This has got to be one of the most important, and often one of the most difficult, questions that I am asked. Couples have a unique opportunity to build a bright, positive future together, with the power of TWO, rather than one. But how do you do that?
Believe me, it doesn’t matter if you are rich or poor; if your parents were financial wizards or completely clueless; if you are a spender or a saver; if you are young or old; every person and every couple I’ve ever met has a unique money story and “money baggage” to go along with it. It’s part of being human. In my experience, the keys to working together successfully as a couple are to recognize this truth, to be willing to share your money stories without judgment, and then to agree to create a new money story, together. Here are some useful tips on how to do so.
- Understand and support where your partner is coming from. As Steven Covey says, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” This means doing a whole lot of listening and validating, rather than judging and condemning. Realize that you will probably never look at money exactly the same way – and this is a good thing! In fact, two different perspectives will help to make you both stronger in the long run. The key is to see the money issue from a “we” perspective, where you are both working towards common goals, rather than a “you” and “I” perspective, where you are pulling in opposite directions.
- Recognize the emotional aspect of any money conversation – for both of you. Anyone who thinks money is purely a logical game of mathematics is fooling themselves. Money comes with multiple emotional layers, often created by years of baggage: family history and influence (positive or negative). Childhood stories (good or bad). Past experiences (observed or lived). Decisions made, and their outcomes (wonderful or awful). All this money baggage and money shame are very real and visceral, and they are uncomfortable. But they are not “wrong” or even necessarily “bad.” Acknowledging money emotions can be empowering! But it must be explored lovingly and without judgment. If you are willing to explore your money story with your partner and encourage him to do the same, the experience can make you both stronger.
- Watch the jargon. If both of you are comfortable with financial terms and concepts, great! Often, however, that is not the case: usually, one person is more comfortable with financial language, and the other is not. That’s OK, but you need to have some sort of common language to be able to set goals and agree upon the steps towards your goals. Too often the person who is comfortable with financial terms leads the way, and the person who is uncomfortable buries their head in the sand. As a friend of mine says, this is “less than optimal.” And it isn’t how a successful team runs the race. Think of it like running a money marathon relay. If you’re the one comfortable with money language, stop at intervals and ask how your partner is doing. Don’t leave her in the dust. And if you’re the one who is uncomfortable with financial topics, please speak up! You need each other in order to finish the race strong.
What if I try, and the conversation stalls?
- Start by building on past “wins” you’ve experienced together, to remind and reinforce your positive feelings of being a team. For example, before launching into a full financial review, share a happy memory about a time when you worked together on something. Have fun with it! One client shared this creative solution: when she and her husband approached a money conversation, they dressed in their favorite sports team jerseys so they would remember they were “on the same team”! Starting with common ground helps you both to get sure footing before climbing to the harder stuff.
- Try an old improv technique called “Yes, And…” In improv, you’ve got to keep the skit going, so rather than saying “No/But…” which can kill the conversation, actors are taught to use the phrase “Yes, and…” to keep moving forward. This can be a helpful exercise in a money conversation. For example: “I’m afraid we’re overspending.” “Yes and I’d love to eat at home more often. What do you think?” This helps to keep the lines of communication open. It can also encourage creativity and foster the brainstorming process, great tools to use when tackling difficult issues together.
- “Thank you for sharing.” If “yes and…” becomes a little too difficult, you can always go back to a great old standby “thank you for sharing” and follow up with an open-ended question. For example: “I’m afraid we’re overspending.” “Thank you for sharing that. What makes you think so?” The first statement acts as a validation, to help establish that this is a safe place to share opinions. The second part, the question, encourages the conversation to continue.
OK, we’re talking, but I still think we can do better…
- Consider seeking the presence of a neutral third party, such as a financial planner. Oftentimes the most useful thing I do in a couples meeting is simply to facilitate the money discussion. Both spouses have different takes on their money situation, and usually both are right about certain aspects – but don’t easily see the other person’s point of view. That’s where having a neutral third party can help. Someone like a financial planner can help couples to interpret each other’s perspectives, validate viewpoints, and gently redirect where needed. Many times, the most important thing I do as a planner is to point out the strengths that each partner already has, and then to show the couple how to use these strengths to build something really special – together.
Do you have other suggestions? Have you accomplished a successful money conversation with your partner/spouse? Please send me an email! I would love to hear what has worked for you.