Three Rules for Talking With Your Partner About Money

I know how it is. You’re exhausted from your day. You’ve been putting out fires and solving problems at work, and the whole time in the back of your mind you’ve been hearing that nagging voice reminding you that your bank account is uncomfortably low.

All you want is to sit back and zone out with a good mystery story or a few laughs, but here it is: The Conversation. He’s worried about money. The car needs to be fixed in order to pass inspection. School’s out for the Summer, and childcare is expensive. Someone is having health issues and the therapy isn’t covered by your insurance. It’s time to talk, ready or not. Don’t you wish someone had told you how to work these things out?

I know how it is because these are just a few of the pressures I’m feeling at the moment. The scenario above? That was last night, for me. Happily, our conversation lasted roughly 20 minutes, and we worked out a solution quickly. It hasn’t always been so easy. If statistics can be believed, it’s safe to say that it’s not easy for most couples.

Sex and money share the spotlight as the top two reasons couples fight. Money is especially hard to talk about when there isn’t much to work with, and a lot of people have fallen on hard times in the past few years.

Since it’s fresh on my mind, and I’m sure I’m not the only one feeling the pinch at the moment, I thought I’d write out a few words of wisdom (I use that word generously) about how to avoid letting money issues drive a wedge between you and the one you love.

Three Rules for Talking With Your Partner About Money

1. Stay calm.
The story doesn’t matter, really. However you got there, and whatever the problem is, the story isn’t the most important issue. You have to disconnect from the narratives you’ve attached to your money stressors. Do your best to focus on these simple questions:
a. “How much do we need?”
b. “When do we need it?”
There is always a way out. Debt consolidation, overtime pay, selling your unused things, bankruptcy, loans, and spending cuts. There is a way out. Stay calm so you can find it.

2. Remember: You’re a team, you’re not competing.
Assigning blame is useless, even if it does feel satisfying sometimes. When the emergency is over and the dust has settled, you can have the conversation about whose bad habits were to blame for the trouble you’re in, but this is a different talk. This is a time to work together to find a solution. You both want to fix it, so put your heads together, don’t attack each other.

Build what you can from your collective resources. Be each other’s cheerleader. Support/help each other to do what it takes to make ends meet. If one of you needs to take an evening job, don’t punish them by complaining that they’re never home. If someone needs to cancel an expensive gym membership, go for walks together instead. You can work it out. Brainstorm. Get creative. Whatever you do, stay on the same team!

3. Listen for needs.
If she says, “I can’t stand how high our cable bill is. What do you need four sports channels for, anyway?” or worse, “You watch too many &^&%* sports. You’re lazy!” Try to hear what she’s really saying: “I’m scared that we won’t have the money for more important things. I want to feel safe. When I see you watching sports and relaxing, I worry that you aren’t taking this issue seriously enough.”

This is hard.

It takes practice, but listening for the underlying need will help you find peace together instead of allowing the moment to broil into an episode of Jerry Springer.

We all have the same basic human needs. Marshall Rosenberg, a clinical psychologist and a personal hero of mine, has written some very helpful books and pamphlets on how to communicate on the level of needs instead of emotions. I highly recommend his work since it has taken the communication between my husband and I to new levels of clarity and effectiveness.

Talking about money may never be easy or fun, but it will always be important. Be open. Be honest. Be vulnerable about your fears and your concerns. Play nice. Don’t be evil. You’ll be fine. There is always a way out.


Sample Chapter – By request

I’ve had a request for a sample chapter of my book.  Since I like to window shop as much as the next guy, I decided it was a great idea!  Here you go…


Why I’ve got an Attitude
“Go to the store for me,” my sister would say, “And I’ll give you a dollar.” She was 14 at the time, and I was 12. Thinking about the candy I could buy with that dollar, I’d gladly run across the busy four-lane street to do her errand for her.

“I was just kidding,” she’d say when I arrived home with her goods, and I’d rage and fume. The next time she proposed the same deal? I’d try again.

I lost at Monopoly, too. My sister diversified her investments by buying a few properties here and there, and bleeding me dry for rent while I held out for Boardwalk and Park Place because I thought that’s where the big money was.

In real life, she saved up, spent wisely, and she has always been careful to save enough money for her favorite hobby: traveling the world.

My sister is the responsible one. I’m the creative, artsy one. I just don’t care about money – except that I need it, and I hate that.

By the age of ten, I had become very worried about my family’s financial situation. It seemed to me that my parents were always stressed out about money. The most common reason why I didn’t have the clothes other kids had, or eat at out on school trips (or even attend the school trips half of the time) was that we didn’t have the money. Having less than the other kids was always on my mind.
The allowance I received every week was another reminder of how different my sister and I were at handling money. She saved hers up over several weeks to pay for things like clothes and trips to the movies with friends. I spent mine on penny candy as soon as I got it so that for one hour every week I didn’t feel deprived. One hour sitting on the stoop eating Fortune Bubble gum. The irony is not lost on me today.

I’ve always been bad at business, and with money. It’s just the way I am. I’m a high roller. The faster and riskier the game, the more I want in. I wanted to solve my family’s money troubles, so I looked for buried treasure & old coins, played the lottery (when I could convince a friend’s parent to buy me a ticket with my allowance money) and dreamed of becoming a musical superstar. Eventually, I knew I’d win big, and I’d set us free.

Years later, I was accepted into a world-class conservatory to train as an opera singer. We couldn’t afford the tuition. While my sister worked her way through college, I sat in my crummy apartment ruminating about how unfair it was to have to pay for something like electricity.

Finally, my big break came! I was offered a 4-album contract with an independent record producer who liked my songs and wanted to sponsor my career. A dream, come true, right? Sure it was, but he was talking about some really big numbers. More than I dared hope for. I found myself so uncomfortable with the thought of actually having a lot of money that I froze. I panicked, and I turned down my dream because of money – Too much money.

I didn’t want to sell out. I didn’t want to become like the rich people I’d grown to hate and resent over the years.

That’s what I get for being the artsy, irresponsible one. Money has always been the obstacle to my dreams, somehow or another. The lesson I learned?

I HATE money!

…And, boy did that stick.
Well into my twenties, I still felt like a spectator watching myself struggle. I rarely had enough to cover my bills, let alone to finance my dreams. Every experience I had with money seemed to prove my theory right. I hated money, and it hated me.

When I turned down the New England Conservatory, my dreams of college all but died. I studied for one semester at a local university, but couldn’t pay the bill, and so I had to drop out until I’d worked it off. That kept me out of school for a long time.

When I was 24, and legally allowed to take out student loans without a parent cosigning, I enrolled at the local state college. I went in undeclared – they had no music major at the time – and I fell in love with math. I liked the challenge and the problem-solving aspect of the classes, so I just kept taking them. I also liked the sense of accomplishment I’d get after working out a really tough puzzle.
Little by little, I started to change the way I saw myself. I enjoyed the little victories of hard puzzles solved and difficult codes cracked. I eventually found myself getting to be pretty good at what I was doing. I won scholarships and awards, and graduated Sigma Cum Laude with a degree in mathematics.

How could that happen? I’d thought I didn’t have the mind for analysis. (Remember, I was always the sucker in my sister’s business deals?) As it turns out, I just hadn’t given it a chance because I was supposed to be ‘the creative, artsy one’.

That’s when the tide began to turn for me. By this time, I found myself in the best paying part-time job of my life answering phones in the mortgage department of a local bank. The job mostly involved spending several hours every week pulling credit reports and filing mortgage applications. At first, I felt like an imposter in the evil underworld of finance, but I was given a snapshot into the financial lives of thousands of people in those four years.

It fascinated me to see how one person could earn $12,000 in a month and spend it all, while another earned $2,000 a month, and had saved a significant down payment for a house. I was intrigued, but still deeply hated money, and I considered myself a voluntary outsider to that world. Maybe I could answer phones, but I certainly could not be counted upon to make important financial decisions!
It’s embarrassing how many sleepless nights I spent worried about bills, and how many times I had my phone service cut off because I just didn’t pay it. Before my bank job, I lived on bagels and coffee for weeks at a time. For six months I rented a 10 x 5 ft room with no phone, no kitchen, and no television. I made faces at myself in the mirror when I got really bored. It was sad. I was sad. Actually, I was desperate.

As much as I hated money, I had to admit that ignoring it was doing me no good. I lost a lot of sleep over it, and I felt my life revolving around the lack of it. My security was so uncertain while I lived from paycheck to paycheck. Car trouble could mean I had no rent money, or worse: no job. Getting sick and missing a paycheck could mean I couldn’t buy food that week.

Finally, one day I asked myself, “So long as I ignore and hate money, what am I losing sleep over? Money. What am I working for? Money. What do I think about every day? Money. What is REALLY the focus of my life? Money.”

I decided to challenge what I had formerly believed about money, and about myself. I may have lost at Monopoly, and I may have fallen for a lot of bunk deals, but I was determined to master this nemesis of mine. Focusing on my strengths, I gathered my courage to face down my long-time enemy with sheer willpower.

I used my math degree to get into graduate school for business, and I earned a Master Personal Financial Planner Certificate™ from Bentley University. I wanted to turn my weakness into strength. By the time I finished my time there, my financial position was completely reversed. The transformation was real. My financial attitude had changed.

I learned about how my emotions and personal history affected my perspective on money and business. I spent time thinking through how each part of my life had played its role in shaping the stereotypes I had internalized about people and money. I thought deeply about these things.

I also learned skills and tools that helped me understand how to manage the money I had. I finally saw the truth: Money is a tool. When you learn how it works, you can use it however you want. Finally, I held the power in my relationship with money.

I want to help you have the same experience.

Today, I think very little about money, even though my job and studies are intricately linked with it. I don’t worry about it, and I don’t hate it or resent it. It’s no longer an obstacle in my path but a tool that I know how to handle.

That’s not to say that I’m perfect at handling money now. I still find myself churning on occasion through the deep emotional things that drive my unhealthier financial habits.

In spite of my lingering imperfections, I now have enough money to be comfortable and secure. My non-material goals are much more within reach today because I know how to put my material assets to use in service of my dreams. I enjoy the money I have, but I don’t love it. I don’t hate it. I don’t fear it. I understand it, I value it, and I use it, and that’s all.

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