up, along with the tensions. It can lead to trouble, and fast!
With private and credit card debt soaring to all-time highs, financial conflict may seem like a crushing certainty. But it doesn’t have to be.
Talking About Money with Your Spouse Exposes Emotions
Money is a very emotional topic. Which is why couples experience so many conflicts over it. To some, spending money means power, control, security, or love. Or other emotions that you can scarcely identify.
If you’re trying to understand your partner, it’s critical that you try to understand their emotional experiences about money and debt. No doubt, their story dates back to birth and family. You can’t deny their formative money experiences, nor should you try to.
Couples may have spent their early years with very different family relationships to money than yours. In fact, they may be working from childhood money memories that control them more than they realize. That’s why it’s necessary to learn how to talk about money with your spouse. It’s not intuitive.
It matters little that their adult money situation is far different from their childhood one. The script was written years ago.
This can lead to unexpected fears, tears, and conflicts as adults. Financial stress can intensify your inability to communicate constructively.
That’s why creating a space of safety and affirmation is key to talking about money.
Here are some rules for the road… followed by ways to broach the topic if you just recently started dating.
How to Talk About Money with Your Spouse Constructively… Even If You Disagree
It’s time to get the discussion on. Here’s what to do. I’ll be the first to admit that while I’m a financial blogger, I’m not perfect. I have my temptations and impulses just like you do. I’ve blown up over money more than I care to admit. But learning how to talk about money could save your marriage. So it’s worth it.
1. Don’t wait for a crisis to talk about money. Schedule regular talks.
Talk about money often. And make it deeper than, “Honey, did you pay that electric bill?” Instead, discuss how you’re doing with your monthly expenses compared to budget. Or your financial priorities for the coming year. How about your financial values and long-term goals?
The best way to talk about money is a little bit every day.
It’s not a big deal till… well, till it is. Till that molehill becomes a mountain because you’ve been shoving it under the carpet for months or years. Tackle problems when they’re small.
2. How to talk with your spouse about money? Be. Completely. Honest. Do. Not. Lie.
Do you keep financial secrets from your spouse? Hide purchases, credit cards, debt, secret accounts or cash from your significant other?
Financial infidelity is no joke. According to a 2018 survey by the National Endowment for Financial Education® (NEFE®), 41% of American adults who combine finances admit to hiding accounts, debts, gambling, spending habits, or purchases from their spouse or partner.[i]
Financial infidelity can wreck a marriage just as surely as sexual or romantic infidelity can. They all erode trust because it involves deception.
A dominant reason given for financial infidelity was fear of disapproval from the other person, shame, or embarrassment.
3. Don’t judge. Be understanding. (Even if you hate the numbers.)
I know, I know… easier said than done.
Being non-judgmental and understanding can go a long ways towards combating the fear of disapproval that drives financial infidelity.
And let’s face it. None of us is perfect. We all tend to operate according to deeply ingrained patterns from our youth. What’s more, we live in a highly commercial society designed to push the buttons that trick us into spending. It can be a hard habit to break.
Keep your tone soft, your voice down, and seek understanding and common ground. The book of Proverbs says, “A soft answer turns away wrath.” There’s a lot of wisdom to seeking common ground and understanding.
4. Set money goals you can both agree on.
When discovering how to discuss money with your spouse, create a list of money goals you agree on. And how to reach them. How can you get there? If your goal is to get out of debt, what temporary sacrifices will each of you make?
It’s not always the gal who overspends on clothes, or the guy who overspends on cars… contrary to popular belief. There’s almost always excess on both sides that can be applied toward your new goals.
5. Discuss money at a relaxed time.
Don’t wait till there’s a week left at the end of the monthly paycheck to discuss money. Or when everyone’s starved but dinner is not even started. Tempers are already at risk then.
It’s hard enough to talk about money in the best of circumstances. Set the stage for success by choosing a relaxed time and location.
6. Talk values, not just numbers.
We all value certain things more than others. To you, a certain item represents security, or maybe attractiveness, or youthfulness… whereas to your spouse it may represent a total waste of money.
It’s not (really) about the numbers. But what it means to the buyer’s emotions. That’s why advertising plays on your emotions and seeks to justify with logic. Making buying appealing and irresistible. Even addicting.
During your values discussion, take time to explain why you value that “contentious” item. And ask your significant other to take time to understand. Offer a hug of confirmation.
Strive for common ground that respects your partner’s emotional values, while achieving your joint financial goals.
Discussing Money with Your Boyfriend or Girlfriend
Given the propensity for finance fights to lead to divorce, it’s important to start the money discussion fairly early in your dating relationship. But you want to be smart about it. Don’t do it on your first date if you want a second date.
On the other hand, please don’t wait till after you’ve walked down the aisle. That’s way too late and a recipe for disaster. If you never talk about money while dating, it’s going to be tough to talk about it when you’re married.
So how do you walk this tightrope? Very carefully. Here are six suggestions:
1. Test the waters with baby steps.
Don’t start by asking your date about their net worth or their retirement plan early in the relationship (unless they bring it up). That’s way too presumptive.
Start with a smaller topic, like what your credit score is. Or how you’re tackling your student debt. A trip you’re saving for. Or some other goal.
2. Ask “What if…” money questions.
Some of my favorite “what-if” questions include:
- If you won the lottery, what would you do with the money?
- Do you even believe in playing the lottery? Why or why not?
- If money were no object, where would you live/travel?
- What career would you choose if all careers paid equally?
- If you had to choose between working 90-hour weeks for the rest of your career while making great money, or working 20-hour weeks but being poor, which would you choose and why?
All these questions (and other similar ones) reveal the other person’s thinking and values… without being too nosy about their personal financial life. Perfect introductory questions.
3. Share a money goal you’re working on.
Give your boyfriend/girlfriend a glimpse into your money life by sharing a goal you’re working towards. Could be something like working to pay off student loans, saving for a vacation, starting a new job, or returning to grad school. That could lead to a reciprocal discussion.
4. Set and share a money goal together.
This could be a natural segue from the individual goal you shared in #3. Maybe you both contribute savings toward a small trip together, or improving one or both of your credit scores, or finding a coupon for your next date.
5. Ask about their childhood money experiences.
When you get someone talking about how money was treated as they grew up, you’ll gain tremendous insight into their views today.
If you ask, “Did your parents fight a lot about money?” you’ll get a great glimpse into how they’ll likely treat money discussions in a future marriage. Ditto for the values reflected when they share that their mother stayed at home to raise the kids. Listen with your eyes and heart open.
6. Share a third-party article on how couples did (or should) handle finances.
Obviously, it’d be kind of weird to blurt out, “Hey, let’s have a conversation about our finances tonight… bring your bank statements.”
Instead, lead in with an article or book you read. The Richest Man in Babylon is one of my favorite basic finance books of all time, as it describes finance principles in story form. This version even has a study guide (aka, discussion guide) to go with it.
Clearly, it helps if you’ve established this read-discuss pattern with other topics first. Then money becomes just one topic of many!
Bring up the article or book, and ask what they think about it. Or suggest you try out the author’s advice and see how it works. Maybe it’s a challenge you can work on together.
Perhaps you could even read the book together and discuss as you go. So be a reader and a naturally inquisitive person, and add this to your queue of topics.
Best of all, have some fun with it. Money is a serious topic. But sometimes we take ourselves so seriously we forget to enjoy life and the relationship itself.