Money Talks

How To Talk About Money Without Stressing Yourself Out

Okay, fine. Without stressing yourself out so much.

Portrait of man with hundred dollar bill covering his mouth.

Recent economic numbers didn’t trend well. Unemployment slightly increased. So did the consumer price index. But you didn’t need that information to feel unsure. You’re seeing your own signs. Maybe your company is downsizing again. Or a big contract fell through. Because of this, you’re thinking about — and, to be honest, a little stressed about — money. More than usual, that is. And every conversation about it is tinged with defensiveness and maybe a little bit of grumpiness. This isn’t uncommon. But it’s incredibly unhelpful because it’s a subject you should — scratch that, have to — talk about.

Talking about money is rarely fun. But at times when money is tighter it’s less so because, as Seth Gillihan, clinical psychologist in Ardmore, Pennsylvania and author of Mindful Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, points out, “money is never just about money.”

A conversation about money involves success, but also your ability to provide, and when you question that, it hits at your confidence and self-worth.

You want to talk about it with your spouse. Scratch that. You need to talk about it with them, but it’s hard to bring up at length. Maybe it’s something you’ve always handled. Maybe your parents kept quiet about bills and income because it wasn’t polite or kids didn’t need that burden — another great tradition passed on. None of this is rare.

“We might be capitalistic, but we don’t like talking about money,” says Michael S. Bishop, marriage and family therapist in Austin, Texas.

Silence, however, doesn’t do anyone any good. Neither does remaining on a path of non discussion. So how can you find a way to raise the issue without fear and anxiety hanging on every word? It might be hard but it’s certainly not impossible. Here’s what can help.

1. Set Your Expectations

Before you start a conversation about money — or anything serious for that matter — it’s good to set expectations. One is that this isn’t the only conversation you’ll ever have about money, so don’t try to make it the discussion. The other is if you’re worrying that it won’t be fun, fine. Finances aren’t a light topic. Accept that and part of the anxiety goes down.

“It’s just tough,” Gillihan says. “That’s the way it is.”

And keep another thought in mind. You didn’t invent the challenge of talking about money and you are not alone in having to talk about it. This is a conversation that’s going on in thousands, if not millions, of homes. More than that, realize that you may never completely agree on everything, just like you probably don’t on every aspect of parenting. That shift can adjust what you’re actually trying to accomplish. “It’s something you’ll be managing versus solving,” Gillihan adds.

2. Define What Money Means To You

Before you have a discussion about money, it’s a good idea to reassess how you view money. Seriously, what do you see it as? There are two basic mindsets: Scarcity or abundance. With the first, you never feel that there’s enough, even though there might be. This thinking causes you to save (not bad) but also to rarely spend (not good), which means you don’t end up enjoying your life, Bishop says.

An abundance attitude has you sometimes spending when you don't have any money. While that’s problematic, it can reflect a generosity and optimism about the world, and it’s also easier to become more disciplined than to adopt a more confident, joyous attitude, Bishop says.

3. Figure Out The Deeper Issue

Once you understand your outlook on money, you want to figure out the issue lurking in your thoughts. Because, yes, there is one and it’s guiding you whether your name it or not.

This process might start with, “I’m so angry about …,” This is an understandable, but easy emotion. You want to get past that and get to the more substantive feelings underneath by grilling yourself with a kind of What If game. My partner spends too much. So? It will become a problem? How? They’ll never be in control? And then? We’ll have no money? And then …?

“It gives you a chance to identify the core fear,” Gillihan says.

No, this doesn’t solve the conversation, but it removes the anger and shame that can guide you “all over the map,” Bishop says. Maybe what you find is, “This is what scares me. I grew up with this, and I don’t want it now.” It’s honest and non-reactive and maybe your partner shares their fear. Now the walls are down and you’re helping each other, but it doesn’t happen without knowing what’s driving you.

“If you don’t understand that or yourself, you can’t share that with your partner,” Bishop says.

4. Remember The Goal Of The Discussion

When you’re talking about money with your partner, it’s important to go in with an understanding of the talk. You can have an opening “statement”, but conversations aren’t scripted. Feelings come up. Other problems are revealed. That’s unavoidable, but resist exploring every one of them. Recognize their importance and say you’ll address them later, even set a time to do it, but keep your focus on the original topic. Otherwise, you’ll soon be making the common complaint of, “We never resolve anything.”

The reason couples don’t is completely un-shocking: “They never finish a topic,” Bishop says. “When you don’t finish it, it has the potential to come back up.”

5. Be Curious, Not Judgmental

Rather than wanting answers or looking to fix something or someone, go into the conversation wanting to learn something. That curiosity will keep you out of useless fights and away from saying things like, “Explain why you …,” which never lead to anything collaborative.

Start sentences with, “It’s important to me” or “I wish”. If you want to know something, ask your partner, “Can you explain …?” or say, “I’m wondering about …,” Gillihan says.

You might discover that your partner has a reason that makes sense, and it becomes a chance for better understanding of each other and for closeness. You also might learn that they’re as confused by a line item as you are. It could be a mistake or a charge from a forgotten subscription. You can’t learn when you’re in attack mode or because you’re seeking to be right. It needs to be about finding consensus and reaffirming that you’re working together.

Will this advice ultimately make the topic of money feel less stressful? Maybe. Maybe not. Okay, probably not. Money is stressful. But this will give you a path forward to engage in financial discussions that are less severe and more illuminating. And that’s a win for everyone involved.