Have you ever had a “money date?” Can you think of the last time you and a partner sat down face-to-face — without hostility — and really talked over your financial goals? If not, you’re not alone. Almost half of Americans who are married or living with a partner admit to arguing over finances, according to a recent study from TheCashlorette.com. The top culprit? Spending habits — 60 percent of respondents said one person was either spending too much or being too frugal. (Yes, in money as in life, opposites attract.)
This is just one reason why it's crucial designate time — ahead of time — to talk about money together. Otherwise, spur-of-the-moment emotions can very quickly turn a conversation into a fight. Exhibit A: Your partner is in the shower, and you open the credit card statement — you’re upset, and you come running upstairs to tell them how they spent money isn’t okay, says Bari Tessler, financial therapist and author of The Art of Money. In that scenario, the timing isn’t great, one person feels attacked and an argument is almost inevitable.
Planning a time to talk about money can help avoid that scenario. Start with twice a month — once it's working you can move to once — and agree you'll hold onto all grievances, asks and proposals until you get there. If something arises that must be dealt with ASAP, that still doesn't mean in the emotional moment. Calmly give your spouse or partner at least few hours' notice and have an impromptu meeting later that day. Here’s a three-step conversation guide:
1. Establish How You’re Both Feeling
Before you even get to the table, take a few minutes to check in with yourself about the emotions money has led you to feel lately. "I like to welcome [those emotions], not to hang out in them forever, but everything from anger to anxiety to sadness to numbness to joy to excitement to hope," says Tessler. Think about the situations in which each one usually rears its head and if there’s a pattern.
Once you have a handle on it, you'll better be able to express it to your partner. Other good things to consider adding to the agenda? Your first memories around money, the positive and negative things you learned about finances from your family when growing up, your strengths and challenges and other money stories.
Then, try not to talk numbers at first. “Money in the context of relationships can represent power, make people feel vulnerable, represent past bad decisions and get wrapped up in context of resentment,” says Matt Lundquist, a couples therapist at Tribeca Therapy in New York City. That’s why it’s important to set the intention at the beginning — “no blaming, no shaming,” says Tessler. Agree that you’ll both do your best to stick with “I” statements (like “I feel like…” instead of “You do X…”), and consider starting out with each of you having 15 minutes to talk about your emotions when it comes to money. While one person is talking, the other will need to listen without interrupting or being defensive. After a few money dates, this process should become more comfortable and compassionate — and maybe even more fun.
Since money can be looked at as a vehicle to get you where you want to go in life, it’s important to talk about where that is.
2. State (or Restate) Your Values
Story time: Paula Levy, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Connecticut, once had a client who wanted to buy a sailboat. The man’s wife didn’t really entertain the idea because she thought it was too frivolous. Then, they had a money talk — she voiced her desires and concerns, and he did the same, bringing up the sailboat. He explained his childhood memories of watching sailboats by the dock when his father took him fishing and how it had been his dream to own one since he was a kid. When his wife heard that, she was touched and understood why it was so important to him. Then the question became: What would it require to make this happen? He was willing to sell his old motorcycle and/or get a part-time job, she was willing to save the money they would’ve spent on a vacation that year and after some time, they made it happen.
Many scenarios could fit into this example — one person wanting to over-save for retirement because they’re unhappy in a job and want to get out ASAP, or one person wanting to spend a certain amount on acupuncture, massage and self-care. It’s all about conversation and understanding what the other person’s goal is and why it’s important to them — what it means to them on a deeper level, says Levy. When it comes to earning, spending, giving, saving and investing money, “even if we have the same values on the surface, two people who come together usually do those things in different ways,” says Tessler. Since money can be looked at as a vehicle to get you where you want to go in life, it’s important to talk about where that is — and what’s important to both of you over the short- and long-term. What would you like your money to do for you in one year? In five? In ten? “When you’re talking about money, you’re talking about values,” says Lundquist.
3. Figure Out Who’s Going To Do What
After discussing your feelings and the future, it’s important to focus on the now — and exactly how you’ll handle finances moving forward. One good method is setting up two separate bank accounts for each individual’s personal spending, says Levy. All of each person’s money goes into their personal account to use at their discretion — except for agreed-upon contributions to a joint account, which is used to pay for groceries, household bills, trips and any other joint expenses or long-term goals. This can help cut down on fights about spending habits, since you’re each spending your own money on your own terms. As for the joint account, you can each contribute the same amount per month for expenses or decide on income-based percentages.
Then, talk together to decide who’s going to keep track of the numbers and joint account cash flow. You can switch off every month or assign certain monthly duties to each person. Good tracking tools include Mint (free), MoneyMinder ($9 per month or $97 per year) and You Need A Budget ($50 per year after a 34-day free trial). Finally, remember that if you budget better one month, then slip up the next, don’t beat yourselves up — just take note on how to improve on it for the future. Understand these things “not as finite things you pass or fail on, but as an ongoing process of cultivating healthy habits in context of a relationship,” says Lundquist.
With Hayden Field