Even if you have a great relationship, you can really improve your marriage (and finances) by talking about money – if you do it correctly.
In fact, no matter how great your relationship is, money inevitably comes between most couples. I don’t care how wonderfully you and your beloved get along – money can separate you, even if only a little bit (at first). You may not be aware of it. You may not admit it. But money…it’s a problem.
Let me go out on a limb a little further.
Even if you have the best investments, plentiful income and no debt, it’s likely that you and your partner resent each other’s financial behaviors – even if only a tiny bit and even, as I said, if you aren’t aware of it.
And if you aren’t that fortunate – if you are in debt and have spending problems, money likely causes you great unhappiness in your marriage. It’s the leading problem behind over one million divorces annually.
So let’s not pretend that money is benign. It can destroy your relationship and family whether you like it or not – and this has nothing to do with how much money or debt you have. Plenty of rich folks torpedo their relationships (and themselves) because of money. You can find financial infidelity in marriage at all economic levels.
At the very least, if you don’t work hard on talking about money the right way, it will absolutely positively put unnecessary stress on your marriage.
To me, that’s a shame. Because even if you face financial challenges, money can and should make your relationship stronger – not weaker. In fact, I believe that money can do that no matter what your financial situation is. But before we get to the solution, let’s really understand how we get off-kilter when it comes to cash.
First, consider what money represents at its core: safety, health and happiness. That’s what money buys – or at least that’s what we think we’re buying when we spend it.
The problem is, of course, that different people have very different opinions on what safety, health and happiness really are…right? (Heck…ask me what they mean and I’ll probably give you a different answer depending on what time of day you ask me.)
Here are some of the questions I ask myself about money as it relates to safety, health and happiness:
How much money should I make?
How much should I work?
How much money should we spend?
How should we spend it?
How should we invest the money we don’t spend?
And don’t forget the all-time favorite:
How much money do I need to retire?
It’s not so tough for me or my wife to answer these questions. The problems start when I try to answer the questions for my wife and she tries to answer them for me.
Deep inside, I want her to come up with the same answers I come up with…don’t I? When she doesn’t, we’ve got a problem because it threatens (in my mind and spirit) our safety, health and happiness. If it’s a small amount, the “threat” is small. A bigger amount poses a greater “threat.” But even small threats can be really fatal to a relationship because they add up over time. When they do, people explode.
You can see that money can ruin relationships, but it often doesn’t have much to do with money itself.
For example, if my wife and I agree that we should work as little as possible, spend everything we have and save nothing, we’ll be paupers but we’ll be happy paupers. The relationship will remain strong.
But if I think we need $5 million to be safe and she thinks we just need to pay off the credit card bill, we’re going to be at each other’s throats any time the issue of income, spending or debt comes up. Not fun.
So what is the right way to talk about money? Again, I’m no therapist, but let me share a three-step process that has really helped me personally and professionally:
1. Play Dictionary.
Define safety, health and happiness. And while you’re at it, what’s your definition of success?
Write it down.
What does each of these words mean to you in concrete terms? How much money do you need and when do you need it in order to feel secure, happy and healthy? What do you have to do this year/month/week/day in order to achieve your goals?
Do not go a step further until you define your terms individually and concretely. Don’t think about how your spouse defines the terms or how you think s/he wants you to define them. Define these terms for yourself. Write it down.
2. Play Pretend.
After you’ve completed Step One, put yourself in your spouse’s shoes and change the way think about things. Write down how much money you (as your spouse) need in order to feel safe, healthy and happy. Oh…and here’s a hint…this isn’t the time to be funny or cynical. At least not if you want to fix this problem. See where your spouse is coming from. Understand why they define these terms differently than you do. This is really powerful but it only works if you write your answers down so don’t be lazy. Do the work.
If you partner spends a lot more money than you do, I can almost guarantee they aren’t doing it “to you” even though you may feel like they are. They just define safety, health and happiness differently than you do. Hopefully, by the time you finish this exercise you’ll see that and understand how they tick.
3. Make friends.
Now it’s time to find the compromise. Unless and until you do, you won’t have much peace and you certainly won’t have the kind of relationship you could have. Once you determine how much money you need (as a couple) in order to feel safe, healthy and secure, start creating a financial plan to achieve your financial goals. If you can’t work this out between yourselves, really think about seeing a marriage therapist or financial planner to help you find your path. I’m not talking about 10 years on the sofa here or a $2,500 financial plan. I’m talking about one or two meetings with a professional planner than can help you find agreement. Well worth the cost if you can’t do it on your own.
I’ll be the first to admit that my wife and I need to take these three steps again. We haven’t had an argument about money in a very long time. We went through this process about 10 years ago and it really worked. But I have some twinges of “whaaaaaaat?” when it comes to spending decisions sometimes.
I’m sure she does too.
I think it would be a great idea to do this again, and I’ll see if she’s game as soon as she gets back from visiting my daughter overseas. It couldn’t hurt…right?
What about you? Do you think that this exercise would help you and your better half get along better? Even if you get along really well…do you think this kind of process would be a healthy one? Is it enough just to have periodic financial updates and forget about ideas suggested above?
See my course, “Money School for Couples” to learn how to stop fighting about money and improve your relationship by building financial solutions together.
Financial Samurai says
Seems like it’s all about being open huh?
Neal, do you think that it’s weird that my wife and I never have arguments about money? We talk about our plan maybe once every 3 months, but go about with our team saving and spending habits. She works and has her own income of course.
Our goals are exactly the same, and that is to retire after 20 years of work and do something completely free and different.
Neal Frankle says
I don’t think it’s weird at all…I think if you talk about it every three months, it’s cool. Just make sure the conversation is open and inviting so if she (or you) have a resentment building, you can air it out.
I know you are a smart cookie, so I’m sure you both have a plan and audit to make sure you are advancing towards it. So sounds like you are both on the same page. Nicely done young man! You also get a Pilgrim Pick of the Pack Award! Me likey….
I think it’s going a little far to say that money inevitably comes between most couples — because it doesn’t have to be inevitable — but I agree that it sure does come between a lot of people. Ignoring that possibilty is asking for trouble.
I like your suggested process, and think it would be a good idea for my husband and I to literally go through and try to answer the questions you posed for each other to see where we think we stand. Even though we have a good money relationship, talking about it more won’t hurt!
You know what Jackie….I wrestled with that “inevitable” part too but the more I thought about it, the more convinced I became.
I just think that, left “untreated” the money thing comes between people – even if they don’t give voice to it. I could be wrong of course but I feel that if we don’t talk about this in an organized way, it creates problems that sometimes come out sideways….
Excellent! The award is like an early Christmas gift (or late Hanukkah gift). I guess I need to remember that I have chosen to have kids and have chosen to stay at home with them – and appreciate my blessings instead of worrying so much!
Sounds like a good compromise. Also sounds like you are doing a really good job under a tough circumstance. You get the Pilgrim Pick of the Pack Award this week!!!!
I guess what’s bugging me is that things are so tight – but that’s life with four kids and a single income and working for a school system! That’s why blogs like these are so helpful – they help me keep my “eyes on the prize”. Maybe the middle ground would be to only allow myself to bring up finances once a week and ask my husband to listen for just that once a week rant! Thanks Neal!
Neal@Wealth Pilgrim says
Joel…right. That’s why a conversation like the one I’ve suggested might be useful.
Talk about when you aren’t heated. I also battle w/the status quo and I think it’s like exercise.
My status quo is munching Honey Nut Cherrios on the couch…..but is it good for me?
Karyn, (comment #3)
You bring up a fascinating point.
On the one hand, things seem to be going well and you don’t end up changing much so I can see your husband’s point.
On the other hand, something seems to be bugging you – and that’s always worth discussing.
I guess the middle ground that occurs to me is to work out – on paper – what the goals are and what you both need to do in order to be on track towards those goals.
If you aren’t hitting the milestones, then, there is something to talk about. If you hit the milestones but yet still have more you want to discuss….it could be that you have other goals you haven’t expressed.
Is that possible?
I think this process would be helpful for me but I don’t think my husband would want to do it. We have very similar spending habits and goals and fortunately we don’t argue much about money. Our difficulty is that I want to over analyze our finances and my husband wants to “under analyze” them. I feel like talking about our situation helps me feel less stressed (since I’m the one who deals with the finances the most); he points out that they don’t change that much so why keep rehashing the same issue. I think we’re both right and there’s a middle ground – but we haven’t found it yet.
Rob Bennett says
I believe that for the “Make Friends” part to work you first have to thrash things out a bit. There obviously shouldn’t be any meanness to this part of the process. But you do have to learn to stand up for your thoughts about what life should be about (which are not going to be identical to the thoughts of your spouse on this subject).
A big reason why many couples never get to the “Make Friends” part of the process is that they don’t know how to fight fair. They fear having any sort of disagreement come to the surface. So they avoid “fighting” altogether. They pretend that all is well when it really isn’t. This causes things to go gradually downhill over time.
Get in there and make your case while also listening to what your spouse says. That will cause you both to feel more respect and affection for each other. Then Make Friends.