For the longest time, my biggest obstacle to financial success was simply discussing matters with my wife. Money was the most uncomfortable subject between the two of us - every time we discussed it, even with the best intentions, one of us wound up very upset. So, for years it was a complete taboo topic outside of the functional "Did you pay the electric bill?" type question. When we finally sat down and had a real financial heart-to-heart, it was relevatory. We realized that we were on the same page on a lot of things, and that in our own separate ways we were making many of the same mistakes.
Here are ten tips for getting the discussion started - and making sure that it doesn't devolve into an emotional battle.
1. Start off talking about goals. Ask your spouse when he/she wants to retire and what he/she wants to do after retirement. Ask what his/her dreams are - where would they like to be in five years, or ten years. The point is to think positively about money by asking where it can get you.
2. Admit your own mistakes. If you're having this discussion, it's likely you're not blameless. Start off by admitting your own mistakes. Before the discussion, evaluate your own spending and figure out where you spend too much. For me, I admitted to spending too much on books and on eating out, both of which were seriously draining our finances.
3. Look your spouse right in the eye, and hold their hand. No matter how big your spouse's mistakes are, never, ever give any sign that you are anything other than compassionate and loving. For me, this meant that as my wife was summoning the courage to express her fears, her spending problems, and her doubts, I sat next to her, looked right at her, listened attentively, and placed my hand on top of hers. It was a simple gesture, but it reminded her of the love that we share.
4. Be goal-oriented. You're having this talk to achieve some sort of goal. Maybe you're realizing that credit card bills are getting too high, or maybe you're starting to think about having children - or about life after the kids leave the nest. Let your partner know what the goal of the conversation is, but don't frame it around "you need to change your behavior." Be very specific about what you want to accomplish: "I would like to get these credit cards paid off" or "We're about to finish paying off the house and I'd like to think about an upgrade."
5. Look at numbers - but don't judge. When I did this, I let my wife see all of my statements first and gave her a pen to mark off anything she found questionable. She was so blown away by the openness that she almost automatically did the same thing once we evaluated my spending, and without a peep. If I had started off by demanding her statements, it would have turned into a giant war.
6. Be fair. If/when your spouse admits to overspending, don't blow up at them. We live in a consumerist society that is designed to push our buttons and trick us into spending. Even worse, it's a pattern that's very difficult to break - it's a very socially acceptable addiction. Instead of exploding, ask them what they think of the spending: is it reasonable? Is it more important to them than paying off a credit card? Do not blow up if your spouse gives an answer that you don't like.
7. Create goals that you both agree on. Each of you should make a list of the goals you'd like to reach, both in the short term and in the long term. Then, find the ones that mesh together and agree to work towards them. For example, my wife and I are both interested in being debt free as soon as possible, buying a home in the near future, and retiring early, so we've made that one of our primary goals, and we now think of our spending in terms of these goals.
8. Create plans to reach those goals. For each of your common goals, spend some time figuring out how you can get there. Do you need to cut down on the Starbucks visits? Does your spouse need to spend less cash on authentic baseball jerseys (hey, I've seen a couple where the husband was budgeting almost $10K on baseball-related apparel a year)? Each of you needs to be willing to make some sort of sacrifice to reach the goal, and if you're initiating this, you should be the first one to offer up something.
9. Agree to talk about it regularly. I am a big fan of a monthly family meeting about money issues. This should include the children as early as possible. This way, all parties can stay on the ball and everyone can have a say in any planning decisions.
10. Do something romantic afterwards. After our first talk, I made dinner for the three of us while my wife picked up our son from daycare. After supper and some playtime, our child went to bed, and we spent a romantic evening together, secure in the new bonds we had just built.