Before Sarah and I began our financial turnaround, we largely avoided talking about money issues. We’d talk a bit about basic things that we had to talk about, like making sure bills were paid, but in terms of seriously evaluating long-term goals and how we were spending our money, we just didn’t talk about it.
Frankly, it was easier not to talk about it and, as with much of life, the path of least resistance won out.
Eventually, we came to a financial crossroads. We began to have some difficulty paying our bills and we eventually realized that we needed to make some changes to how we used our money.
At first, though, we argued a lot about money. We were in a tough spot. We weren’t close to the nebulous goals that we had talked about. In fact, we were pretty far from them. Even worse, neither one of us wanted to take much blame for the problem. I think we both felt some private guilt for the situation we were in, but neither one of us wanted to admit that guilt to the other party.
It was a perfect recipe for arguments.
How did we get past it, then? For us, success in discussing financial issues came down to setting a few ground rules.
The first one – and this is the biggest one – is simply to constantly remind ourselves that the person sitting across from the table is a human being. Humans make mistakes. Humans strive for better things, but don’t always achieve them. Humans have desires and wants and feelings. Humans aren’t perfect. Humans don’t always do what others want them to do. Humans wish to be understood and accepted and loved by others, even when they mess up.
The person that you’re sitting across the table from has pride and regret and dreams, just like you do. They might not match exactly what yours are, but they’re real nonetheless.
This is a mental trick that goes a long way toward piercing through anger and disappointment, particularly toward someone you love.
The second one is that whenever you bring up a flaw you see in the other person, bring up a flaw in yourself or don’t mention it.
When someone comes to the table with a litany of things that you’ve done wrong, it can feel very much like an attack. When you feel attacked, you’re going to respond with either fight (you get angry) or flight (you shut it out). Neither outcome is good for a healthy discussion.
So, how does this work? Before we have any really deep money discussions, we put some thought in before the talk. We sit down, make some notes about what we want to say, and work through things beforehand. Part of that is a requirement that we self-analyze and look for our own mistakes as well.
It’s awfully hard to come to the table as an inquisitor when you’re holding a long list of your own mistakes.
Note that you don’t necessarily have to keep this purely within money mistakes. Often, overspending and other financial errors are tied to other aspects of marital life, even in ways you don’t initially see. Don’t be afraid to bring your own mistakes in other areas to the table.
It can also help reinforce the first tactic. By making a list of your own mistakes, it becomes easier to realize you’re not perfect either and that helps you relate more to the person across the table that you’re seeing flaws in.
Remember, this isn’t a trick so that you can compare your “small” mistakes to your partner’s “huge” mistakes. The point is that you’re both human, you both make mistakes, and you’re going to work through fixing those mistakes together by mutually reinforcing each other toward better habits.
A final tactic: if you’re going to mention numbers or “facts,” do your homework first. Never, ever, ever bring up a number or a figure that you can’t immediately back up with detailed evidence.
If you’re going to talk about credit card debt, have credit card statements at the ready. If you’re going to talk about mutual overspending, have that credit card statement itemized in advance.
Remember, though, you need to bring your own mistakes to the table, too. This means showing your partner the places where you’ve made poor decisions, even if it’s painful.
These three tactics have helped Sarah and I navigate some very difficult discussions in the past without letting our emotions get the better of us. When you humanize your partner and you humanize yourself, it’s hard to get incredibly angry.