Sorting out our own spending habits, relationships with money, and monthly budgets can be tricky enough as it is. So it makes sense that when we add another person into the mix, things can get complicated pretty fast.
This past week a reader sent in the following question that touched on this:
I’d love to hear about merging finances and/or determining a budget with a partner! There’s all kinds of feelings associated with gender and independence and priorities that I’m grappling with right now and would love to hear your thoughts on navigating those conversations.
I loved getting this question in my inbox because having honest conversations about money is incredibly important to sustaining a healthy relationship — but it’s not something we always feel comfortable with or necessarily know where or how to begin (thanks, society).
But this isn’t just one question, it’s a few. There’s the “how do you merge finances?” question, the “how do you build a budget with a partner?” question, and the deeply layered gender, independence, and priorities question.
So, I’m going to break it down into smaller answers to get to the heart of these central questions. Each question will get its own post, so stay tuned for the follow-ups!
First up, we’re talking about how you can start money conversations with a partner.
Why Talking About Money Is Important
One of the primary sources of conflict in relationships (and a leading cause of divorce) is disagreements over money. Arguments over money can be especially damaging to relationships because as relationship expert Dr. John Gottman writes, “Arguments about money aren’t about money. They are about our dreams, our fears, and our inadequacies.”
When we don’t address money issues in our relationship for what they are, they can leave some pretty serious scars and build up resentment.
Conversations about money can turn into arguments, but they can also become fulfilling conversations that get you and your partner on the same page. It’s rewarding work that is crucial to sustaining the long-term health and happiness of your relationship, plus, it helps you better understand each other.
Even if you and your partner have been together for a long time and don’t disagree over financial issues because just one of you takes care of all of the financial stuff and your family is comfortable, you might want to think about starting up a regular time to check in on the finances together.
It’s important for all members of a relationship to be involved in the financial decisions of a household, to understand what’s happening in their financial lives, and to regularly check-in about financial goals and priorities. After all, money is a big part of building your future together.
Leaving one person in charge of it all also creates an imbalance in the relationship’s power dynamic, where one person’s financial decisions could have an outsized effect on all partners’ financial health (if, for example, a couple shares a credit card but Person A handles the bill, so Person B never knows that Person A has maxed the card out). That’s called financial infidelity, or basically, breaking the covenant of your relationship by lying about money in some way.
Then there’s financial abuse, which isn’t just mismanaging money. Financial abuse is a form of interpersonal abuse and some studies have shown that it happens in 99% of domestic violence cases. Financial abuse is when one person controls the entire budgeting and allocation of funds, including the other person’s paycheck (if they’re allowed to work at all). Financial abuse is one way that abusive people control their partners’ movements, decisions, and ability to leave the relationship.
Even if you’re uncomfortable talking about money, I recommend that you find ways to build your comfort with it. Being deeply familiar with your own financial situation (plus your partners’) helps you retain autonomy in your relationship and can help you and your partners build intentional futures together.
Plus, money conversations with a partner can actually be really fun and exciting. I know, I can feel you rolling your eyes at me on the other side of this screen. But I promise, it’s possible.
For one, you get to learn more about your partner. But most importantly, you get to think about and share your dreams and goals, and actually make a plan to work together to make them happen.
When (and How) to Start the Conversation
I can promise you this: The next time you and your partner are in the middle of a disagreement over money or spending is decidedly not the time to try and have a larger conversation about money and your relationship.
Money is personal and emotional. If you or your partner want to have a conversation about money — whether it’s about wanting to cut back some on spending, creating a budget, splitting expenses, merging your finances, or anything else – you want to give them a heads up.
If it comes up suddenly and your partner isn’t prepared for that kind of a conversation, they can be thrown off and might be a little defensive.
Plus, if you’re at the point where you want to have this kind of conversation, you’ve probably been thinking about it for a little while and have had time to think about things and what you want to say and get out of the conversation. It’s only fair to give your partner a little thinking time, too.
When making plans to have a conversation about money, frame it constructively rather than as an intervention. You do not want to say, “Hey I think we should sit down and talk about your spending” or “I want to make our budget.” Nope. Not going to get you far, buddy.
If money arguments aren’t about money, then your money conversation isn’t going to be about money, either.
It’s going to be about your priorities, your dreams, your goals, and the life that you want to build together. Frame your request for a conversation in those terms and I bet your partner will be a lot more excited and engaged.
Once you’ve given your partner a heads-up, set aside a day and time to start the conversation (and stick to it). When the time comes, give it your full attention. Put your phones away, go in with an open mind rather than an agenda, and really prepare yourself to listen to each other.
I suggest picking a time when you won’t already be tired and potentially grumpy (so avoid just after work or late at night). You could stay home, go for a walk, or go out. I will say that these first few conversations can result in a few tears (because again, money is personal) so I suggest planning to be somewhere somewhat private and where you feel comfortable.
Money Questions to Ask Your Partner
Okay, so the time has come and the conversation is here. What do you say? How do you start?
I suggest starting with a question, not a monologue (just some friendly advice that certainly doesn’t come from any personal experience whatsoever, nope, definitely not) and a question that you’ll be answering as well. Remember this is a conversation, not an interrogation.
I also think it can be helpful to start the conversation with questions that on their surface don’t seem to be about money, but will really be the backbone and the why for all of your future money talks. Questions like:
- What are the things you value the most in life? How come?
- What are priorities for you in your life? Why?
- What do you want your life to look like in 5, 10, 15 years? Why?
- What does a perfect day look like to you? What about it feels perfect?
- What do you wish there was more of in your life? What are your top sources of joy?
- What do you wish there was less of in your life? What are your top sources of stress?
Because money represents so many different things and we all have our own money scripts from past experiences and upbringing, it’s important to learn about your partner’s money script. And it’s especially important to learn about it from them, and not from psychoanalyzing their spending habits.
Here are some questions to get the conversation started about both of your relationships with money:
- What was your family’s financial situation when you were growing up? How did it affect you?
- Did your family talk about money when you were growing up? If so in what way? If not, why?
- Where did you learn about money growing up?
- How confident do you feel about your ability to manage your money?
- How would you describe your relationship with money?
- What does money mean to you? What does it represent?
- How do you think your gender has influenced your relationship with money?
- How was money dealt with in your past relationships?
- Are you more inclined to spend or save money? Why?
- What were you most nervous about for this conversation?
- Why do you think it’s important to have these kinds of conversations?
Once you each have opened up about your priorities, hopes, financial upbringing, and relationships with money, you’ll want to eventually start talking about actual numbers.
If you’re in a serious relationship with another person and you’re building a future together, it’s important to be open with them about your current financial realties:
- Do you have any debt? If so, what kind and how much?
- Do you have any assets? If so what kind and how much are they worth?
- Do you financially support any family members?
- What’s your monthly income?
- Do you currently have savings?
- Are you actively saving for retirement?
- What’s your credit score?
The pacing of these conversations will be different for different relationships. You might dedicate a separate date for each set of questions or you might fly through them all in one sitting. Either way, I encourage you to take your time.
These question lists are by no means exhaustive or prescriptive and are just meant to get you started, so add your own and ask follow-up questions to better understand where your partner is coming from.
The truth is that this is an ongoing conversation that requires building trust and a willingness to be vulnerable, both with yourself and your partner. Heck, even my wife and I still don’t always move through these conversations with the most grace. The important thing is to start somewhere and keep at it. It gets easier, and I promise you’ll thank yourself for it in the long run.
In the next articles in this series I’ll talk about how you can use this foundational conversation as a starting point to have conversations more specific to your scenario, and work as a team to start putting in place a financial plan and practices to help you reach your financial goals and build the life you want.
PS: I have a whole list of post ideas waiting to be written, but if there’s a topic or question you have that you’d like to read about or is timely feel free to submit your suggestions here.