Ah, couples and money.
This topic comes up again and again and needs its own post. Money can represent power, independence, autonomy, and dependence to name a few. It’s rare that two people in a partnership have the same beliefs and background when it comes to their money. In this post, I’ll give you tips on how to start the money conversation without putting you, or your partner, on the defense.
Before we get into that, let me briefly overview the main three ways I see couples handle money. While each couple has to decide what is right for them, I firmly believe that having a joint bank account, even if it’s not the only account, helps strengthen the relationship of a couple and demonstrates a level of mutual respect and trust. This is the money equivalent of knowing your partner’s phone password. You can go without it, but if there is nothing to hide, why not share?
Theirs, Mine, and Ours
This setup is when the couple has a joint account for things like recurring expenses (rent, car payment, groceries, etc.) and they each have their own individual account. Some people like this setup when one is a spender and one is a saver. This way, the bills are getting paid where the saver can still save and the spender can spend; each from their individual accounts.
Mine and Theirs
This is when accounts stay separate and the couple decides what the best way to share expenses is for them. For some, splitting everything 50/50 feels right. Some decide that one person will pay all the recurring expenses, and the other will get things such as meals out and entertainment. For others, they share the cost on most things and figure it’ll even out. Others get as technical as paying for expenses based upon the percentage of their income. This would look like a couple where one partner makes $60k and the other makes $90k splitting expenses 40% and 60%.
I am biased here because this is the approach my husband and I use. This is when a couple shares all of their banking accounts. Aside from things like retirement accounts, a couple that uses this method manages their money together. Some couples decide on having a small discretionary spending budget so each person can still have autonomy over a drink with friends, or an impulse purchase. That’s not to say this method is all sunshine and rainbows! It took me a long time to combine accounts with my spouse. My parents are divorced and I’d previously associated having separate accounts with a safety net. When going this route, it is imperative both people are equally aware of what is going on with money. Some people make the mistake of thinking because they have merged accounts, they don’t have to check in on their spending and saving.
Alright, so how do you bring it up? Here are a few tips…
Don’t spring it on your partner.
A “drive-by” financial talk is bound to be unproductive. Make sure you let your partner know you want to talk about money, and set aside time to do so. This is best done when you are both away from work tasks, aren’t tired or hungry, and the kids (or dogs) are sleeping or engaged elsewhere. My husband and I schedule our money dates semi-regularly and though he teases me for calling them “State of the Marriage” nights, we end up having a good time and having these dates helps unify us as partners.
Take a step back.
This is the fun part, you get to tell your partner that a therapist told them to blame the in-laws! JK, but I do want you to ask them what money lessons they learned as a child or young adult. Was it “tacky” to talk money in their home? Did their mom make them donate 10% of their babysitting money to charity? Did their first boss tell them to wait a few days before cashing their check? This helps you both to talk about what financial lessons you learned by starting the conversation in a non-blameful way.
Mind your always and nevers.
Couples therapy 101; don’t talk in absolutes. Not sure what I’m talking about? See if any of these ring a bell: “You always buy the cheap shampoo!” or “You always order take-out,” or “You never save money,” or “You never even considering doing something fun with our money.” This sets up the other person to jump to the defense and scramble for an example to prove you wrong. Replace always/never with “often” “sometimes” “seldom,” etc. to keep the conversation balanced instead of accusatory. *BONUS TIP* Use the word “we” or “us” when talking money. You are a team and using this language keeps you both accountable. Instead of “You always say yes to extravagant bachelor parties!” try, “We tend to celebrate our friends so lavishly we forget about our celebrations.”
We go out before we go in. When I’m working with couples, instead of trying to fight the immediate financial fires, I ask them about their goals for the next 1- 5- and 10- years. This helps couples to see what is important to them so when we do go into the nitty-gritty of bookkeeping, they can keep their long-term goals in mind. It’s easier to save money or pay down debt when you are on the same page about the “why” behind doing so. Dream big! What is on your dream horizon that costs money? Updating your kitchen? Owning a home outright? Being student-loan free? Taking that chic European vacation? A fun exercise for this is for each of you to write down your top 3-5 financial goals then share them. It’s interesting to see how close, or far, couples are from the others’ intentions.
Analyze the Spending Plan
Get out your spending plan apps: Clarity, Mint, Qapital, YNAB, whatever app or software you use to track your money. If you don’t use one, stop right now and get one. Seriously, they are all over the place and are FREE. Most of these apps are similar. You link your bank and credit card information in one place and they create visually appealing charts and graphs so you can easily visualize where your money is going. This will help you to see the income and expenses of the household (see last week’s post for more info on these terms). Seeing these numbers can be emotional if you haven’t looked at them in a while. For some, there may be sadness that there isn’t much money leftover at the end of the month. Others may describe surprise when they see how much interest a high-yield savings account has earned. Be patient with yourself and your partner. Once you’ve looked at what you earn and spend, you are in a better position of collaborating on your long-term goals.
I recommend couples have money dates weekly if they are just beginning their financial journey together. As time goes on, and a couple is more aligned, the frequency of the dates can reduce to monthly or quarterly.
Let me know, how often are you and your babe scheduling money dates?
Lindsay Bryan-Podvin, is the founder of Mind Money Balance (@mindmoneybalance)and the first financial therapist in Michigan. She brings financial literacy to women in an empathic, easy-to-understand way that unravels internalized barriers to feeling amazing about managing money. With a background in mental health research and psychotherapy, she thrilled to offer these unique, and much needed, services in our community. As she is aware that her services aren’t accessible to all, she also volunteers with Circles of Washtenaw County, a program with the goal of breaking the cycle of generational poverty.