How to talk to your partner about money

Q: I am in a serious relationship but my partner and I have not discussed our personal financial situations. What is a good way to broach a discussion about finances? 

Sounds like you’re feeling trepidation regarding this fundamental yet knotty topic. I also sense the “ignorance is bliss” method — which worked initially as you were swept up in the giddy newness of the relationship — is over and it’s time to get practical. This is a lovely opportunity to take the relationship to a deeper level.

Money is an essential part of daily life, yet we can be reticent about it. There’s an unspoken taboo in asking people about their financial status. Asking someone how much money they earn is akin to asking someone their weight. (How very un-Minnesotan to be so blunt!) This is because our relationship with money is revealing: it exposes our values. In addition, our income can feel like a measure of how society values us. Money is connected to worth and power. It can provide a foundation of safety and security and the luxury of freedom and flexibility.

First, this is a terrific time to first get clarity on your own relationship with money if you haven’t already. Start with a curiosity about why it feels difficult to raise the topic in the first place. Are you worried your partner will judge you for having/not having money? Are you growing resentment about paying for everything and have difficulty expressing your frustration? Growing up, what were the explicit and implicit messages you received about money? Did you have an allowance? Who earned the money in the household? Was that related to who had the power? Consider journaling to shed light on your individual beliefs about money that originated in your youth. These insights will allow you to take responsibility for your expectations regarding finances as you move forward in the relationship.

Now keep in mind that from the start of the relationship you’ve made observations about each other’s finances, so chances are this conversation won’t be full of surprises. Granted, this may be the moment you learn about the crippling credit card debt or the secret inheritance from a wealthy relative (wouldn’t that be convenient), but my guess is that daily transactions have already been providing you with clues into your partner’s saving/spending styles.

Next, approach your partner softly, explaining your level of commitment to the relationship is why you want to have an open conversation about money. Questions you might include: do you have debt, savings, investments and retirement? Do you value spending money on experiences like travel and dining or on belongings like clothing and furniture? Is one of you more focused on instant gratification, spending money as soon as you have it, or delayed gratification, saving for that rainy day which never seems to come? I find that similar to one’s relationship with food, people can be restrictors or permitters when it comes to money. If you’re on opposite sides of this spectrum, perhaps now is a chance to help balance each other, but have patience as this can take time given these are deeply engrained patterns. Particularly if your spending styles differ wildly, be sure any criticism you have is directed at the specific behavior and not their personality as a whole.

If you’re considering moving in together, discussing a budget is an essential part of the conversation. Logistically, decide if you prefer having one shared account for everything or one joint account for household expenses and two separate accounts for personal expenses (that you don’t want to be judged or questioned about). Regarding bigger ticket items, decide what the dollar amount will be that requires a discussion with your partner first before purchasing. An illuminating exercise to do together is to track your discretionary spending for a couple weeks. Then experiment with using only cash for these purchases, rather than your credit cards. Watching your hard-earned cash go into the hands of another can be sobering compared to using plastic!

It’s best you get clear on your financial alchemy sooner rather than later before your lives become more intertwined. It will be a relief to deal with this issue in a straightforward manner now rather than avoiding it out of fear. There are therapists and financial planners who can facilitate your process if you get stuck. Although differing financial beliefs can challenge a couple, trust that if you have honest communication and generosity of spirit these conversations can enrich your relationship.

Dr. Rachel Allyn is a licensed psychologist in private practice. Learn more about her unique style of therapy at DrRachelAllyn.com. Send questions to Rachel@DrRachelAllyn.com.