Ten Vital Tactics for Making the “Money Talk” Work

Let’s face it: talking about money can be very, very difficult. I’m speaking from experience here: when my wife and I first started addressing our financial situation, it was extremely challenging to talk about money. We’d look at our financial state, see that we weren’t where we wanted to be, and would seek someone or something to blame – and rarely would that blame be directed toward ourselves. Of course, that was when we actually even managed to make it to the discussion table at all.

Luckily, we managed to overcome this tendency over time. What brought about this change, though? How were we able to go from avoiding money talks (and being confrontational when the topic came up) to being able to rationally, calmly, and happily discuss things today?

I made up a list of ten distinct things that worked for us in terms of making conversations about money work in our relationship. Some of these might seem overly simple – others might seem like they won’t possibly work. Don’t overlook them, though. Give these tactics a try, preferably in combination, if you’re having difficulty talking to your partner about money.

Be willing to admit your faults and mistakes. During the conversation, your partner will likely point out mistakes that you’ve made along the way. Be open to this – don’t get defensive. Be willing to admit that you’ve done wrong in the past and also be willing to look for good solutions to these problems that work for both of you.

Pair any accusations with admissions of your own faults. One good way to defuse a situation that might dissolve into accusations and counter-accusations is to pair any statements you might make about your partner’s behavior with statements about your own mistakes. You might point out that your husband spends too much on his golf trips, but at the same time admit that you spend too much on home decorations.

Identify some things you’re willing to sacrifice before you sit down. During any money talk, you’ll likely have to be willing to commit to making some personal changes. This can be hard, especially if it’s simply foisted on you out of nowhere. Instead, all participants should spend some time before the conversation thinking about some changes they would be willing to personally make to achieve success.

Establish a “no yelling” rule. No one involved in the conversation is allowed to raise their voice, period. If you feel an emotional wave coming on, simply ask to stop for a bit and do something to calm yourself down. Likely, when you feel an emotional surge, it’s a good thing, because you’re getting close to a truth that needs to be laid bare and actually discussed.

Open the books completely. Don’t hide anything. You cannot come up with a great solution that you’re both committed to if things remain hidden. Pull out all of the bills, even the ones you’ve tried to hide from your partner, and allow your complete financial state to be an open book for both of you.

Don’t swallow the whole bite at once. Quite often, when couples sit down and begin to address their financial issues together, they find that the rabbit hole goes much deeper than they thought. Instead of trying to address everything at once, break it up into pieces. Focus on optimizing your spending during one conversation, then coming up with a debt repayment plan together during another talk, then tackle retirement planning later. If you’ve clearly hit a stalemate in a talk, back off for a while with just a pledge that you’ll both think about the problem and talk about it again later. Remember, it doesn’t all have to be done at once.

Talk about goals FIRST. Before you start digging into details, you should make it clear what you both want out of the conversation – and also what you both want in the long term from your situation. Establish the purpose of your conversation as clearly as you can so you have something to work toward. At the same time, talk about where you want to go in the future as a couple. Do this before you do anything else – not only is it a great way to open in a positive fashion, but it also gives you a nice framework for the rest of your talk.

Be realistic. You aren’t going to make diamonds out of coal. You’re also not going to make truly radical changes in your life, particularly if your partner’s not deeply committed to the change. Instead, look for smaller steps you can make to achieve the goals you want. Don’t expect to change everything in one conversation – if you do, you’re likely wasting your time. Focus on a handful of realistic, smaller things that you can do to head in the right direction. Then, if those work, have further discussions and add more changes to the mix.

Share your thoughts asynchronously. You may find that a face-to-face talk simply isn’t helping you get past a particular stumbling block. If that’s the case, try using email or another written form to help you work through the situation. Each of you should simply write down your thoughts on the situation and give them to each other, then respond to those thoughts, then respond to those responses, until you’ve reached some conclusions. This can be easily done over email. While you lose the face-to-face advantages here, you do gain the ability to carefully and calmly gather and organize your thoughts and share them in a way where the conversation can be followed later.

Develop very specific, clear, and tangible tasks for you both to follow. If you both commit to spending less, find ways to make that reduced spending specific and tangible. Agree that you’ll both live with a $100 allowance for “free spending” this month, for example. If you’ve decided to set up retirement plans together, you should both be charged with getting the information needed from your respective places of employment. If you’re trying to dig out of debt, you should both commit to tossing your credit cards. A one-sided sacrifice or one-sided task is a sure recipe for resentment – you should both be involved in the solution.

Good luck!

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18 thoughts on “Ten Vital Tactics for Making the “Money Talk” Work

  1. Curt says:

    Excellent ideas. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Well put. These tips are absolutely essential! :) Great post.

  3. I think that if there is a problem with the talking about money, there is likely a different underlying cause of the fight. Granted I only took one psych class in college, but if a couple can’t agree on money I think there is a deeper problem that must be addressed.

    Whether I’m way off base or not, these are good tips Trent.

  4. The Personal Finance Playbook says:

    I have to push my wife to talk about money. She tries to brush me off with – you handle it, but I insist that she be involved and know what’s going on, too. Hopefully, if something were to happen to me, she’d know where everything was and what to do with it.

  5. Great advice. Decide where you want to go, and what you’re willing to give up.

    Personally, my fiancee and I are making improvements each month. It took us about six months to get the budget thing nailed down. It’s hard, but it’s a lot better then the alternative.

  6. Neal Frankle says:

    My experience is that its important, as you point out, to get common agreement on goals before doing anything else.

    Once that’s established, the rest falls in place.

    Having said that, I am afraid that (according to my experience) you can’t just have the money talk once. Its a discussion about a habits that have been forged over a life-time.

    Don’t be disappointed if you have to have this conversation a few times before the concepts are cemented into place.

  7. todo es bien says:

    Some good ideas here. I think that it is generally reckless to communicate regarding sensitive issues via email however. Email is great for communicating information, but extremely lacking in its ability to communicate nuance & subtlety. Money can be highly emotionally laden. Just one fools opinion, YMMV. Hope you all are having a safe and happy day.

  8. I dunno, todo…I find that email works pretty well for my husband and me, at least when it comes to communicating numbers. I take care of all the bill paying, so once a month I send him an email telling him where the money went, how much we have in savings, and so on. It works GREAT for us.

    I think the biggest communication mistake we made was just NOT communicating about money except very occasionally. Things are so, so much better now that we are talking about it at least once a month.

  9. EngineerMom says:

    @the weakonomist – Difficulty in discussing money doesn’t necessarily mean there are any underlying issues in the marriage. Sometimes it just means neither person ever learned how to effectively and calmly discuss finances. Many people grow up in families in which finances are never discussed in front of the children or where bad finance management was attributed to someone being a bad person. Both situations set the person up for trouble when discussing money as an adult.

    @todo – The important point is to find a communication method that works for the couple. It is much easier for some people (me included) to communicate highly emotional issues through writing, whether it is e-mail or a hand-written letter. I prefer to be face-to-face with the recipient when s/he reads it, so I usually go the hand-written route, but e-mail also provides time for the recipient to react emotionally, calm down, then respond coherently without all the emotional issues.

    I like this list. There are a lot of good ideas for how to make the money talkS (definitely should be plural!) more about the numbers and goals, and less about blaming, guilt, or high emotions.

  10. Christine says:

    Great article! I have to say that the lines you’ve bolded are also good reminders for dieters.
    Probably only a girl would notice :)

  11. Kiri says:

    One of the hardest things I have ever had to do is talk to my husband about money. When we first started talking about marriage the “is there anything else I need to know about you” question came up, and I had been dreading telling him about the credit card debt I had incurred and the amount of my student loans, afraid he would think less of me. I grew up with a very unhealthy view of money and spending, imposed on me by my father, thinking that everything in life came down to money. We agreed that we had seen our parents mistakes in dealing with communication of finances and vowed that no matter how hard it was going to be, that our finances were going to be a joint effort. In the beginning there were a lot of tears, frustration, and anger. We struggled to establish a budget and to track our finances. Now though, we are on the same page, we have a plan and budget in place and talk about our money regularly. In fact, we actually look forward to our “money talks” because we make sure there are no interruptions, we just focus on each other and our goals. We still have a ways to go in terms of paying off debt, but for the first time in either of our lives money is not this big scary monster that we try to keep hidden in the closet. And it has strengthened our relationship in many ways.

  12. It all comes down to communication and identifying a common “enemy”– the financial issue.

    Nice post!

  13. Elizabeth says:

    One tactic that helps in any discussion my husband and I have is to dicuss it over a pot of tea (or coffee or whatever floats your boat). Sipping a drink and having something in your hand gives you a chance to come up with a calm response instead of sitting through an uncomfortable silence or responding in anger.

  14. Matt says:

    I feel like I practice a lot of these but still deal with a lot of accusations and no willingness to accept any responsibility. I also know from earlier discussions that the “no yelling rule” is not available to me (that’s “what she does”).

    However – a lot of our financial disagreements are avoidable if we try to be proactive in our approach. I find that if I bring items to the table before an issue arises the discussion goes much better.

    If I wait until we are close to running over our budget and edging through the end of a month the stress levels are higher and the argument begins.

  15. Zella says:

    The “no yelling” rule is why we have the talk at Starbucks. We’re much less likely to yell in public (although I did storm out during our January one).

  16. Dean Lund says:

    God what a delightful deep person you are. I really can’t find words to express my admiration. My comment is about the b’fast burritos——-Get a pressure cooker, the beans are ready after cooking (from dry) 20-25 min. Make your own salsa & freeze it with—-fresh tomatoes taste so much better than canned.
    Again, what an inspirational story. Thanks.
    DL

  17. TStrump says:

    It’s sad that we just don’t talk about money more than we do.
    It seems to be a taboo subject.
    I’ve tried talking about money to a sibling, but they just don’t want to hear that they spend too much.

  18. I’m really glad we started out 100% “open”… there are no bills we’ve ever tried to hide from each other, or secret bank accounts with savings in them “just in case”, nor are there secret loans or credit cards.

    Right before our wedding we combined all of our finances. We talked about how we anticipated our money “routine” would go, and found out we were basically on the same page with everything.

    Talking about money isn’t a stressor for us. It’s exciting because we’re working together toward our shared goals.

    That said, we don’t do EVERYthing financial “together”… I handle the day to day stuff, paying bills, watching our budget, and he researches the longer-term stuff, like which mutual funds look better and such.

    So when I told him we have $45 left for the month (because we’ve put $1500 in savings this month!!!) he didn’t get angry or upset or worried. Instead, it becomes a challenge to see if we can make meals for a week out of what’s in our fridge and pantry already.

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