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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.

Talking about Money in Catholic Marriage Preparation Classes

Contacts: Valerie Conzett, director of the Family Life Office in the Archdiocese of Omaha, and Sr. Virginia West, a marriage and family therapist at St. Margaret Mary Catholic Church in Winter Park, FL.
Situation: Catholic churches and dioceses use Money Habitudes in marriage preparation programs to help people better understand themselves and their partners when it comes to money and finances.
Audience: Couples preparing for marriage within the Catholic Church.
Why use the cards:

  • The Money Habitude Cards help individuals better understand themselves and their partners and how they relate to money.
  • The cards are useful in smaller groups and individualized sessions for couples.
  • The cards are a fun format.
  • The cards offer a positive approach to a sometimes difficult subject.
  • The cards offer a non-judgmental approach to money.
  • The cards offer help people understand a little bit about themselves.

How cards are used:

  • The premarital classes may be a single day, a whole weekend or a series of seminars spread over a few weeks. The Archdiocese of Omaha offers a variety of marriage preparation options including evening sessions, one- and two-day and weekend (Catholic Engaged Encounter) programs. At St. Margaret Mary Catholic Church in Winter Park, FL, Sr. Virginia West and a colleague, Sr. Patricia O’Malley, both marriage and family therapists, offer a full-day premarital course. The course is taught to up to 35 Catholic couples at a time.
  • After an introduction to the role of money in marriage, everyone in the class sorts his or her own deck of Money Habitudes cards at the same time. West’s church has a large number of Spanish-speaking participants and she realized that having some Spanish versions of the cards would make the process faster and easier in cases where both people in the couple don’t read English well.
  • Carrying forward the idea that the premarital class is meant to allow Catholic couples to focus on themselves, West has them talk among themselves rather than try to foster a financial discussion among a large group.
  • She also gives the couples worksheets from the Professional Guide so they have something to refer to when they go home and can thus continue the conversation.

Outcomes:

  • “The couples are learning something about their fiancé, but they’re also learning something about themselves. I like the positive approach that Money Habitudes offers in that it’s not saying that anything is right or wrong; it’s just helping them understand a little bit about themselves. That’s important!” says Conzett.
  • “People seemed to get a lot from it. They’ve really enjoyed the cards,” says West.

Observations:

  • “I think they liked the idea of looking at their differences more from habits and attitudes. I think it helped them to be less judgmental of each other by just getting a sense of where this is coming from with them – from their family when they were growing up – and their attitudes towards money. I think what it did for them is it took it off the actual money piece, per se, and got the communication going better around ‘how we’re going to use money or not use money.’ The feedback we got on that was good,” says West.
  • Similarly, Conzett sees how the same conversation has deeper, more far-reaching applications.
  • “The value of the cards is the opportunity to better understand yourself and, in marriage education, how that will impact your life as a married couple. The cards can be used in a variety of settings. We help prepare well over 1,000 couples a year for marriage in the Archdiocese of Omaha. We take our role in this preparation seriously. We also realize that some of the education we provide these couples has value for people served in our other ministry areas. For instance, people who have been newly married and long married, as well as those who are single, separated, widowed or divorced could benefit from learning about their approach to handling finances. Money Habitudes could be used in all of these ministry settings. The value of Money Habitudes is self-awareness. How organizations build on this value is best determined by the program’s goals and the organization’s attention to particular audiences.”

Better Understanding Yourself And Your Clients Regarding Money

Contact: Alan Frank is a financial educator and planner, serving as Financial Services Lead Instructor at Bow Valley College in Calgary, Canada
Situation: Teaching college students who are studying to become financial planners and clients who attend the classes and workshops he offers.
Who: College students, adults attending financial education or planning classes and private clients.
Why:

  • Prepare college students (who are studying financial planning) to understand how they personally see money and how that may influence the advice they offer.
  • Prepare college students to understand how and why people look at money differently.
  • To make it easier for individuals and couples to open up and talk about money.

How:

  • One to two hour seminars/workshops using Money Habitudes cards to help people focus on how they see money and how they use it.
  • A typical seminars/workshops has 30 people, although he prefers the intimacy of smaller groups.
  • Often students/attendees keep their decks of Money Habitudes cards so they can share this very meaningful exercise with a partner.
  • Working with private clients.

Outcomes:

  • The cards create a fun environment and provide a very engaging, relevant format so people open up without being threatened by talking about money.
  • Provide a non-judgmental way to find out clients’ attitudes about money.
  • Enable couples to see the others’ point of view about money and more easily discuss any differences they may have.
  • After gaining such newfound clarity about their finances and relationships in classes some attendees later ask him to work with them on an individualized coaching basis.
  • People seek small incremental changes about how they view and handle money after going through the Money Habitudes card process.
  • I’ve had people come up to me after class and say, ‘You know I really need to go home now and have a discussion with a spouse or a partner because this says a lot! This can be why we’re not talking or why there’s this divergence between what I think and what they think.
  • Realizing that individuals are not going to radically change how they view and handle money, I use the action tips form the Money Habitudes cards to help them make small, incremental changes. It may help savers loosen up their grip on money a bit and go out for a dinner or it may help spenders pass up a sale…

 
Observations and Comments:
 

  • This activity “an epiphany” for many.
  • Probably the strongest personal growth part of me doing those cards myself was to understand that I can’t transfer my thoughts, ideas and beliefs as a financial planner over to my clients. Just because I am geared and wired this way and believe this is important does not necessarily mean that my clients are wrong in the way they approach things. It was a great learning experience for me in a fun sort of way.
  • With couples, I really think you have to start the discussion by talking about what’s important to one another and to understand where each person is coming from. If you don’t do that, a budget’s not going to work.
  • We really use the cards to get people to open up. It is a fun environment so they’re very open in the classroom, probably more open than you would sometimes expect.
  • After doing the cards myself, I don’t find that I judge as much as I used to. I really just understand where the client is coming from.

Spouses Group Meets for Coffee and Money Habitudes

One of the great friction points in marriages is money. Although people do not want to talk about it, they do want to be able to deal with it effectively. To help people introduce the difficult topic, talk about it and better understand one another in a marriage, Erica Brown used Money Habitudes as a light but insightful conversation-starting activity with a monthly meeting of military spouses. The Airman and Family Readiness Center at Shaw Air Force Base runs monthly meetings for active duty, retired and reservist spouses. Referred to as Spouses´ Cafés, the relaxed two-hour gatherings are like a support group. They foster friendships and help attendees navigate military life through a series of informative seminars. Knowing how important money is within marriages, community readiness technician Erica Brown introduced her spouses group to the topic of finances by walking them through Money Habitudes™.
Fun, Casual Conversations
The cards were a good fit for the support group event for two reasons says Brown. First, they are a fun activity which aligns well with the informal nature of the gathering; when friends meet for coffee and camaraderie, they don’t expect to be staring at a PowerPoint presentation. The cards are also hands-on and everyone can participate together. Doing an activity that people are excited about is important to attract and keep spouses in the support group.
“The reaction was very good. One of them was saying, ‘I need to take these home so my husband can do them!’ I think they were really excited,” says Brown.
Second, the cards offer a non-threatening way to get people to talk about and think about a topic that is often not discussed in marriages. “I knew I had to have the cards because I knew I could do so much with them,” says Brown who appreciates that the cards work not just for money and finance classes but also for marriage, relationship and communication sessions as well. And, because of the stress that deployment puts on managing joint finances, dealing with money can be an especially difficult topic for military couples. Many couples don’t talk about money because they fear it will lead to arguments. A 2009 study by PayPal/Ipsos found that money is the top cause of arguments among American couples, followed by household chores, in-laws and sex.
Using Money Habitudes
Brown gave decks of cards to each attendee while they were waiting for food to be served, briefly explaining the instructions and methodology behind the game-like activity. Each person sorted the cards using the typical solitaire activity and then Brown let the discussion flow from the activity to get the spouses to share their results and learn from each other. Because money is so difficult to talk about, it helps to hear that others around you are having the same issues and concerns that you are. This is a key component to a support group. Brown is just careful not to overdo it too soon.
“In order to keep people coming, you don’t want to overwhelm them,” she cautions.
By looking at the sorting results and gauging the conversation, Brown uses topics as they come up as a natural opportunity to explain some of the sticking points or challenges that couples may face related to money. And the message is not just “save at all costs,” but rather that balance is good.
“You can’t have all Security cards because that means that you’re not going to have any fun,” she’ll explain to the group, which may cause some light bulbs to go off in people’s heads when they think about their own money management at home.
Starting a Good Conversation at Home
And while the conversation begins at the café table, it will then continue once each spouse gets home. To make sure it does, Brown gives attendees their own decks of cards to keep so they can do the activity with their spouse.
Brown believes that if she did the activity with the spouses but then sent them home without the cards, the attendees would want to talk about the results and start a conversation about their finances. However, the absent spouse might still be skeptical and want to avoid the subject. “But if you come home and say, ´Honey, I got these cards from the Spouses´ Café today and you wouldn’t believe what they say! Well, I’m going to let you do them and then we can talk about them afterwards,'” it’s a non-threatening way to approach that subject,” says Brown who sees the cards acting as a conversation starter and an ice breaker between the couple.
“You had that A-ha moment. Now take it home and do it with your spouse and see if you can have that A-ha moment together,” she says. “We’re trying to get them talking.”

Talking About Money Builds Healthy Relationships

In working to build and sustain healthy relationships, Stronger Families knows that money plays a crucial role. Therefore, the organization includes a module on money and communication – using Money Habitudes cards – in its hallmark relationship program, which largely serves the military and marriage mentors in churches. Stronger Families is a non-profit that provides education, resources, advocacy and training that supports marriages and families in its home state of Washington as well as in Oregon and Idaho. The organization (formerly known as Families Northwest) also works in a pre-marital context – including people who are single, dating and engaged – as well as with married couples who are parents.
Recognizing that a key determinant of healthy marriages is the way money is managed, Stronger Families includes a financial module in its standard marriage seminars.
The organization’s hallmark program is used with the military as well as with marriage mentors in churches. As such, it spans service members and their spouses in their twenties to older couples who have been married for years and who will, in turn, work with other couples.
Called Oxygen For Your Relationships, it is a four-hour seminar meant to give couples an action plan for their relationship, to design a support system to build on their successes, and to learn to help others with their relationships. The seminar integrates three different but complementary tools. The first is the Couple Checkup from Life Innovations (formerly PREPARE/ENRICH), which highlights strengths, as well as areas for growth in a relationship. The second is Jim Fay and Foster W. Cline’s Love & Logic, which is employed to hone parenting skills. And the third tool is Money Habitudes, which is used to provide financial insights for couples as well as open meaningful discussions about how people relate to money and each other. Money Habitudes also sets the stage for budgeting and money management.
Noel Meador, director of communications, says that money plays an important role in sustaining a healthy marriage. “We know that divorce is, often times, precipitated by money fights,” he says.
It was Meador who brought Money Habitudes to the attention of Stronger Families after using it successfully in a prior position with Northwest Family Services, a non-profit Healthy Marriage Initiative (HMI) grantee in Portland, Oregon. There, the organization was looking for a tool that would help people address their finances. They considered many financial-relationship products, but found that most began with dry, un-engaging exercises like tallying income and expenses to create a budget. Instead, they wanted something that would engage participants, get them to open up and enjoy the process.
“All of them [the financial tools the team considered] were really involved, very detailed; you’re focusing on the budget and all these dependencies and unless you’re a complete Excel junkie, you’re going to go, ‘No thanks,'” says Meador.
To start a discussion about finances and engage participants, the organization found what it was looking for in Money Habitudes because of the cards’ non-threatening approach, coupled with the personal and interpersonal insights that came from using the cards. Rather than jumping right into hard-and-fast numbers, Money Habitudes gave people a way to understand their relationship with money in a different, more holistic light.
“If you don’t understand why you’re doing what you’re doing, you’re just going to keep replicating your mistakes. You can have the greatest, most sophisticated budget plan available, but it won’t address what Money Habitudes does – and that is: What’s the psychology behind why you’re wanting to spend or wanting to save?” says Meador.
In conjunction with Money Habitudes, the organization used content adapted from Dave Ramsey’s financial education courses. This second, complementary component built on the conversations started by Money Habitudes and focused on more concrete financial steps, especially budgeting.
As a lead-in to more structured money decisions, Money Habitudes earned top marks from participants, whose feedback was sought rigorously to comply with a tracking mandate from the HMI grant.
“They said Money Habitudes was really the thing that cracked the nut for them. When they could finally understand why their husband or wife did what they did, then they could come to the table and talk about the budget; before that it, they’d just get in a fight about the budget … That was a really huge breakthrough,”says Meador.
Stronger Families is now relying upon this strength in the half-day curriculum it uses with marriage mentors in area churches. The program keys on relationship health, financial health and parenting health. Although it is not technically a train-the-trainer offering, mentors are trained by Stronger Families on a number of tools and techniques so they can, in turn, teach and instruct other couples who want to improve or save their marriage. Of course, it’s not easy to talk about serious relationship issues, even with a trusted friend and mentor, and that is doubly true if there are big issues to work through.
And even if money isn’t at the heart of a difficult marriage, peer marriage counselors still find that using Money Habitudes is an effective way to start a constructive dialogue between a couple and that conversation may then open up other doors. As such, Money Habitudes sets the stage for other relationship issues; after all, if a couple can have a good talk about the usually charged topic of money, it establishes a pattern of respectful dialogue where partners come to appreciate each other’s motivations and attitudes.
“Money Habitudes is great because they [mentors] can talk to their friends and say, ‘Hey, you should do this card game! It’s like Solitaire,'” says Meador who notes that couples found it easier to sit down and, ostensibly, just play a game. “It was a door-opener for a lot of them, especially for people who were like, ‘I don’t really want to meet about my marriage, but we’ll meet about our finances.'”
When Stronger Families works with the military—mostly based at nearby Fort Lewis—it is directly with groups of soldiers. Here, they are confronted by a situation that is considerably different from that found with their marriage mentor initiative. The military population faces some obvious and significant challenges, not least of which is deployment.
“Money is a huge qualifier for how they weather the storm during the deployment process,” says Meador.
Yet, even outside the times when one person may be sent to the other side of the world and his or her spouse must manage the home and finances, military marriages face other challenges. First, many couples are young, newly married and just getting acclimated to the unique stresses of military life. Secondly, many have also just begun to earn a significant paycheck. And, third, many service members and their spouses have not had much financial education.
“Yes, we want them to be able to manage their budget and be able to understand, financially, where they’re at and be good stewards of their money. But our ultimate goal is they’ll be able to see how their finances are affecting how they’re treating their spouse, or maybe why they’re not communicating well or why there’s conflict. And that’s the value of Money Habitudes.”
 
 

A New Approach to Money in Counseling Sessions

Contact: Kelly Chicas, a Board Certified, Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor, Albuquerque Family Counseling, Albuquerque, New Mexico
Situation: Private counseling sessions
Who: Individual clients and couples seeking relationship counseling.
What: Use Money Habitudes cards as a tool to draw clients into conversations about the sensitive topic of money when money is identified as an issue and when other issues are being expressed indirectly through money.
Why:

  • Money and sex are two issues that couples have difficulty confronting and working through during counseling and ‘I think people are much more open to talking about their sex lives than they are to talking about money … Even if money is not the presenting issue it is nearly always a part of what couples are going through together and it needs to be brought into the conversation.”
  • Chicas wanted a method to talk about money that would not slow the counseling process or bore clients and was more effective than her own series of conversation starters.“I was looking for an activity [to talk about money] that would get people more interested than just sitting there and talking about it, something they’d be able to identify with.”

How: Uses the Money Habitudes cards as part of her sessions with individual and couples.
Outcomes:

  • Able to approach the delicate subject in a fun, nonjudgmental way.
  • Able to hasten the process and delve into money quicker.
  • “It opens up a whole new flow of conversation … In therapy, and in general, women are communicators. They want to talk about things. They want to analyze things. Guys typically don’t. And so having a hands-on activity—especially for someone who’s a non-communicator and doesn’t want to be here but was dragged in by his partner—it makes it very easy to get them going … Once they start going through the cards and identifying with some of the behaviors it’s like.. Oh yeah, that’s me.”
  • It provides a common, nonjudgmental language to discuss their habits and attitudes.
  • Clients have a methodology with which they can leave the session and use constructively at home.
  • People are motivated to make changes.

Observations and Comments:
Clients are very quick to grasp how to use the cards and what they mean. I think that’s one of their strengths: It’s simplistic in the delivery and how you manage it.
I’m comfortable using the cards because of their careful, inoffensive language. Some therapy tools inadvertently set clients off with only a small misstep in the wording.
What motivates someone to change?… that’s the crux of therapy. I do think it [what people discover through Money Habitudes] is an epiphany. And once you have that awareness and once you’re able to put a label on it and have an understanding of where it comes from, it’s the first piece of then being motivated enough to make the change to do something about it.

A Life Planning Approach to Financial Planning

Contact: Steven Shagrin, CFP, has a law degree and started his career in finance as a tax accountant before spending twenty years as vice president for investments with Smith-Barney and Pain Webber.  As one of the pioneers of the life planning approach to financial planning, he started his own company, Planning for Life,  to reflect a more holistic financial planning style. He provides fee-only money coaching, retirement counseling and life planning.  He is also vice president of the Money Coaching Institute and is based in Walnut Creek, CA.
Situation: Meeting with private clients typically when they come in for the introductory meeting.
Who: Private clients (individuals and couples) coming to develop their financial life plan.  Although he mostly uses Money Habitudes with new clients, he will also use them with ongoing clients.
Why:

  • Tools help CFPs be more responsive to clients.  The profession is changing and clients now demand more from their advisors beyond recommending investment products.  More CFPs are spending time helping clients understand how their financial plans may be affected by psychological issues related to the role money plays in their lives (e.g. security, fear, status).
  • To build trust, start conversations, provide a safe way to talk about a difficult topic and make it more comfortable and interesting for the client.
  • As an easy and efficient way to more fully understand clients and their needs.
  • To understand where a client’s mindset is so planners can begin to explain their service offering from a perspective that’s acceptable and understandable to the client.

How:

  • When new clients come in, to get them started he gives each person a deck of cards to sort (so a couple is doing it individually at the same time).  While they do the standard solitaire activity (which usually takes 10-15 minutes to sort the cards) he will use the time to review their file.
  • Once they are finished, they talk about the card sort and it begins the conversation.
  • Although he starts with Money Habitudes, he also uses a variety of tools with his new clients including the Money Coaching Institute’s Money Type Quiz and the Money Quotient Self Assessment.

Outcomes:

  • It helps couples understand their differences related to money. Instead of fighting about each other’s money habits, Money Habitudes give couples a new perspective.  They can still disagree, but understand each other from a different point of compassion.
  • Whether it’s estate planning, planned giving or another facet of a client’s financial affairs, the cards help identify underlying, non-financial issues in the family dynamic such as divorce, health problems, trust and esteem issues, etc.
  • By using the cards its easy to see the red flags that can become part of the discussion to determine if a person or couple is a good fit for him and his practice.

Observations and Comments:
The usual process of getting to know one’s client is “woefully pitiful” says Shagrin. “On a new account form, they only require you ask: what’s your net worth, what’s your liquid net worth, how long have you invested in these different areas, and what’s your employment situation and tax rate. It doesn’t really ask how you think about money, how you make money decisions.” Even if people aren’t inherently comfortable talking about what they have and how they use it, they do want to feel like they’re understood when it comes to entrusting their life savings to someone else.
[The cards] are, on one hand, a trust-builder and conversation starter and, on the other hand, they are a way for me to more fully understand my clients and their needs….it makes for a better interaction and results in a relationship and advice that are more informed, more relevant and, ultimately, more appreciated.
If a couple is in a relationship where they don’t get along, just being in the same room with a planner talking about money, they may clam up.  I’ve been in circumstances where the husband did all the talking and the wife said nothing and then when I asked for some time alone, I’d ask her, ‘What’s going on?’ and she’d say, ‘He’s awfully controlling.’ I didn’t’ know how to deal with that then.  Now I can bring out the Money Habitudes cards and say, ‘This is interesting—there’s a disparity here.  What can you tell me about that?’  It makes it non-threatening because it’s an independent perspective from which they can view their present reality.
I’ve also used the Money Habitudes cards with clients I’ve worked with for a number of years.  The cards have helped couples to break a logjam in their planned giving and estate planning.
From a financial advisor’s prospective, where they [Money Habitudes] are very helpful is you know your client even before you decide to take them on.
Steven Shagrin: Three Client Stories
Jane was a client whose Money Habitudes card sort revealed an equal split with four cards each in Status, Targeted Goals, Security and Selfless. Not surprisingly, the story that came out was one of total frustration and total paralysis when it came to her managing her money. [Four cards is a dominant habitude and having more than one dominant habitude pulls a person in different directions.]
She related that she had been in real estate but quit and started working in a nursing home because the market was so bad. She’d been divorced for two years and the retirement funds from her settlement had dropped precipitously. Her son was now returning to school and she wanted to help with his tuition.
Every time she got a dollar in her hand she was torn about what to do. Because she had a comfortable framework to help her share her story, and because I could interpret her history within a financial context, I could approach her situation in a way far different from how I would have handled the same client if I were only working with a spreadsheet detailing her assets.
Robert and Elaine were in their late 70’s and had been working with me for more than five years.  They were currently dealing with a logjam in their planned giving and estate planning. Although they’d been married for more than 40 years, had plenty of money, and believed themselves to be very financially compatible, I asked them to try working with Money Habitudes.
They both had Targeted Goals as a strong, dominant.  In fact, they both identified with eight of the possible nine cards in that habitude, seven statements being common to both of them which is about as compatible as they could be with their dominant/primary habitude.  But their secondaries or next strongest habitudes were very different and that’s where I then focused my attention to resolve their impasse.
Her second-most-dominant Habitude was Selfless. She felt strongly that she wanted to help their grandchildren pay for college. By contrast, her husband’s secondary habitude came out as Security and it was very strong.  He was very hesitant to part with his money – even though the couple had more than they’d ever need.
It was only by doing Money Habitudes that I was able to help them understand their differences. When we started talking about the story behind that, that’s where it [his fear of not having enough money] came out. He had lived through the Great Depression and saw his family lose everything not once, but twice.  If I hadn’t used the cards, I don’t think that story ever would have come up.  With this context for their disagreement in their estate planning, the husband and wife were able to better understand each other’s motivations and I could frame a plan that appealed to both of them. Once I showed the husband how some giving options would affect the couple’s long-term cash-flow and cash-balance position – in order to satisfy the security need the client felt – the couple came to an agreement to give $10,000 a year to each of four grandchildren. It gave him much greater peace of mind.  They weren’t really arguing about money, since they both realized they had more than enough for their needs, but about ehst money represented to them emotionally.
Tracey and Will were separated and contemplating divorce. Will owned two sports bars.  After doing the cards he identified with Free Spirit and Spontaneous Habitudes. Will recounted a childhood where his father would come into money, lease a Cadillac and take the family to Florida.  Then leaner years followed. He learned: when you have money, use it and take advantage of it because you never know if you’ll get it again, so live for the moment.
Tracey was in nursing school and identified with Targeted Goals and Security. She  grew up with alcoholic parents and had to steal from their wallets to feed her siblings. For her, having money in reserve was one of the most important things and knowing where it’s going to come from and how it’s going to be spent was tied to her core survival.
They each found in the other person what they wanted for themselves until it began to drive them crazy about 15-18 years into the marriage.  When they played Money Habitudes it gave them a new perspective. Instead of fighting [about each other’s money habits], they could still disagree, but understand from a point of compassion.  It made for a very different and more effective conversation.