A Gift of Harmony

How to talk with your partner about money

By Mark Helm
Published on December 23, 2004, 12:00am | Comments

In honor of the season of peace and harmony, I'm giving readers -- at least, those readers who have a partner -- the gift of a more peaceful and harmonious relationship.

How can I do that, you ask? Simple. I'm going to lay out a process for talking about money.

Maybe some of you are thinking, "What's money have to do with relationships? Shouldn't we be talking about our feelings?"

If "feelings" were the cause of most arguments between couples, then I'd agree. But the sad truth remains that money is at the heart of more arguments than any other issue. In fact, if this country would let gays and lesbians marry, money would be the No. 1 cause for gay divorce.

The reason is that money represents more than just pictures of dead white guys. How you spend, save and invest money reflects your values in life. And those values lie at the root of money arguments.

For example, a person who believes in saving as much as possible isn't simply trying to rack up numbers in their bank account or 401(k) -- they believe that they're building a future and preparing for emergencies. If their partner refuses to save, they may feel he or she doesn't see a future for them or doesn't care if they are hurt when things go wrong.

Unfortunately, most people don't realize the emotions that are tied up in money. They also don't get much help from society, which still considers money a taboo subject. Families don't talk about it at the dinner table. Schools, while often requiring some form of sex education, don't teach children about money. If you want to get an angry stare from a friend or colleague, ask them about their salary or the amount of their savings.

Of course, this wouldn't be much of a problem if "savers" only got into relationships with other "savers" and "spenders" tended to pair up with other "spenders." But, at least in my experience, opposites often attract when it comes to money personalities.

Even when people get lucky enough to be in a relationship with another person who handles money in the same way, it can still cause problems. If two spenders marry, for example, they will fight with each other for the super-spender role.

As if all this wasn't tough enough, experts say that money issues are often harder to resolve than other issues. That's because changing how you handle money changes nearly every aspect of your life. It's not just taking out the garbage more often. If you're going to save more, you'll need to change how often you eat out, the clothes you buy, vacations, and so on. It ain't easy.

So, now you know you need to talk, but how do you actually pull it off without arguing or getting frustrated? Here's a suggestion:

  • Find a non-stressful time to talk, when money is not a loaded issue. So don't wait until you're in the middle of doing your taxes in April.
  • Set aside a time when neither one of you is hassled or stressed. In this way, you can both devote quality time to this important sharing session and listen to each other with as much patience and respect as possible.
  • Agree on some ground rules: No interrupting each other, and after one person shares a difficult piece of information, the partner should try to mirror it back before responding.
  • Mention your concerns about your partner's money style. Acknowledge what you admire about their methods and what you secretly envy. Hoarders secretly admire spenders' capacity to enjoy life in the present, while spenders secretly envy hoarders ability to set limits, to budget and delay gratification. Making positive statements will help to make your partner feel safe enough to give up the negative aspects of their behavior.
  • Set a time to have your next money talk. Aim for weekly conversations in the beginning, then monthly ones.

These money conversations may difficult at first as you work out differences and begin to craft solutions. But as time goes on, they'll get easier. Of course, the reward will be a more trusting relationship and far fewer arguments.

Advertisement

Money Harmony: Resolving Money Conflicts in Your Life and Your Relationships

Couple's Guide to Love and Money

Couples and Money: Couple's Guide Updated for the New Millennium

Call 202-638-6830 to advertise here in Marketplace