Honesty and intimacy are well understood as bedrocks of a healthy relationship. But without complete transparency around finances, they may not be possible. That’s because beneath the surface of every financial conversation a couple has are the major factors underpinning any relationship: power, intimacy, and trust.
“I say that money is one of the best communication tools that there is, actually,” says Jacquette Timmons, a financial coach and the author of Financial Intimacy: How to Create a Healthy Relationship with Your Money and Your Mate
Timmons regularly helps married couples arrive on the same financial page. Too often, she says, couples get far down the road before they ever discuss their finances. An example: One couple Timmons worked with dated for four years before they got married, and it was only then that they discovered that the husband expected the couple’s finances to remain separate, while the wife expected everything to be split evenly. Kind of a big deal.
Such situations are not uncommon, Timmons says, and often occur because both partners assume they’ll just do what their parents did. In this couple’s case, the wife’s father was an entrepreneur, the mother stayed at home, and all resources were shared; the husband’s parents were divorced, and his parents accordingly handled their finances separately.
“I think a lot of it is centered around what you saw modeled for you, and then the expectations that you have around that, that you bring into [your] relationship.”
That’s not to say Timmons recommends one one approach over another: Whether couples merge and share their finances, keep them completely separate, or maintain separate accounts but also establish shared accounts should be based on what works best for their situations, she says.
However, the one thing Timmons does insist on is transparency. If partners agree to keep some or all finances separate, they must also offer complete visibility into each other’s accounts, including unfettered access to account statements.
“So, it’s not like ‘My name’s not on it, and I’m blind.’ You just don’t want to be financially blind,” she says.
The cost of not having such transparency is nothing less than the health of the entire relationship.
“I think certainly it erodes the trust. And what comes along with eroding the trust is the willingness to be vulnerable,” Timmons says. “Because otherwise I think you leave the window open for a lot of distrust to seep in, and that’s never good for any relationship, whether it’s triggered by finances or anything else.”
There are financial ramifications, too, as plans are made separately, according to different goals — which ties again back to the maintenance of the relationship itself, since ideally couples are saving and investing with common goals and developing a camaraderie in the process.
“If you were having more candid, open conversations about money you’d actually choose to behave differently with your money, and you would probably set different goals and figure out how do you partner in making those goals happen,” Timmons says. “So, you miss out on the opportunity to actually collaborate and behave as two people being on the team of one.”
That’s why couples should embrace the opportunity to talk about finances, carrying a sense of curiosity and optimism into those conversations and viewing them as opportunities to plan and and obtain things that they both want.
“Then you kind of make it more of a fun experience and exercise that you’re doing, instead of that dreaded thing,” Timmons says.
Those conversations need to occur regularly, both for tactical planning and for larger-scale assessments of goals and respective contributions from each partner.
“It’s never a one-and-done negotiation,” Timmons says. “As circumstances in your respective lives, and in your life as a couple, change you have to navigate and negotiate different realities. So what may have worked for you last year may not work for you this year, and so you’ve got to adjust.”
Of course, vulnerability can be hard to achieve, including with finances. That’s why Timmons says it’s important to go into that first financial conversation willing to be open and prepared to work together.
“Very few people are looking for someone to come to the table perfect, and that includes with regards to their money,” she says. “I think what’s most important is that, if your stuff is not together, people want to know that you’ve got a plan. And I think that’s what people might want to pay more attention to: Does someone have a plan? Or can you create a plan together?”