It started as a normal morning enjoying a cup of coffee together before the craziness of the day began. “Coffee time,” as we call it, is our daily ritual of couple time where no phones are allowed, and we just talk. Most days it’s an enjoyable conversation, but on this particular morning, we veered into dangerous territory: money. Before I could try to change the subject, an inevitable question surfaced.
“Exactly how much debt do you have?” he asked as my body began to tense.
For the record, I don’t have a lot of debt, but I do have some. My partner, on the other hand, has none. I immediately felt uneasy and insecure. 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. It’s no wonder a new practice of premarital financial counseling seems to be gaining popularity among engaged couples.
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. As a licensed couple and family therapist Michelle Collins explained, couples are also joining their pasts and future dreams. “Along with those things, they are joining their different orientations towards money,” Collins said.
Our family culture, values, and past experiences help determine our views and beliefs about money. “One’s relationship with money develops the language they use when communicating about, interacting with, and showing others how they treat money,” Collins said. “It is common for partners to have different languages about money and when trying to bridge the gap, couples find they don’t have all the tools to translate—and listen—clearly.”
It comes down to a communication issue. Collins works with couples to examine their family tree and discuss how each individual’s parents’ 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.”
What is premarital financial counseling?
Think of it like couples counseling 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 the parties’ thoughts about retirement,” Holly Davis, a family law attorney at Kirker Davis LLP, explained.
You will discuss everything from spending habits and work ethic to how you’ll handle potential difficult financial situations. “These are so important to discuss because if you are engaged to a big spender, and you are a penny pincher, you have the opportunity to work with your fiancée to see if you can influence their behavior, or to see if you can soften your stance on the position,” Davis said. “Compromises need to be reached when two parties have two very different opinions on big financial topics.” You will learn a lot about your partner and your relationship when you get into the details of what you will do if someone loses their job, or how much money they think should be spent on vacations, entertainment, or clothing.
Who can benefit from premarital financial counseling?
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,” said Collins.
Davis pointed out that 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 oftentimes too late to change course if you are truly incompatible with someone financially,” she said. Even if you think you have similar views towards money because you come from similar families, Davis warned that could be a false sense of security. She said you must get into specific hypotheticals with your partner to know you’re really on the same page.
How to avoid money issues in your relationship.
First things first, stop avoiding talking about money. Davis recommended being proactive about discussing money frequently, rather than waiting until you’re in the middle of a financial issue. This, she explained, will help you become more self-aware and realize what triggers you when discussing money. “If you know your own roadmap to having a negative reaction, you can try to stop it before it starts,” Davis said.
Don’t shy away from uncomfortable conversations. According to Collins and Davis, the following questions are important yet often avoided prior to marriage:
- Will we have a joint account?
- Are there expectations for us to monitor or hold each other accountable about personal spending?
- Do your family members have any financial expectations of you?
- Do you like to enjoy money, have it for security, or use it as a status symbol?
- If you were fired or laid off or couldn’t perform your current job, what would you do? What’s your Plan B?
- If you plan on having children, how does each person feel about what their role is in raising the children? Will one person primarily perform this function, or will it be a shared role between the two parties?
Ultimately, it comes down to willingness to communicate and compromise. The earlier you identify and understand your different money languages, the quicker you can work on finding common ground. “The hardest part isn’t identifying differences, it’s actually changing your own default opinion in the face of a different opinion that is the hard work,” Davis explained. “If you are engaged to a person who is willing to do this, then your differences can likely be successfully bridged.”
And if these conversations are too difficult on your own, know that you can always bring in a professional. A trained couple’s counselor or premarital financial counselor will help navigate the conversation and close the gap between your different money languages without bias or emotion. They will ensure the conversation is productive and that you walk away with a clear understanding of your financial future before you walk down the aisle.
As for my coffee time debt discussion with my partner, I’m sure it is the first of many uncomfortable conversations about money. And maybe therein lies the real value in it. After all, life isn’t always comfortable so for a relationship to last, it needs to be built on a foundation of honest, respectful communication, no matter what the topic.