An hour before interviewing Carl Richards, author of The Behavior Gap, my husband and I had just had one of those money arguments that all couples invariably have, so as I shook Carl’s hand I blurted out “how do you speak to your partner about money?” It turned out to be a very different interview to the one he envisaged!
The problem with money is that it is never really about money. We often use money as a stand-in for deeper issues we do not want to discuss. We may say we can’t afford something because we are anxious about the future or because we think we don’t deserve the things we want. “So we talk about (or argue about) the expensive leather jacket or the trip to the beach, when what we are feeling goes much deeper,” Richards told me that morning and admitted that after 15 years of marriage, he still hasn’t learnt that when his wife talks about a new kitchen it doesn’t necessarily mean she wants to remodel her kitchen. “She is only discussing something of interest to her that she thought may be of interest to me.”
For me, money is a very emotional topic. Growing up with financial upheaval left me with serious money control issues. It may have spawned a career, but my husband has had to learn to deal with my occasional emotional outbursts and control issues. I prefer to be financially independent and therefore see our finances in separate “pots”, while my husband sees our finances jointly, as part of one household. He feels that I don’t trust him to step in if I was in financial difficulty – especially when I start quoting divorce statistics and the fact that the majority of women are left financially vulnerable. I see these as facts and a reason to protect myself, yet my husband is deeply offended that I would even think of him behaving in that way. But who is right? Is there even a right or wrong response?
The point that Richards made was that disagreements around money are not a question of who is right and who is wrong, but an opportunity for us to recognise that we can’t impose our views of money and our expectations about money on other people. “The elephant in the living room may look pink to you and green to your spouse. But you still need to talk about that elephant.”
Money is a highly emotional topic; in fact it is cited as the number one reason for divorce. So having a relationship where you can speak openly about money is very important, but it is not that easy and it all stems from understanding your own “triggers” and emotions around money.
Finding a way to talk about money can prevent a journey to the therapist’s couch years later, so how do you talk to your partner about an elephant that comes in so many different hues?
- Get into the habit of talking about money on a regular basis, not just when there is a crisis. Have a monthly appointment with your partner where you discuss money. Make it at a regular time and place that is always in your diary.
- Find a place where you meet which is your “money” place. It must not be in your home but somewhere neutral, like a coffee shop. The owner of our local coffee shop has got used to us arriving with our laptops and spreadsheets and keeps us comforted with coffee and muffins – although sometimes a stiff drink would be more appropriate!
- At your monthly meeting discuss your monthly budget and make your financial plans. Discuss your financial goals and how you will reach them. This is also the place to discuss money issues – like overspending on a credit card for example.
- During the rest of the month you do not discuss money, especially if you are feeling emotional about it. Have a “to discuss” box in the house where you can put notes on what you want to discuss or that credit card bill that nearly gave you a heart attack. Leave your money issues for your monthly appointment.
- When you do talk about money with your partner you need to realise that you are not talking about spreadsheets and numbers – it’s about emotion. So if you start to feel emotional, or your partner gets emotional during a money discussion, stop the conversation and say “what is this really about? How are you feeling about this?”
- When talking about money have a “no shame no blame rule”. Your partner will not want to talk about money if they feel “blamed”. Discuss the problem and a way to resolve it together
- Talk about what matters to you about money. These are some questions to discuss with your partner:
- What role does money play in your life?
- What needs to happen in the next few years for you to feel like you are making good progress?
- What money mistakes have you made in the past that you want to avoid in the future?
This article first appeared on Change Exchange