“My husband is terrible with money,” says Gayatri. “Even when we were first married, he used to always spend money on things I felt we didn’t need. I found myself nagging and nagging because I’m more of a saver. It led to some really serious arguments.”
We’re sitting on Zoom, her four-year-old interrupting every so often in the background. Married for eight years and dating for three before that, she says they’ve had a long time to sort out their relationship with money. “It was really awkward,” Gayatri tells me. “He absolutely hates talking about money, but we had to do it and it’s made things so much better.”
Communication is the key in any healthy relationship — and even though ‘money can’t buy happiness’, talking about money with your partner certainly can mean you’re better off emotionally as well as financially. In fact, research shows that couples that talk about money are the happiest.
But money can be incredibly difficult to talk about, even with the person you love. Amongst the conversations I had, the topic of money was described as a ‘touchy subject’ repeatedly, with many describing how it’s hard not to get ‘defensive’ or ‘emotional’ about it.
If you are having issues either starting or having a conversation about money with your partner, it is important to realise that you’re not alone. According to data from Relate (a relationship support provider), over a quarter of UK adults (26%) say money has placed a strain on their relationships. Moreover, M&S Bank’s 2020 research suggests 1 in 10 British couples are apprehensive about broaching the “M word” in conversation.
Having spoken to couples at various stages, it’s clear that money is controversial for myriad reasons. Fortunately, I was also able to chat with Louisa Burnand, a co-active relationship coach, who explained some healthy and productive ways to talk about money with your partner.
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Reflect on your own relationship with money
Money is emotional for pretty much everyone — we all have our good and bad habits, things that stress us out and things that we find easier to deal with. The first step to having a healthy relationship with your money is to have an awareness of that relationship.
Several of the couples I spoke to hadn’t ever really considered that their financial decisions and accompanying concerns or stresses had deeper emotional levels for them personally.
Jane, who works in finance and has been with her partner for nine years, explained how she generally has a very practical relationship with money. A lot of her decisions are taken on the basis of pragmatism — including things like getting a joint account or having money conversations. She’s also very self-aware, recognising that her overriding emotion with money is a desire for safety.
“I save and have a fear of debt,” she says. “I’m naturally not a risk-taker, in life but also with money. I would say that the key thing in my relationship with money is that I was taught that you should never borrow if you don’t have to and never buy what you can’t afford.”
Having an awareness of yourself and your personal relationship with money means you can learn to recognise your feelings and why you’re experiencing them at certain moments. Keeping track of your money moods can help, using a diary or an app to help identify the financial decisions that trigger both positive and negative emotional reactions.
From a coaching standpoint, Louisa says, “Money is like any other part of a relationship. You will need to spend time reflecting on yourself — how you feel about money, and what’s important to you about it, getting clarity for yourself and a deeper understanding of what the difficulties are and why. If both partners are able to do that, then it makes the conversation a lot easier.”
Cultivate empathy for your partner
Before you start a conversation, especially if it’s something you find hard, take a step back and think about your partner too.
“A couple having difficulties talking about money will need to reflect on themselves and then each other,” says Louisa. “But don’t try to diagnose each other, instead try to guess what they might be feeling, and ask them about it. Try to empathise and remember that they’re also human, not the enemy.”
You and your partner may have different attitudes to savings, credit, gifting, spending and so on. You will have been raised separately and gone through different experiences. You’ll have your own unique financial ghosts. If your partner is doing something with money that frustrates or stresses you out, it’s likely you’re reacting to your own baggage, while they are doing what they think is best based on their beliefs and experience. You can’t get into each other’s mindset properly without talking, but you can be conscious of the fact that you both have needs and money baggage. Therefore, you should start from a place of empathy.
Learn to recognise your patterns
Kate and Will, a recently engaged couple from London, explained that one of the things they find most annoying when it comes to money is that they both always want to check each other’s workings.
“We argue about money because we have different approaches to money,” says Will. “I tend to think about things in my head and make decisions quite quickly.”
‘Whereas I’m more methodical and much more cautious,” says Kate. “Will gets annoyed because he works in finance and I’ll tell him that he’s wrong about something. But if he explains it, I won’t necessarily follow the train of thought and get frustrated. I hate not completely understanding it. I like to feel in control and see things laid out in front of me.”
The issue was that they both like to feel they understand the decisions they’re making together; likewise, they both want to feel trusted by the other when it comes to their maths. What’s clear from talking to them, however, is that they’re able to work through these discussions because they have awareness of themselves and each other. They recognise each other’s perspective and are prepared to take time away from the conversation before coming back and resolving things. They’ve also both recognised the pattern of their disagreements and started to talk about it.
Recognising patterns and working to change them is something Louisa emphasised several times in our call. She says, “At every stage, money is the excuse for the argument — it’s never really about the money. It’s not about the holiday or the savings account but the underlying emotions. If you love someone, you’ll want to understand the issue that the other person is having and to find a way to balance both your emotional needs.”
Consider the emotional needs beyond money
When it comes to financial decisions that you disagree on, even in small ways, Louisa says, “It can help to think about what kind of needs are trying to be met. If one person wants a holiday but someone else wants to put that money into savings, these are just strategies. Ask what the real conversation is about, you may be looking at a need for adventure or intimacy and a need for security. This is how you can develop an understanding, after all a good relationship probably needs all the above.”
Nicole, who recently bought her first home with her partner Mike, says she was having a similar conversation before lockdown. With the mortgage secured and the move organised, she was keen to go on a bigger holiday whereas Mike was more focused on investing in things for the house.
Whilst the onset of Covid-19 put a stopper on any decisions about going abroad, Nicole says, “At the time we decided to wait and see where we were in a few months, but I stated where I wanted my priorities to be, because I want there to be a balance in our lives, and said where I wanted to go if we could make it possible. Of course, when it’s not speculative — it’s different. When something is speculative or full of maybes, it’s harder because it’s more about the values. In this case, it felt practical because obviously there’s a finite amount of money, but really we were looking at saving for a theoretical future. And that can be hard sometimes. Decisions make money more practical.”
Try to keep an open conversation
The couples who were the most positive about their relationship and their money were the ones who had the open and constant conversations — after all, money isn’t one single chat, it’s a lifetime of tiny purchases and big expenses. There are ups and downs, pivots and challenges and the occasional windfall.
All of them described how they have frequent talks about money without always really thinking about them as financial conversations. Sometimes it’ll be walking down the street looking at houses and speculating on how best to save for one of them. Sometimes it’ll be small questions about mysterious spending on the joint account that’s really just someone topping up the petrol. Sometimes it’ll be splitting the bills or little chats about whether they should change providers.
What they’re doing is having lots of easy and light conversations. This means when they do need to have more serious discussions, it’s much less difficult.
Set a time to talk
If you’re finding it really hard to have a conversation about money with your partner — either because you’ve simply not had “the talk” yet or because there’s something that’s worrying you, then the best thing to do is to set a fixed time to have the discussion.
Louisa pointed out that there may be certain areas of money that are very stressful for you or your partner, so it’s good to recognise that these conversations could be triggering, in some respects, and give each other time to prepare. You don’t want to take your partner by surprise, or try to begin a conversation in the heat of the moment. It may also be helpful to set a limit on how long you talk about it — several shorter conversations may be easier for you both to manage if it’s an emotional topic for you.
It can take a lot of awkward moments to feel comfortable talking about money.
However, to keep a positive relationship with your partner, talking about money helps — especially if you’re able to be open with each other when it comes to the emotional as well as the practical side.
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