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Money and Relationships | How to talk to your partner about money

Updated: Mar 6, 2022

By: Leah C. Schulte, CFP®, MA, LPC

5 Prompts for Discussion Are you someone who is in a relationship with someone who feels the exact same way about money as you do? Someone who spends money on the same things, values the same expenses, has the same emotional threshold for how much cash is in the emergency fund?

No? Good. Me neither.

The fact is, a lot of couples avoid talking about money like the plague. Some of their therapists don’t really want to talk about it either because they don’t feel they understand it, themselves. They’d rather discuss … well… pretty much anything else. This is a mistake and something I, as a therapist and financial advisor, would like to see change.

Money is deeply intertwined with our emotions and state of mind because it is often seen as part of our identity.

Whether you have a lot of it, spend a lot of it, have none of it, or give a lot of it away, money is a reflection of who we are and what we value in life. So, it might be fair to ask: if you don’t know your partner’s financial personality, how much do you really know them at all?

The key is to talk about money with empathy.  In other words, put yourself in their shoes… or wallet, I guess… and truly try to understand why they feel the way they do. You don’t have to agree! Just understand.

1. How did your parents/caretakers handle money when you were growing up? Kids learn so much through observing their caretakers, so it is the modeling of behaviors that ultimately help shape children the most.

Your partner’s feelings and behaviors around money are most likely influenced in some way by how their caretakers handled finances.

In order to understand your partner better, it could be a good idea to hear their story about how finances were dealt with “back then.” Did her parents live paycheck to paycheck? Did his dad put all his cash in the mattress? Did grandma give $500 checks on birthdays or a sack of pennies? When did her caretakers retire, if ever? Did your partner get everything they wanted instantly or were they made to earn what they got? What was the overall attitude in the household regarding finances?

2. What do you like spending money on? What do you hate spending money on? Have you ever gone to the mall together before? If so, did you want to spend your dough all in the same department, or were you headed in two different directions?

Maybe she has a Kate Spade purse to go with every season and he buys a new set of top-notch wireless headphones once a month. Everybody has something they don’t mind spending money on and something they can’t stand spending money on.

3. What are your long-term financial goals? When do you want to retire? Will you ever stop working? How much money do you foresee having someday at your peak? Do you want to send the kids to college with no loans? Would you want to move to a bigger house someday or buy a vacation home in Florida?

4. What are your fears related to our finances? How often do you worry about your money and why? One interesting thing I have picked up on over the years as a financial advisor is the "red line in the bucket."

I’m referring to that invisible red line in your checking account. People arbitrarily pick a dollar amount and say, “I couldn’t sleep if my cash went below $XXX.” The number they pick rarely comes from a logical place and usually comes from some mystical, emotionally-fueled gut instinct.

An advisor at Brass Tax might tell you that you should keep around 6 months to a year worth of cash in your bank account in case of emergencies or job loss. Of course, knowing that number requires you to actually look at your outflows on your bank statement and see what you REALLY spend per month.

Find out your partner’s red line. And then turn to a discussion about budgets, so your red line makes more sense.

5. If we lost our jobs today, what would you want us to do? Would you file for unemployment right away or lick your wounds for a few weeks? Would you go out and work any job you could find or would you sit around and wait for the perfect opportunity even if it means sacrificing income for a long period of time?

These prompts are simply conversation starters for you and your partner. They are made to elicit non-threatening and universal responses from both of you, regardless of savvy or financial personality. Try these out and see how other areas of your relationship start to improve, as well. 

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