Talking about money in relationships is inherently awkward, especially when you’ve never done it before. (Or if you have and it didn’t go well.) My husband and I got into some of the biggest fights of our lives when we were trying to decide what to spend on food for our wedding, which is embarrassing, but everyone has to start somewhere.
Not to brag, but we’re pretty good at discussing finances now. Still, it takes a lot of ongoing practice, and we don’t agree on lots of things. (I think good food is one of the best things to buy, and he would happily subsist on nachos; he spends money on sports that I think are stupid; the list goes on.) The difference is we can acknowledge them without hurting each other’s feelings (usually).
What got us here? Regularly scheduled talks. I know it sounds rigid — and it can be — but I recommend that every couple struggling to discuss money follow this step-by-step plan, at least when they’re starting out. The structure relieves pressure on both parties and helps you feel heard even if you’re ashamed, angry, or just confused about what’s going on. Here’s how to do it.
1. Give some advance notice.
So you know you should talk about money more, but you’re not sure how to start. And casually mentioning that you have some student loans and maybe a smattering of credit-card debt plus some questionable outstanding medical bills doesn’t seem very appealing (or seems like something you should hide). That’s why you want to give your significant other some time to prepare.
“If you’re trying to broach the topic of money, it’s always a good idea to give your partner a heads-up,” says Chrishane Cunningham, a therapist affiliated with the Chicago Counseling Collective. “It’s also important to convey the topic and what the goal is.” Remember, simply talking and listening is a worthy goal in itself, especially at the beginning.
For example, you could try something like, “Hey, I’m trying to be better at budgeting, and I’d like to start talking more regularly about our finances. Could we set aside some time Sunday?” Or whatever feels right — just make sure you’re clear about what you’re asking so your partner doesn’t feel put on the spot when the time comes.
2. Acknowledge the discomfort.
Nothing disarms weirdness quite like calling it out. Speaking calmly and naturally about, say, crushing student loans or the anxiety of growing up in economic instability isn’t something that just happens. You have to work at it. And that will involve fumbling through some uncomfortable moments.
I remember the first time I had a financial conversation with my husband about something I was afraid he didn’t want to hear (boring story about home expenses that cost more than I’d anticipated), and I was dreading it. So that’s what I led with: “I’m nervous to bring this up to you because I’m not sure how you’ll react, and I’m anxious.” I felt like a babbling idiot but also like a genius because it worked — he was ultimately a lot more open and empathetic about the stupid bills than I thought he would be.
The point is, don’t try to shut down any discomfort you’re feeling during these talks. Instead, bring it up. It’s the easiest way to diffuse tension.
3. Start nicely.
Dr. Shannon Curry, a psychologist who frequently works with couples experiencing financial conflict, recommends starting every money conversation (and tough conversation in general) by naming a couple of things you appreciate about your partner. “You don’t want to air your grievances off the bat,” she says. “The things you appreciate could be small, like that she walked the dog or cooked dinner earlier in the week.”
A friend of mine refers to this tactic as “the shit sandwich”: You open with the good stuff (“You’re doing a great job with X or Y, and I want you to know I’m grateful for it”), then express your concern (“I feel like I am paying more than my share of our bills”), then finish up with another affirmation (“I know you’ve been working really hard, and I’m proud of you,” etc.). This strategy takes some of the sting out of the negative feedback you’re delivering, which makes the other person more likely to take it thoughtfully.
“Most of the time, the way a conflict discussion starts will be the way it ends,” adds Curry. “If you come in hot, chances are you’re going to end it feeling pissed. But if you come in gently and give your partner the benefit of the doubt, then even if things get heated in the middle, it’s more likely to end well.”
4. Create some structure.
It helps to impose some ground rules. When my husband and I are talking about something hard, sometimes we set a timer so we both get equal, uninterrupted air time (usually ten minutes each) before the other person is allowed to respond. It might sound inflexible, but it actually helps each of us feel more relaxed because we know we’ll have our turn to be heard.
Curry recommends bringing a pen and paper. When the other person is talking, take notes. “When you write down what your partner says, it keeps you out of your own head and your own defensiveness, and it helps you to be present and attentive,” she says. It also gives you something to refer back to if there’s a misinterpretation.
5. Don’t try to solve everything.
Many financial conflicts and anxieties stem from the way you were raised around money. Or they have to do with present-day stressors — you have an aging parent to support or you lost your job or you’re tackling debt. These are not issues with concrete answers, and talking about them won’t fix them. The point is to understand them, not come up with an action plan. You should feel free to state that explicitly: “I just want you to hear this and think about it. You don’t need to respond yet.”
“You are never going to be on the same page about everything,” Curry explains. In fact, most sources of conflict among couples are “perpetual,” meaning they will never be reconciled. “Instead of making solutions the goal, you want to learn how to dialogue about what you’re facing,” she says. “This creates an ‘us against the problem’ mind-set rather than ‘us against each other.’”
I’ve found that it helps to ask the other person if they want my thoughts on what they’re telling me. This is pretty easy: “Do you want my opinion, or do you just want me to listen?” Sometimes people aren’t in the mood for advice, and that’s fine — give them that space. Alternatively, if they do want to know what you think, it sets up a dynamic where they’re ready to accept it.
6. Make it a habit.
Congratulations — you made it through your first financial talk. Now put another one on the calendar.
“It’s important to make conversations about money a standing, recurring thing,” says Cunningham. Depending on your relationship and your finances, that could be once a week, once a month, once a quarter — they can be short as long as they’re regular.
Having frequent check-ins about money doesn’t just help you get more experience communicating about it; it also gives you a defined forum so issues don’t fester or pop up suddenly when you’re grumpy after work or mad you’ve paid for groceries two weeks in a row.
It also gives you both a chance to evaluate what’s working and adapt to change. “Financial situations fluctuate all the time,” says Cunningham. “Creating a plan is great, but you still need to follow up on how it’s going and be flexible.”