It started as a normal morning enjoying a cup of coffee with my significant other before the craziness of the day began. Most days, it’s an enjoyable conversation, but on this particular morning, we veered into dangerous territory: money. I don’t have a lot of debt, but I do have some. My partner, on the other hand, has none. We made it through the conversation unscathed, but it got me thinking about couples and finances and why it’s so hard to talk about money. Studies show that money is one of the most widespread, difficult, and persistent issues within marriages, but it’s also an unavoidable topic since it seeps into every part of life. Read on to find out why having the money conversation can make or break your relationship, the right way to talk about finances with your significant other, and how premarital financial counseling can help.
Why is it so hard for couples to talk about money?
When two people decide to do life together, it’s much more than a merging of households and families. Michelle Collins, a licensed couple and family therapist, explained that couples are also joining their past and future finances. “When couples get married or move in together, they are joining their different orientations toward money.” Our family culture, values, and past experiences help determine our views and beliefs about money. “Your relationship with money develops the language you use when communicating about, interacting with, and showing others how you treat money,” Collins said. “It is common for partners to have different languages about money, and couples often find they don’t have all the tools to translate—and listen—clearly.”
Collins works with couples to examine their family tree and discuss how each individual’s life experiences and views toward money have impacted their own relationship with money. “This conversation allows partners to better understand how the other person has developed their money language and then find ways to translate so they can be successful managing their finances.” Talking about finances as a couple is difficult because we all come to the conversation with different communication tools and financial languages.
What should you do to set your relationship up for financial success?
Most importantly, stop avoiding the money talk and make money a normal topic of conversation. Start by having more casual discussions about money and financial goals instead of waiting to discuss money when you’re in the middle of a problem. You can interweave financial goals in the much more fun life goals conversations, like ask about your partner’s plan for retirement if they’re talking about their career goals or how much they would want to spend on a first house when you’re daydreaming together about moving to a big city.
Secondly, don’t shy away from having frequent conversations about financial goals and plans. When you’re taking a big relationship step like moving in together or getting engaged, be open with each other about what debt or assets you’re bringing to the relationship. Before getting married, have detailed conversations about how marriage will change your financial situation, like whether or not you will have a joint account, if there are expectations about personal spending, and (if you plan on children) how children will fit into your financial future. The earlier you identify and understand your different money languages, the quicker you can work on finding common ground. If these conversations are too difficult on your own, know that you can always bring in a professional.
How do you know if you should seek premarital financial counseling?
Think of premarital financial counseling like couple’s therapy meets financial counseling. An unbiased, trained professional will help translate your different money languages so you can navigate important financial decisions. “Premarital financial counseling involves the creation of a budget and the discussion of long-term and short-term financial goals like saving for a home or retirement,” explained Holly Davis, a family law attorney at Kirker Davis LLP. You also discuss everything from spending habits and work ethic to how you’ll handle potential difficult financial situations. “Compromises need to be reached when two parties have two very different opinions on big financial topics,” Davis said.
Don’t let the word premarital fool you. Both Collins and Davis believe every couple can benefit from financial counseling. “I have never seen a couple not benefit from having a dedicated and structured conversation around money, engaged or not,” Collins said. Financial consultation is important any time a couple shares expenses or a living space, regardless of the status of the relationship. “Waiting for an engagement to discuss these issues is often times too late to change course if you are truly incompatible with someone financially,” Davis suggested. Even if you think you have similar views toward money because you come from similar families, get into specific hypotheticals with your partner to know you’re really on the same page.