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.


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