How to Have More Productive Financial Conversations With Your Partner

Relationships work better when finances are discussed openly. Here are some ways to make those discussions productive.

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Telling my wife about my finances felt like a confession even though I had nothing to hide.

When we were buying a house, I hid my finances for weeks. I dodged questions, changed subjects, ignored emails, and walked out of rooms. But eventually guilt gnawed at my stomach too hard to ignore and I sent my wife an itemized email with exact dollar amounts about my debts and assets.

I think she was both relieved and a little disappointed. I wasn’t harboring any secrets or hiding any problems. In fact, I’d been responsible about money for a long time. After years of steady payments, my credit debt was negligible. I had an emergency fund and retirement savings. I had a full-time job bolstered by the occasional freelance gig. My credit rating was soaring.

I’m not sure how to explain my hesitation to talk money. But after talking to financial and relationship experts, I know I’m not alone in my discomfort about talking finances with my spouse.

“People will talk about anything else before they’ll talk about money,” New Jersey-based accountant Tracy Beveridge says. “It’s a very big trust thing.”

It is. But here’s the thing: relationships work better when finances aren’t secret. Much, much better. You need to be honest about money to build a life together. But there’s hope. It’s possible to talk finances without crippling anxiety, vicious recriminations, or despair. You just need to approach the conversation carefully.

“People will talk about anything else before they’ll talk about money. It’s a very big trust thing.”

Most people don’t have any training in talking about money. Even telling good news can be a strain. Quick story: After a married friend received a substantial cash gift from his family, he said he waited more than a week to tell his wife. And when he told his wife, the effort of keeping the money secret ruined what should have been a happy moment.

Like many people, my friend had been in his relationship a long time before broaching the subject of finances. He and his wife kept separate bank accounts and never talked about bills. By the time they started discussing money, they were more comfortable with privacy about finances than openness.

Brent Thomas, a wealth advisor in the San Francisco Bay area, advises couples to talk about money as early in a relationship as possible.

“When you first get into a relationship, any question is fair game,” Thomas says. “You kind of expect people to explore how you feel about things.”

The stakes are low early in relationships. You haven’t yet invested significant time, emotion, or actual money into the person. So, in terms of crude self-preservation, if you find out someone has gotten into $200,000 in credit card debt, you can delete your contacts and block your calls. But if it’s the early stages of a relationship with someone you might want to build a future with, you can have bite-sized financial conversations you can later build upon, like whether you expect to spend $100 or $200 on an evening out on the town.

“There have been times I’d bring up money as a topic when [my wife and I] were out at a nice restaurant having a lovely dinner,” Thomas said. “For me, it’s on my mind so I start talking about money. For her, it pretty much ruined the evening.”

“Then, when the conversation isn’t about a date but about a $30,000 car or a $50,000 car, we’ve already set the groundwork for how you think about those decisions and the groundwork for how you discuss them with your significant other,” Thomas said.

But if you didn’t: all is not lost. You just have to approach the conversation a little differently. Don’t sandbag somebody with a budget lecture. Ease them into it as painlessly as you can. Beveridge advised breaking it to them gently in a place where they’d be placated and unlikely to make a scene.

“Food always seems to appease people,” Beveridge said. “Maybe a little alcohol and some food might take the edge off. If you’re in a public place, no one can get loud.”

The restaurant suggestion comes with a major caveat: don’t pull out the ledgers in the middle of a birthday or anniversary celebration. You’re aiming to set a mood, not ruin one.

“There have been times I’d bring up money as a topic when [my wife and I] were out at a nice restaurant having a lovely dinner,” Thomas said. “For me, it’s on my mind so I start talking about money. For her, it pretty much ruined the evening.”

Wherever you start talking about money, you need to take the right tone. Don’t be accusatory or condescending. Nobody wants to talk finance with an angry man. Focus on facts and look for solutions.

“You want to put your cards out on the table, like these are the facts,” Beveridge said. “Then the two of you can decide what needs to be fixed, what can be fixed, and what you can do to fix it — if there is something that needs to be fixed.”

And as cathartic as it might feel in the moment, screaming won’t bring you closer to where you need to be.

“I think it’s a more productive conversation if no one gets emotional and loud,” Beveridge said. “If somebody gets loud, the other person stops listening.”

Once you clear the first financial talk hurdle, subsequent money talks get easier. With that newfound comfort over talking money with your spouse, take the opportunity to get more detailed in your presentations.

“Money is just math,” Tessina said. “If you work together, you can figure it out, and create a plan you’ll both be happy to follow.”

While your marriage isn’t a business, you do have stakeholders. They deserve transparency about finances.

“About twice a year, I do a state of the union on our finances,” Thomas said. “I kind of break down here’s where we are for our retirement accounts, college savings for our children, and our bank account balances. She likes that I keep her up to date on where things stand.”

Thomas said that he breaks out the spreadsheets and financial statements for the presentations — but you don’t need to be as elaborate as a professional financial advisor. Tina B. Tessina, Ph.D., psychotherapist, and author of the book How to be Happy Partners: Working It Out Together said couples can benefit from simple weekly financial conversations.

“If you do it with the right attitude, this weekly meeting will be something that you look forward to, not an ordeal that you dread,” Tessina said. “As you talk about positive solutions and setting out long-term goals, many financial and other problems will be solved as they arise, before they become difficult.”

Tessina advised couples to find a place where they feel comfortable to talk, put away their cell phones, and be prepared to let your partner lead the conversation: “Listen, listen, listen,” she said. “You can’t come up with a mutually satisfactory plan if you don’t know what both of you want and how you feel about money.”

At the end of the day, just be open and honest and a path will appear. “Money is just math,” Tessina said. “If you work together, you can figure it out, and create a plan you’ll both be happy to follow.”

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