Teaching Couples Skills to Communicate About Finances

Financial education classes often neglect communication skills and focus solely on the mechanics of budgeting, expense tracking, etc. But Lori Scharmer, a family economics educator, finds great value in helping couples communicate about money. If they aren’t comfortable talking about their finances, managing them will difficult. In her standard couples’ finance class, she uses Money Habitudes™ cards. When a couple wants to improve the way they are managing their finances, they need to be comfortable talking about money. That may sound obvious, but communicating about money is a common problem for many couples. Unfortunately, financial classes for couples often ignore communication and dive right into budgeting, cash management and the like, especially when there is a limited timeframe. However, Lori Scharmer, an Extension educator in family economics, recognizes the value of devoting class time to interpersonal communication as part of the money management process.

Scharmer, who works with the North Dakota State University Extension Service, created and teaches a class called Marriage and Money. She developed it to help premarital couples identify and deal with potential financial issues , but the program has been expanded to include married spouses, committed relationships and even the occasional individual.

“Originally, we designed it for couples that were engaged but we found that it’s just as effective for people who’ve been married for years! So we open it to everybody,” says Scharmer who notes that for people who share finances, being able to manage their money wisely together is a timeless skill. “We’ve had some couples married 10 or 15 years and they still love the program.”

A Focus on Money Communication
Scharmer tries to limit her classes to six couples for a more personalized experience and often does the community classes at nearby Minot Air Force Base or area churches. The workshop revolves around a simple premise: make personal finance and money management approachable and understandable and give couples the tools and techniques to talk about it so they can set and achieve financial goals.

“We know that in many marital conflicts, money is almost always part of the issue. So in the class, we don’t necessarily do a lot of nuts and bolts money management. We do more about getting to know the other person, why do they manage money that way, why do they think about money that way, how do we communicate about money,” says Scharmer.

As a result, the money-and-relationship skills class is heavy on communication. When teaching about money preferences, philosophies, personal differences and attitudes, she uses Money Habitudes cards.

“Part of the reason I do it is it’s fun and it’s a hook that gets them interested and gets them thinking about themselves and money. You just can’t preach at them about money management; it doesn’t work! It’s not the most exciting topic so you have to have some buy-in and I think this helps,” she says.

Fun but practical, the class is aimed at getting people interested in managing their finances and to make other money management techniques more acceptable later on. These may be other Extension courses, classes taught by other providers (including the Air Force’s Airman and Family Readiness program), web sites, or drawing on other community resources including couples counselors or personal financial educators. Scharmer also distributes a newsletter called Marriage and Money, developed by NDSU Extension Service, which predates her creation of the class. The class complements the newsletter, which she mails to couples monthly for a year after they attend.

“Our ultimate goal is getting them to have that open dialogue within the marriage about money,” she says.

Using Money Habitudes
The class is structured in a logical progression that creates shared understanding and buy-in and then transitions to goal setting and a presentation of the techniques that can help people achieve those goals. Thus, to establish the strong sense of understanding and engagement, she begins her classes with a half-hour module using Money Habitudes cards. Everyone in the class gets their own deck of cards and sorts them to determine their Habitude type. However, the money cards were not part of the original curriculum.

“Before I used the cards, we talked about the idea that ´You’re each going to have different views about money.´ But talking about it and actually doing an activity are so different! I think the cards make it easier for them to talk about it. It’s like, ´The cards say this, even though it’s reflecting what they find about themselves. And it seems that with the cards, they aren’t as defensive. It facilitates the conversation,” says Scharmer.

When she heard about the cards through AFCPE (the Association of Financial Counseling and Planning Education), she realized they’d be “a perfect fit” because of their non-threatening, interactive format.

“We really do try to make it hands-on. We don’t just want to talk at them so we’re always looking for activities and this works really well,” she says.

In a half-hour, Scharmer finds she has enough time for each person to do his or her own card sort, determine their dominant Habitude type and discuss it briefly with a partner. At the end, she still has time for a quick, capstone discussion involving the whole group.

“We have to move things through pretty quickly. It’s only three-hours,” she says. “Obviously we’re not using the cards to their full extent.”

Even though it doesn’t involve concrete financial management skills, Scharmer believes the half-hour using Money Habitudes is time well spent. It not only makes the rest of the class easier and more effective, it gives couples practical knowledge, insights and techniques to use later at home. In fact, Scharmer notes that participants do seem to make behavioral changes based on the combination of class format, instruction, tools and goals.

“I think what people get out of the cards is that ´A-ha! ´ understanding: ´A-ha, that’s why my husband reacts that way! ´ And so when you understand that, it’s easier to communicate because you think, ´Oh, well, he’s that way, because—. ´ So I think it makes communication easier and they’re maybe making better choices in how they communicate.”

Class Outcomes
Armed with a newfound understanding and comfort, as well as a personal investment, in managing money, Scharmer moves to financial goal setting, utilizing the popular SMART (Specific-Measurable-Attainable-Relevant-Time-bound) methodology. During the stand-alone course, she uses financial materials she created as well as those provided by Extension Service; Money Habitudes is the only outside tool she employs.

Although what each person – and what each couple – discovers in the class will vary, there are some consistencies. One is the lack of balance between couples when it comes to handling finances.

“Typically we find that one person in the couple manages the money. And so we really encourage that other partner to stay involved, even if they’re not writing the monthly checks. We stress that there must be full disclosure about money for both partners at all times – and they both have a responsibility in that: one to share and the other to show interest and stay involved,” says Scharmer. When working with a military audience, this issue is particularly relevant because deployments often put someone in charge of the finances when he or she is not accustomed to this role.

For the couples who attend, Scharmer says that one of the most important breakthroughs is the realization that different couples manage money in different ways. Whether it is combining all of their accounts, commingling some money and having some personal funds, or not mixing any money, couples realize that different styles and preferences work for different couples and that variations are acceptable. It’s accepting and understanding differences that makes for effective money management in marriages.

“They both need to understand that they may be coming from different financial backgrounds. They’re going to have different views of money. So that’s where the cards really do help,” says Scharmer.

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