Financial conversations are something we all need to have for the health of our relationships, and the earlier the better! However, that doesn’t mean it’s an easy topic.
Many couples only talk about money when issues arise, such as when bills or credit card statements come in, or when there’s not enough money for something you want.
If you’ve had unsuccessful conversations about money previously, you may find yourself wanting to avoid the topic in an effort to keep the peace and avoid the potential for conflict.
Important elements to consider before you get started.
Consider what you know about your own relationship with money and remember this will likely be different to your partner’s.
It is common for couples to relate to money differently, but different doesn’t mean wrong.
The key is not to become overwhelmed by the differences but understand them, be respectful of each other’s views and focus on the similarities. Go slow and be prepared to navigate opposing perspectives.
If this feels a bit foreign or uncomfortable, have a look at ‘your relationship with money‘ before you have a conversation.
With good self-awareness, knowledge of your own and partner’s money behaviours and good communication skills (on the next page), financial conversations have a much better chance of being successful.
It is important to be clear about what you want to discuss and what you hope to achieve.
If you miss this step you can find yourself in a conversation about money that goes all over the place from one topic to another, but does not address the actual question or concern you had in the first place.
Even if you start with one topic it may lead to another, but at least you have a point of focus to provide some direction for the conversation.
If you aren’t sure exactly what you need to discuss, you may get some ideas here:
In a healthy relationship, all contributions are important no matter who earns more.
One person may contribute more financially while the other gives more in time or tasks. You are a team and therefore need to work together – it’s not a competition.
The goal is to get on the same page, and come to an agreement about financial matters, not win or push a personal agenda.
It can be hard to know when the best time is to have a conversation about money – consider what is happening in your family environment.
If your partner’s just walked in, or one of you is tired or stressed, it’s probably not the best time.
Think about what’s worked in the past when you’ve had a good conversation with your partner about a sensitive topic and plan for, or wait for, a conversation during similar conditions.
For most people the best engagement will occur when the household is rested, you are both calm, relaxed, and able to focus – you don’t want a tense environment that can cause heightened responses.
As well as timing, location is important.
You both need to be comfortable, free from interruptions or distractions (such as children present, TV going, using devices), and where others can’t overhear.
It needs to be a safe space where you both feel free to talk openly.
This could be at home, at the park, while going for a walk, or you may prefer to make a date specifically for a financial conversation so you can prepare in advance.
Although there are often frustrations that occur when discussing such a sensitive topic as money, this is a partnership so it’s important that both parties feel involved.
It is critical that each person feels heard and understand, without feeling dismissed, labelled, or criticised.
Emotions, however, are very powerful and can become heightened fast – before you know it you are talking over each other in an effort to be heard, and no one is listening.
The discomfort of a tricky conversation can also cause us to be a little vague, beat around the bush, hint, and speak less directly than needed.
Being aware of this can help us to approach the topic in a clear, relaxed way, making sure we stick to the topic and do not add other issues that aren’t working, just to make a point.
Language is a key factor in conversations of any type.
There is power in language: the choice of words, how they are used, the tone, body language, facial expressions etc. To have an effective open conversation, it needs to be collaborative, focused on the topic and not personal.
It’s also important to be aware of judgement language.
Think about how and when to use the following words:
can imply finger-pointing and blame.
can seem exaggerated, and doesn't allow for any different behaviour to be acknowledged.
can suggest the way things are is wrong and another perspective is right.
Other words like ‘hate’, ‘irresponsible’, ‘useless’ and ‘angry’ contain strong emotions that are labelling and can feel like you are being talked down to – all with the potential of triggering a negative or unhelpful reaction.
"Every time we go out you always spend money we don't have - you make me so mad!"
In this example, there are some strong feelings that are likely to cause a response just as strong. Next is another option.
“I notice when we go out it's so easy to spend more money than we plan, and it mounts up fast. I find myself getting frustrated - does it bother you?”
By separating the problem from the person, you can focus on a solution that is less likely to cause arguments or have a negative outcome. By being honest while still respectful and using “I statements” you can own how you are feeling and express your concerns, in a less-threatening way.
The point is – you need to know your audience and deliver the message in a way that is going to be received well and responded to in a positive and useful way.
It’s helpful to avoid trigger words that can often end in arguments.
But can suggest what was said previously is irrelevant or unimportant so think about how it’s used.
“I wanted to pay that bill, but I needed to buy some meat.”
“I still need to pay that bill. Today I had to use the money for some meat.”
Because can be great for explaining things however, it can also be used to justify or excuse a behaviour.
See the difference in these statements:
“I used the money for drinks because you didn’t seem to need it.”
“I used the money in my wallet for drinks because it saved getting more cash out.”
Disagreements in relationships are normal and ok, as long as they’re constructive, and couples work together to navigate the issues that arise.
Transparency is key, remember you don’t know what you don’t know!
So … be real, make rules together, be prepared to negotiate, compromise where necessary and find a middle ground with genuine acceptance and a non-judgmental attitude.
There are always power imbalances within relationships, so the challenge is about finding balance, where both parties are feeling included and valued. By being open and honest about earnings, debt and spending habits, the relationship will be strengthened, lessening the chance of economic harm or financial infidelity (spending or hiding assets/debt, secretly opening a personal bank account, or other intentionally deceptive behaviour).
For more information on managing differences go to dealing with strong emotions.
YOU'RE A TEAM
You're not opponents. Competing only leads to defensiveness. The goal is to get on the same page, not win points. Remember how to use communication effectively and keep the health of your relationship in mind; with the aim of a 'win/win' solution where possible.
YOU ARE EQUALS
Although one person may be more involved in the earning, and the other person in the financial administration, both should know what is happening with the money, feel confident in their position and have a choice in their level of involvement.
PROGRESS IS POSSIBLE
Progress takes time. Small achievements like having a conversation about feelings, where each partner has more understanding of the other after the conversation, is progress - even if no actual decisions have been made.
EMOTIONS ARE POWERFUL
It is important to talk about how you feel in a way that will not shut down the conversation. If you feel strongly about something, make sure it’s the right time for the conversation. Keep in mind your partner may not feel the same – and their perspective is just as valid.
BE OPEN TO CHANGE
Be prepared to change how you think about certain issues. Spending and saving decisions will be different as a team than they would be as a single person.
It's really important to be respectful of your partner's way of handling money. But it's equally important to be clear on what is or isn't working for you. At the end of each conversation, be clear about what has been agreed, by whom and when.
If you are feeling unhappy about finances within your relationship, communication is key.
We don’t all see or value money the same – if we are not communicating our concerns and needs in a relationship then the other party may not even be aware there is an issue.
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