How to talk about money as a couple

Nearly half of all Americans identify personal finances as the toughest subject to talk about, making it an even more unpopular topic of conversation than death. Oof. It’s really no wonder hashing through the details with your significant other can feel distressing.

But avoiding the topic of your finances entirely will inevitably put undue stress on your relationship. In fact, U.S. adults report finances as the leading cause of stress in their relationships[1], and disagreements about spending habits can increase likelihood of divorce by 45 percent[2]. While skirting the issue may offer a more painless path in the short run, it can lead to resentment, contempt, or even a failed relationship in the long-term. The sooner you talk money, the sooner you’ll be on the same page.

Here’s how to financial discussions with your significant other like a pro:

Start small.

Talking about money often feels taboo. But making it a regular subject of conversation with your partner can help normalize the topic of your finances. You don’t need to update each other daily on the balance of your bank accounts, but openly acknowledging the role of money in your lives earlier in your relationship can pave the way for more open and productive conversations down the road.

If you don’t currently talk about money with your partner at all, start by laying the groundwork. Don’t worry about a formal sit-down talk just yet. Share your feelings about small financial goals, stressors or successes with your partner, or consider throwing a few light but probing questions into your everyday conversations. Asking simple questions like “when did you get your first credit card?” or discussing thoughts around an upcoming purchase can help you get comfortable talking about money together in an informal way before diving into more serious discussions.

Decide on a plan for the big conversation.

While it’s not necessary to lay your finances on the line four months into a budding romance, addressing your finances prior to major milestones like moving in together or getting engaged is crucial to ensuring you’re on the same page. This is the time to rip off the Band-Aid, so pick a time and come up with a plan.

Do you want to tackle everything in one in-depth conversation, or chunk it out into a few sessions? Getting everything out in the open all at once works for some couples, while others prefer time to breathe and process. For example, you may start by simply swapping numbers (account balances, debt, retirement savings) then taking a day or two to regroup and gather your thoughts before coming back to the table to discuss big-picture financial goals.

What do you need to cover? Draw guidelines for the conversation upfront so you can be fully prepared going in. Prior to the arranged time, assess your own spending habits and determine how your finances generally break down between needs, wants, savings, and debts. Where do you see room for improvement? Where do you already excel? You may also want to jot down a list of questions and talking points in advance.

Where and when will you have the conversation? Would you feel most comfortable at home, or would a discussion over drinks at your favorite bar help lighten the mood? If you feel uneasy talking about a potentially intimate topic in a public space, opt for the comfort of your own home and consider conversing over your favorite homemade meal or takeout. If a fun location will brighten a potentially gloomy conversation, by all means relocate from your living room.

Put all cards on the table.

When it comes to finally confronting your personal finances as a couple, leave no stone unturned, and above all else don’t lie or hide things from your partner. A recent study showed being “secretive about finances” is one of the biggest financial deal breakers in the United States[3]. So while the size of your student loan debt may be a thorny subject, best to deal with the matter upfront rather than wait for it to come to a head down the road.

Hiding key details of your personal finances is certainly a serious offense at this stage, but hiding your feelings can be equally damaging — letting your emotions fester will only result in confusion and resentment. If you feel concern over your partner’s spending habits, this is the time to address it. If you’re worried about splitting costs down the middle when one of you makes twice as much as the other, voice your apprehension now. Just be sure to use effective communication technique as you do so, leaning on non-accusatory statements like “I feel” and emphasizing your partner’s strengths to keep the conversation constructive.

Pore over your current financial situation as well as goals for the future and possible scenarios. Write down goals and budgets, and ask key questions for the future now. Are you planning to save for a down payment together? Come to a consensus on how much you’ll each put away each month. Examine how you’ll approach finances if one of you loses your job. Talk about major future expenses. Does one of you plan to go back to school in the future? Will the other support them during that time? While many of these questions may not seem immediately relevant, it’s important to align early on. And of course, be realistic in your expectations. Assuming someone with a “spender” personality will suddenly become a staunch saver will only lead to disappointment and bitterness for both parties. Create a roadmap for the future you both can agree on.

Keep the conversation going.

You’re done with the big talk(s)! Go have a margarita. But don’t forget to keep the conversation going, either.

While we certainly don’t condone constantly hounding your partner about their spending, we do think it’s important to continue talking openly about money. It doesn’t have to be a gloom-and-doom subject! Planning for your financial future together should be empowering. Celebrate the little wins together and work through speedbumps swiftly and cooperatively. After all, you’re a team.

You’ll also want to check in on your goals every now and then to keep each other accountable and stay on track. Schedule 30 minutes every few months to touch base and assess your progress to determine if your budget needs tweaking or if new circumstances warrant new goals. Just don’t bottle everything up until then.

In Summary…

Don’t let financial woes get the better of your relationship. Discuss money openly and honestly to nip any potential problems in the bud early on and ensure you’re on the same page. Just remember:

  • Get comfortable talking about money together sooner rather than later.
  • Don’t put off the big conversation. Decide on a plan and make a list of everything you need to cover.
  • Don’t leave anything out. Talk about the past, present, and future, and most of all, don’t hide anything.
  • Check in regularly and celebrate wins as a team.

  1. CNB ↩︎
  2. Forbes ↩︎
  3. Motley Fool ↩︎

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