Money is the number one reason couples divorce. Not infidelity, not abandonment, not dishonesty. It’s money! And that’s not just poor people or rich people or middle class couples who fight about it. It’s everyone.
That’s because as a general rule, the root of financial problems in relationships isn’t too much (as if!), too little (we all know that feeling!) or disagreement about how to spend what you’ve got. It’s the fact that no one likes to talk about money – that causes friction.
And while it may seem as if the solution is simple – hey, just communicate! – the really complicated issue with money is figuring out where to start the conversation. Financial guru Suze Orman points out that while we may not realize it as adults, our feelings about money were formed as children in our families of origin. These feelings, whether stress-related (there’s never enough so pinch every penny), self-esteem related (we’re better than people who don’t have money or not as good as people who do) or work related (you’ve got to work hard to be wealthy, no breaks allowed!).
These ideas all shape our thoughts and opinions, which in turn dictate how we place priorities. Naturally then, partners, being raised in different families (sometimes with very different backgrounds), bring individual financial perspectives and priorities to relationships. And these perspectives – being feeling more than logic based – are deep seated.
This is where the conversation has to start…
Go to the root
Before a couple can talk about money in the present (and for the future), it makes sense to address your past. This way, while partners may not always agree about financial issues going forward, they’ll know each other’s triggers and root emotions (and literally get where the other is coming from). Start out by listing your earliest memories of money – including when it made you happy and how it caused anger or disappointment. If you’re aware of it (and you are), include how your family history influences your current attitudes and spending habits. For example, if your parents were so used to struggling, that even when things were fine, they acted as if they didn’t have enough money, you may be a staunch saver. Or you may spend like there’s no tomorrow in direct opposition. The combinations are endless – and personal. What’s important is that you’re honest… and that you share what you know.
There is no shame in this – no matter where you come from or what your feelings are. This is purely an exercise in understanding yourselves and each other and you’ll be surprised at how quickly it deepens your mutual (and probably even self) awareness.
Armed with this knowledge (which may already be shifting your thoughts about money), you’ll want to generate a list of priorities and goals as a pair. Start with individually detailing how you feel money should be spent (try to rate the following: pay down debt, leisure activities, daily enjoyment, saving and investing – in order of importance). Then compare your lists. This will allow you to see where you’re alike and how you differ in the day to day and down the line. It will also help you to generate compromise.
It’s important to remember during all of these discussions (there will be a lot of them over the years!), to listen to your partner without interruption. To facilitate this, you may want to take notes and then actually repeat back what each other has said to make sure you both heard correctly and understand. Otherwise, misinterpretation may cloud your ability to set – and achieve – mutual, cooperative goals.
Keep in mind that oftentimes couples are saying the same thing and semantics can get in the way. So before you press on, make sure you’ve both got a clear picture of each other’s thoughts, feelings and priorities. This includes discussing imbalances. If one of you is doing the heavy lifting financially speaking – or handling all the money management, it’s vital to address this fact, and each partner’s feelings about it.
Now that you know each other better and you’ve strengthened your ability to communicate about money, you can discuss your expectations about the future. Where do you see things heading and what will it take to get there? How can both of you contribute and keep an open dialogue in route to your goals? How can you practically make your financial fantasies a reality – and make each other feel comfortable in the process?
Depending on what your needs are, this plan should include everything from household budgeting for the present (groceries, childcare, income needs) to investing strategies for the future (risky or conservative, long-term or short-term). If necessary, include credit counseling or debt management in order to take care of the past.
The point is to agree to a comprehensive plan of which both of you will contribute and stick with. While none of this means differences of opinion won’t continue to arise here and there, what it should do is lay the groundwork for teamwork on one of love’s most sensitive issues.
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