Money can be a really difficult topic to talk about, especially in your closest relationships.
People often steer clear of conversations about money with their partners so they can avoid the difficult emotions these conversations bring up. Some couples will avoid talking about money altogether because when they’ve tried in the past they’ve ended up disagreeing or fighting. So how can you get out of this rut and have more productive conversations about money?
The critical first step to having healthier conversations about money is to frame the dialogue in a way that encourages open discussion.
When people do discuss money it’s often around a problem, like a large bill. This added stress means things can escalate quickly as one or both of you get defensive. If you try to initiate a conversation when things are going well financially, you might be able to avoid some of this negative emotion.
Approaching the matter in a relaxed, non-confrontational way will help rid any fears of being judged. See if your partner will agree to sit down and talk about money when there is nothing else going on. Have a think about what is a good time for a conversation about money, for example a time when you will not be disturbed by children.
What constitutes a good time is different for different couples. So think about times in the past when you have had success talking to your partner about difficult or sensitive issues.
Creating a safe space
To have a successful conversation about money, it is crucial to create a safe and respectful environment to share concerns and wishes. Creating this kind of environment requires some work.
You can reduce the potential stress by making sure your partner knows your purpose in initiating the chat is to reduce conflict, not to argue. Tell them that the purpose of the talk is to focus on improving your financial situation so you can move forward together in a way that works for both of you.
You can reduce the potential stress by making sure your partner knows your purpose in initiating the chat is to reduce conflict, not to argue.
One idea is to start your conversation with a statement that acknowledges that the topic is difficult or sensitive. Clarify that you know that you have different perspectives and that you want to work together to have a better understanding of those perspectives.
The structure of the discussion
A good way to start your initial money conversations is have some kind of structure to follow. Even if it feels a bit forced, it can be really helpful. This method using active listening will help keep your conversation productive, and prevent arguments between you and your partner.
Speaker and Active listener roles
In this conversation method you and your partner take turns in being the speaker or the listener, aiming to create a safe space for discussion. First of all, select one topic or a short list that you and your partner agree to stick to. Remember this is a process that may take a while before it feels natural, and just a small step can be significant.
Next choose one person to be the speaker and one to be the listener. The speaker gets to discuss what they want without interruptions from the listener who should try to listen actively—taking in what the speaker is saying.
The speaker is free to talk until he or she feels like they have said what they want. This may only take a few minutes, and shouldn’t take longer than 10 minutes.
When the speaker has finished communicating, the listener then confirms that he/she understood what the speaker has said. One way to do this is to restate, or paraphrase what the speaker said. The listener can sum up the main points using their own words, and in doing so strengthens the listener’s understanding of the speaker’s position, and also can add context and clarity.
It is then the other person’s turn to choose a topic and discuss, using the same process.
Practise, practise, practise
As time goes on, hopefully you can be a bit less rigid about the discussion process, and find your own ways to express and listen and move forward. However the method of safe and defined speaker/listener roles can serve as a great way of ensuring all parties are heard.
This kind of conversation will be hard at first and may not always achieve the result you hope for. That's OK, the point is to start talking, whatever that looks like to you. Understanding each other’s point of view—so that you can work together—is what matters. If things get heated, take a 20-minute break and try again, sticking to facts and feelings.
Here are some tips to help this process go smoothly.
When you are speaking:
Try to avoid starting sentences with “you” as it might make your partner defensive. Keep the focus on your own thoughts and feelings. (I think, I feel etc.)
Try not to use judgmental words like “irresponsible” or “stupid”.
Stick to facts, try not to judge the other person’s actions.
When you are listening:
Try not to interrupt your partner.
Try not to make discrediting faces or movements.
Really focus on what your partner is saying.
Try to sum up the main points your partner has talked about once they’ve finished, that way they’ll know you understand their point of view.
Tips for all financial conversations
If you are feeling unhappy about finances within your relationship, it might not be a result of something your partner is doing wrong; it may be simply the result of not communicating clearly. Your partner may not have any idea how you are feeling, and just communicating your feelings may help the situation.
Approach every issue as a team; remember you’re not opponents. Otherwise, you’ll both be on the defensive. Use the terms we and our, instead of I, you, me.
Emotions are very powerful and it is important you talk about how you feel in a way that will not shut down the conversation. For example, instead of saying: “I hate it when you spend money without consulting me”, it may be better to say “I feel like my opinions don’t count when you spend money on large purchases without talking to me first.”
Remember you are equals
Approach the conversation the same way, no matter who earns more. You are equals. Although one person may be more involved in the earning, and one person may be more involved in the details and administration, both should know and participate in decision-making.
Leave competition at the door
Be prepared to change how you think about certain issues. Spending and saving decisions will be different as a team than they would be as a single person. The goal is to get on the same page, not to win a point. Conversations aren’t competitions.
Progress can be slow
Progress is possible, and often takes time. Small achievements, for example having a conversation about feelings, where each partner has more understanding of the other after the conversation than before, is progress, even if no actual decisions have been made.
Keep communication clear
Always be clear about what you need. It is really important to be respectful of your partner’s way of handling money. But it’s equally important to be clear on what is working for you and what is not working for you. At the end of each conversation, be clear about what has been agreed to (if anything), by whom, and when.