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How to talk about money: tips & advice

How to talk about money? Because it’s so difficult to talk about money, people often don’t talk about it. After all, it’s often said that people find it easier to talk about sex rather than talk about money.

Tips about how to talk about money

how to talk about moneyOne of the big challenges is that people rarely talk about money until they have to talk about money! So, for example, a couple may be married for 10 years and don’t talk about money – but then when someone loses a job, the sudden change in income requires talking about money. Or imagine the couple that will not talk about money day-to-day but then gets into an argument when the credit card bill comes. Or, consider a couple that’s getting married and their first real talk about money is when one wants a small, frugal wedding and the other wants a lavish affair. In such cases, talking about money isn’t easy and enjoyable. Instead, people make the association that it is frustrating, embarrassing or threatening to talk about money. As a result, people often come to this conclusion: If talking about money feels bad, then I’m best to not talk about money.
Therefore, when thinking about how to talk about money, a secret is to start off with easy, non-threatening, small conversations about money. By contrast, here are some big money conversations:

  • How will we ever save enough for retirement?
  • How should I structure my will?
  • How will we combine our finances when we’re married?
  • Can I pay for my child’s education?
  • Why won’t my spouse keep to his/her money promises?

It’s not that you should avoid these money conversations. But if you aren’t in the habit of having good conversations about money, it can be jolting to start with such big money questions. Similarly, dating or re-marriage articles will often suggest that you talk about money early in a new relationship. While that may indeed be good advice, it can feel weird, uncomfortable and accusatory to have someone demand to see your credit report or ask how much you have in the bank or how much you make. Even when presented in a very careful manner, these money questions can seem threatening. When people feel threatened, they tend to have fight or flight reactions. That’s not good for conversation.
Another hallmark of these big money questions is that they often quickly become conversations about numbers. Of course, when you talk about money, it’s hard to not talk about numbers. However, the figures can usually wait a bit. Also, many people lack the financial expertise required to address the numbers correctly; and lack of confidence, competence or knowledge is a good recipe for a money conversation that goes off the tracks and isn’t enjoyable. In general, build the interpersonal relationship, rapport and trust before doing the spreadsheet.
In addition, many of these questions have answers that are right or wrong – or there is an implied right and wrong. If you start by focusing on the fact that you need to save $1000 a month, it can seem overwhelming and frustrating. Or, if you think your husband or wife (or child or business partner, etc.) is spending foolishly, leading with that probably won’t lead to a productive money conversation. Would you want to talk about money with someone who begins by saying, “You’re really stupid and irresponsible with money”?
Instead, try starting a money conversation with sharing formative experiences. But, first, make sure you’re giving yourself environmental advantages to have a good money talk.

How to talk about money: setting the scene

This seems self-evident, but try to talk about money when you’re not already feeling down. Those cases are sometimes grouped together by the abbreviation HALT. In other words, you shouldn’t talk about money (or other serious topics) and expect great results when you are:

  • Hungry. Even when we’re no longer toddlers, we get cranky when we need food. Imagine you’ve been running around and haven’t eaten all day and then walk in the door and your spouse confronts you about a charge you made on the credit card; even innocuous money questions can turn into conflagrations on an empty stomach.
  • Angry. Consider that you got assigned an impossible deadline right before leaving work, then sat in traffic for an hour before arriving home. Then you’re asked whether you’ve paid the mortgage. Probably not the best moment to talk about money. Unfortunately, if you have a history of unsuccessful money talks, there can be built in anger or resentment that’s triggered when money comes up.
  • Lonely. In this case, one feels bad or drained because of a lack of attention, companionship, etc.
  • Tired. Again, even adults are subject to feeling bad and making poor decisions when operating with a lack of sleep.

Is there a perfect environment or a perfect time to talk about money? No. However, if you avoid these HALT times, you give yourself an advantage. Some tips about picking a good time and place to talk about money:

  • Plan ahead. It’s easier to say, “Let’s have this conversation on Thursday night” than “We need to talk about money right now!!!” Surprises are usually bad when it comes to talking about money.
  • Talk over food. A better conversation may happen over a nice meal, or coffee or a glass of wine. Some couples plan a regular financial check-in date night every 3-6 months and incentivize themselves with a nice dinner or dessert.
  • Be comfortable. Research shows that financial planners have better conversations about money when they simply have more comfortable chairs in their office.
  • Finally, start by acknowledging that talking about money can feel awkward. However it builds trust and lays a stronger foundation for your relationship.

How to talk about money: what to talk about

When thinking about “how to talk about money” realize that you have to crawl before you can walk before you can run. The first conversations will seem very basic. However, they are meant to be non-threatening. They are meant to build trust. It helps if you can first prove that you can talk about money and that conversation can be ok. This is true for a couple talking about money at home or a financial planner meeting with clients or a therapist meeting with clients. While it may be practical to start immediately with “Let’s fill out this form with all of your assets and income,” better results come when people feel they relate to each other on a personal level and have a real conversation as opposed to just talking numbers.
Here are a few money conversation starters to try:

  • Remember the first time you bought something with your own money? What did you buy? How did you get the money?
  • What was your first job and what did you do with your money?
  • What did you learn from your religion about money?
  • Growing up, how was money talked about in your home? Who paid the bills? How were big financial decisions made?
  • How would you know when your parents disagreed about money?

The goal here is largely to have a money conversation that goes well, feels calm, and leaves a good taste in your mouth. Secondly, you should come away with a deeper understanding of the other person with whom you’re talking about money. This may be a spouse, a financial planning client or a counseling client. You’re giving the other person a chance to open up and talk about money where there is no right or wrong. One of the main reasons people don’t like to talk about money is because those conversations often feel so judgmental: “I’m bad with money.” “You’re irresponsible.” “I’m right. You’re wrong.” The conversation starters above are meant to get people away from right/wrong answers and start a dialogue. If you see that someone never had much money growing up and always felt it was important to hold on to money, it can change the nature of the conversation from “You’re so cheap and tightfisted,” to “I understand why you don’t want to spend that money.”

How to talk about money: using Money Habitudes

Money Habitudes - money personality testOf course a great way to talk about money is to use a tool specifically designed to generate money conversations. Money Habitudes is one part financial personality test and one part money conversation starter. Still, using the tool feels like playing a card game. It’s designed to be non-threatening and easy-to-understand.
Again, if you’re going to use the cards in addition to or in place of the conversation starter questions above, remember to give yourself the advantage of a good environment. Don’t start using the game when you’re Hungry-Angry-Lonely-Tired and do it in a space that’s comfortable. That’s true if you’re using the cards at home or using them in an office environment (or classroom) with clients.
What people like about the cards over just spoken money conversation prompts is:

  • They provide a framework or an excuse to talk about money. It can often be easier to say, “Let’s try out this game” versus “Let’s talk about money.” That’s a simple but important distinction.
  • The cards are hands-on and tactile. Many money conversations can quickly take on an interrogation tone where one person is asking questions and the other person is answering them. (That’s especially true of financial professionals and therapists.) Using the cards is more participatory. Therapists note that it gives some of the power to the client to do something versus sit and answer questions.
  • The hands-on format also gets people to relax. It feels like a social card game and not a test or an interview.
  • Between the 54 statement cards in each deck, one’s money personality results and interpretation cards, there are many, many conversation starters. Conversation usually flows naturally from people’s curiosity to understand themselves and their results, as well a the results of the person or people with whom they’re doing the activity.
  • Because of the nature of the statements and the interpretation process, much of the conversation starter questions above come up, but more subtlety. Instead of asking how someone’s parents used money, the person doing the Money Habitudes activity may see his or her results and volunteer a comment like, “Wow, I’d never thought how much my mother’s saving nature affected the way I’d relate to money as an adult.”
  • The cards often prompt storytelling and sharing – real conversation – versus simple question-and-answer.

Couples who use Money Habitudes cards have remarked that it’s sparked the best conversation about money they’ve ever had. That’s true for couples who are still dating, engaged or newly married – as well as those who’ve been married for decades. Professionals who use the cards find that they start a different kind of conversation that quickly builds trust, rapport and understanding. It’s a far different process than just sitting behind a desk and asking money questions or asking someone to fill in intake forms with lots of numbers.