No matter what draws us together in our significant-other relationships, money will be involved in our lives together in a big way. It is important to our lives in the most obvious way, as it is directly tied to our ability to care for ourselves and others. In fact, it is difficult to think of how life is possible without it anymore. Even if we are supremely thrifty, if we are to have life together we are going to have money--together. It really is a big deal, but it isn’t very romantic to consider it as a “big deal” when what we seek in relationships is closeness and comfort. This article is about how to manage that truth about money within the context of a relationship, without letting it get in the way of the real stuff, like love, loyalty, commitment, and trust.
Important things to know before you start...
A quick review of survey data indicates that money is almost always ranked in the top two among issues to which couples’ arguments are attributed, typically outranking issues like annoying habits, sex, kids, and chores. Figuring out how to go about discussing money can be a very helpful thing for pursuing a long-lasting, low-conflict relationship with your partner. The same parameters that tend to help other types of stress and conflict can be applied to finances, unlike the more special parts of our relationships are definitely not as warm and fuzzy.
To establish a solid foundation, It is best for couples to establish a specific mindset about finances. This can help couples avoid dragging in the proverbial kitchen sink when talking about money. First, remember, this is one area where it truly could be safe to consider the issue just business. One great way to keep it as straightforward as possible is for each partner to spend some time contemplating what values they have regarding spending and earning, regarding what can be controlled in the present moment. In a sense this could lead to a list of demands or rules that we feel are of importance in our financial lives. An example of a type of demand is something like: “I must pay bills first, before spending on luxury items.” This may take some time, but go ahead and write these down. Share them with your partner before getting started, and take some time to understand the ideas on your partner’s list. See where you agree and determine where your challenges might be by identifying any differences. The differences in this list are likely to be where you and your partner will have the most difficulty when the budget talks begin, but always begin with strengths. It is very likely that you have more similarities than differences. Be respectful of your partner’s values, which means if you don’t agree be careful to address your points as concerns and not as criticisms.
It’s Just Business, sort of…
I browsed a few articles about financial planning and money in relationships, and a common theme quickly emerged about money. A simple survey conducted by Sun Trust Bank in 2015 illustrates that money really does have a potent impact on our relationships. 35% of the respondents to that survey cited finances as the primary source of stress in their relationships, above annoying habits (25%), kids (12%), relatives (7%), and jobs (5%). Interestingly they also found that 47% of respondents note that they have significantly different spending habits than their partners. They make the assertion that this is further proof that “opposites attract.” I will take it yet another step in noting that because of these differences, honesty is important. As I mentioned earlier, sharing your values and priorities with your partner can really make a difference in giving you both awareness, before a problem arises. Similarly, if you have concerns about your partner in the financial area, or if you have issues with shame trust in related to money, these need to be resolved in an open manner. The Sun Trust survey also reported finding that 36% of their respondents do consult their partners before making a purchase. While this is not necessarily a bad thing, it emphasizes the importance of understanding each other’s financial values and having shared goals. Perhaps having that conversation about financial values up front would avoid an undisclosed expenditure being the beginning of a confusing conversation about how priorities are different. Having a solid foundation, where no one partner holds the most power, is about shared responsibility. This means equal and aware. This means transparent. I am not saying you must follow specific accounting practices, but something like it. Financial planners and advisers seem to agree that you should never hide money from your partner, and you should never lie about it. I bet your partner would agree as well.
(Healthy and Effective) Communication is Key
This holds true in both business and personal relationships. It is important that you and your partner both have an understanding about ground rules. Depending on how the “average” conversation goes in your relationship, this could also be where it gets tricky. Because the idea of finances can inspire anxious feelings, take it slow. For some this will not be an issue, but for others, it will be significant. You and your partner might even differ. I would encourage you both to enter financial conversations like a meeting, where there are ground rules, a beginning, and an end in sight. Here are some key points to remember:
Good, polite (think business-like) communication skills are extremely important. Don’t react emotionally and stay on the topic of your mutual goals, as well as the finances. Because the a discussion about finances (mostly regarding expenses) will inevitably turn toward behavior choices, it is ultimately important to recognize that when behavior comes into question, defensiveness is likely to follow. Empathy and polite sensitivity to your partner is the best approach. Even better could be to phrase your concerns as a question or to use your own behavior as an example, such as, “I have noticed that I tend to spend outside the budget when I eat out for lunch every day. What do you think?” This shows a willingness to accept responsibility and make changes. The use of politeness and empathy is also generally good in all areas of conversation when discussing matters in relationships, as it demonstrates respect and tends to avoid negative interchanges that might activate defensiveness. Specifically, “polite” communication is that which does not blame the other person for specific problem, avoids hostile or undermining approaches and seeks to put the team effort, first. Because a lot of the content of our relationship conversations can inspire emotional responses, it is important to recognize this going in. Understand that the goal is not expression but developing an understanding of how you and your partner might work together toward a specific goal. Remember that as you work toward your goal, if it is not relevant, helpful, and polite (all three together), it will likely harm your efforts toward problem-solving. In the worst case, if you begin to react emotionally, you may damage your partner’s ability to trust you with similar exchanges in the future.
Compromise, if necessary, and be flexible. This is likely to be tricky to most couples, so an organized approach might help. As you begin to discuss the budget, start with goals and list action plans, first. These will be areas where you and your partner both agree, solidly. If there is any disagreement or grumbling about specific ideas, then label these, not as “disagreements”, but as “areas for future discussion”. Pace yourselves and give yourselves time to work through the specifics. To compromise, you must discuss differences, which is where trouble can start. Consider in advance what you might be willing to concede, without feeling your personal boundaries are being violated. In an instance where one of you might be more of a spender and the other more of a saver, identifying specific savings targets and spending limits you agree upon could prevent any toes from being stepped on. When you each recognize that you are staying within the limits of the terms you establish together, you should also be able to credit yourselves with honoring a commitment to your relationship and each other.
Focus on shared goals, while highlighting similarities, look at differences as something to be worked through over time. If the goal is to cut spending (which is a common and realistic budgeting target for most families), a question such as “what areas do you think we could work on cutting spending?” is very broad and invites your partner to the table, as opposed to beginning with a critical analysis of problem areas, which is almost guaranteed to elicit some emotion. Blaming or “finger-pointing” can quickly derail a conversation, as we typically want to be honored by our partners. When we perceive criticism or blame, it can force us into a defensive position. Things can move too quickly, get off topic and occasionally take a conversation from group effort to relational savagery. Here is a quick example of a good way to bring up a concern about finances: “I am worried we are spending too much on eating out each month. I thought we were going to work on cutting down in that area.” This technique may evoke some emotion, but it is far less likely to evoke strong emotion than this version, which is very critical: “You never think about our budget when you go out to eat. It’s almost like you don’t even care about our agreement.” Remember, the idea is to address issues in a way that will help you and your partner move forward, not to get stuck on hurt feelings.
Remember that budgeting together is about compromise, but it is a very sweet thing to share with someone. It sometimes takes sacrifice, and it can certainly be a way you show your partner your ability to be the best you.
For those of you who might find this topic more difficult to discuss, suffice it to say that we don’t often get into relationships simply on the basis of sound economics. It can take time to iron out the details, so allow that with your partner for best results. Set deadlines that you can both agree upon and stick to them. Share successes and be proud of yourselves for your work together. Money matters are definitely an area where you can celebrate hard-earned accomplishments. Be sure to constantly remind yourself that you are in it for the long-haul, so your work to resolve any differences or to create some plans as a couple may pay off for you both in the future! It just might improve your life together.
Sun Trust Bank relationship survey infographic (2015)
Rules about money in relationships: 1) Don’t hide it; 2) Don’t lie about it.
“Only one third of households actually have a detailed budget.” A good article about household budgeting basics.
Money as relationship stress
Brock Caffee, LCMFT is a Marriage and Family Therapist, licensed in California and Kansas. He has over a decade of practice experience. He has a private practice in Lawrence, KS. In addition to his therapy experience, he is an experienced lecturer, clinical supervisor and manager. He has life experiences that have given him insight into the world of parenting, divorce, step-parenting, and addiction recovery. At home he has three children, two dogs, and a very patient wife.
The views expressed in this blog are meant to help foster perspective, to entertain, and to be fun when possible. Any intent to regard the blog as counseling or therapy constitutes misuse. Advice offered in the blog should be considered only if consistent with your family values and with advice given by your own mental health professionals. Please seek consultation with a mental health professional in your area if you experience distress or feel you are in crisis. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255.