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For couples: How to talk about money

Many financial articles begin, “Start by talking about money with your spouse, partner or fiancé.” Much of the advice from financial professionals also begins this way. It may be, “You should talk about money and then …

  • couples money conversationmake a budget.”
  • enroll in a debt management course.”
  • take the following steps to work on your family’s credit.”
  • talk with a financial planner.”
  • buy a house.”
  • realign your investments appropriately.”
  • check out these tips for retirement planning.”


How do you talk about money with a spouse, partner or fiance?

The problem is that the first step is much easier said than done: talk about money. If people can’t discuss money, they won’t make it to later steps with their personal finances: budgeting, cut back on spending, find ways to save more, visit a financial planner, etc.
Generally, couples don’t understand the basics of how to talk about money. Money is the number one source of couples’ arguments. Many people will say that they’d find it easier to talk about sex versus money!
Many premarital classes (i.e. marriage prep) include a module on finances in marriage. Many classes have engaged couples fill out a budget form. That sheet will include budget categories like:

  • how much debt they have
  • their salaries and investment income (i.e., how much money they make)
  • what expenses they have (transportation, house, rent, food, entertainment, charitable gifts, medical, etc.)

Despite this premarital class structure, engaged couples will still often paint an inaccurate or incomplete picture of their joint finances. That can be on purpose or by ignorance.
When it is by ignorance, it is because one isn’t even aware of how much he or she is spending. This is typically referred to as “budget leaks” or “spending leaks.”  The classic example is the forgotten daily cup of coffee that adds up to hundreds, if not thousands of dollars a year.
On the other hand, when couples sit down to make a budget, they may knowingly hide debt, assets or income. There are many stories of couples getting married without sharing how much debt they have. It’s understandable because:

  • Talking about money is difficult and stressful.
  • Admitting the secret that one is in debt can be shameful and embarrassing.
  • If this money secret isn’t shared upfront, it can become progressively harder to admit as the weeks, months and years go by.
  • There is a legitimate fear that someone may break up with you or call off a wedding if, all of a sudden, you seem to be in financial trouble, have bankruptcy in your past, etc.

These same issues come up later in a marriage too. Of course, here money is a very big trust issue and, as such, a relationship concern. There can be a real desire to ignore debt for fear of it causing discord.
In cases where couples don’t go through a formal premarital program and do their own marriage prep, it can be very difficult to talk about money. That’s true for newlyweds. It’s also true for married couples who have never or rarely talked about money and now need to because it’s time to plan for retirement, etc.
Regardless, it’s easier to tell someone to sit down and talk about money with your partner versus actually having that conversation.

4 Tips to Talk about Money and Family Finances; Financial Conversation Starters

We recommend that married, engaged or dating couples (or family members or business partners), use Money Habitudes cards. The tool is a proven, fun way to start the conversation about money. However, even without using the cards, here are a few tips about how to talk about money. They help couples (a) actually broach the difficult subject, (b) share financial information honestly, (c) understand and respect each other better.

  1. Admit the awkwardness. Start by acknowledging to your spouse or partner that talking about money can feel awkward, but it builds trust and lays a stronger foundation for your relationship.
  2. Pick the right time and place. When getting started, give yourself the advantage of a time and place where you can relax. Planning a quiet evening over a relaxing dinner or coffee and dessert is a good start. It certainly beats trying to talk about your spending right after fighting about the credit card bill. Many couples who are successful with their finances set a regular “money date” that may be once a month, once a quarter or a few times a year. Try to avoid, “We need to talk about our money right now!”
  3. Reminisce. An easy way to begin is to just share your memories and have a fun, open conversation. Try these conversation starters:
    1. Remember the first time you bought something with your own money? What did you buy? How did you get the money?
    2. What was your first job and what did you do with your money?
    3. How did you get money as a child and a teen?
    4. What did you learn from your religion about money?
    5. Growing up, how was money talked about in your home? Who paid the bills? How were big financial decisions made?
    6. If there were arguments about money when you were growing up, what caused them and how were you involved?
    7. How would you know when your parents disagreed about money?
    8. When you were a kid, did you think you were richer or poorer than your friends or relatives
    9. A simple conversation like this proves that you can talk about money in a constructive way. Then you can move on to more concrete topics later on: What expenses do we cut out this month? How much money will we need to retire? How can we fix our credit?
  4. Clarify expectations. How do you both define what it would take for you to feel financially secure? How do you both feel about giving to your church, charities or to help friends and family? How much debt are each of you comfortable having month-to-month? What lifestyle do both of you project having in five years?