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How to talk about money with your significant other

Scripts and questions you can actually use for asking your partner about their finances.

Kristin Wong

One of the most important money choices you make has nothing to do with picking stocks, or opening accounts … it’s about who you choose to spend the rest of your life with and how much you share (or don’t share) their views on money and living a Rich Life.

It’s a messy, uncomfortable thing to think about and something people only acknowledge in private (if even then) … so it’s the PERFECT topic for IWT.

That’s why I asked my friend Kristin Wong (who writes about money for Lifehacker, New York Times, among other places) to bring it down to earth … and share exact questions, scripts, and psychology for having a productive conversation with your partner.

She has a new book out, Get Money: Live the Life You Want, Not Just the Life You Can Afford,” that talks about this stuff and more.

Take it away, Kristin.

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People are more comfortable talking about their love lives than they are their financial lives. And I should know, I’ve asked.

Years ago, I hosted a woman-on-the-street video series for MSN called “Sex by the Numbers.” It involved hitting the streets of Los Angeles and asking people about their relationships and sex lives. You’d think it would be an awkward topic for people to discuss, but you’d be wrong. I learned more about where, how, and with whom people were getting it on than I ever wanted to know.

A personal finance editor who followed my work enjoyed the series and asked if I would produce similar videos for her, but centered around money instead of relationships. “Hell yes!” I said, because I thought it would be so much easier to talk to people about their finances.

Oh man, I could not have been more wrong.

I’d ask strangers basic questions — such simple questions! Questions like, “Are you saving for retirement?” They would look at me with some serious side eye, like I was trying to sell them Amway.

One guy in Burbank asked, “Who are you with?”

People hate talking about money with just about anyone, not only some random woman on the street, but also the people they’re in a relationship with. For many couples, money isn’t a topic on the discussion table. Four in 10 married people don’t even know how much money their spouse makes! And 40% of couples don’t even talk about money before they get married. The problem with this is, money issues are a huge predictor of divorce. It’s not just important to talk about money in your relationship, it’s absolutely crucial if you want to give your relationship a fighting chance.

Icebreakers to get the conversation started

Once you know your relationship is getting serious (or if you’re already there), you need to sit down with your partner and talk about your past, present, and future money situation. Sometimes these conversations happen organically: you decide to shack up and must now figure out how you’ll split rent, for example. Perfect time to talk money!

It’s not always that easy, though. Sometimes you need an icebreaker. Here are a few easy scripts you can use to jump-start a money conversation in your own relationship:

  • To avoid unpleasant surprises down the road: “Before we talk about moving in together, we should talk about our finances.”
  • To ensure your partner doesn’t feel judged: “I’d like to share my money situation and goals with you, and I’d like to learn about yours.”
  • To ensure you’re committed: “Since our relationship is getting to the next level, I’d like to get to know more about your finances, and I want to tell you about mine.”
  • To set the tone that money is important to you: “A secure financial life is important to me. Let me tell you how I handle money, and you can tell me how you deal with finances.”
  • To approach the conversation casually: “I know so much about you, but I don’t know about your financial life.”

People can be very defensive about their money issues and money is a topic loaded with embarrassment and judgment, and no one likes to be embarrassed or judged. The above scripts work well because they’re not accusatory. You’re not shining a lamp in your partner’s face and interrogating him. This is a two-way street: you’re offering to share your financial situation as well.

Topics you need to discuss

Once your partner is on board with the discussion, there are a handful of important topics you need to discuss. You’ll want to talk about your financial past, present, and future.

Your financial past: Talk about any debt you’ve struggled with in the past. Did you pay it off? Did it go to collections? Also, what was your family’s financial situation growing up? It seems like overkill, but ask any mental health professional and they’ll tell you: our childhood experiences play a huge role in our future habits. So it’s important to understand your partner’s early experiences with money and how they might shape their present view of it.

Try these scripts:

“What are some of your earliest memories of money? My family struggled with money, did yours?”

“What about debt? Did you ever have trouble with credit cards like so many people do?”


Remember: these can be touchy topics, so keep the conversation objective by focusing on the fact that many people have past money issues!

Your financial present: Talk about any financial goals you’re currently working toward, or any setbacks you might be struggling with. Are there any big expenses you’re paying for at the moment? Talk about your income and how you budget too.

Try these scripts:

“My financial goal is [insert goal here], what’s yours?”

“Right now, my biggest struggle is my student loan [or anything else you struggle with], what’s yours?”

“Let’s talk about how we budget and compare notes. My income is $50,000 a year, and my expenses are about $2,000 a month.”

Your financial future: Finally, share your goals for the future. These don’t just have to be money-specific goals, like “open a retirement account.” Talk about your dreams, like if you want to buy a house, raise kids, go on an epic vacation, whatever. All of those things cost money, so finances will inevitably be part of the picture.

Try these scripts:

“Someday I’d like to retire in Costa Rica. I’m trying to max out my 401(k) now to make that happen someday. What are your goals for the future?”

“My dream is to buy a home someday. Right now, I’m paying off my student loan, and I don’t know if it will happen anytime soon, but it’s something I’m researching. What about you? What are some things you want to accomplish in life?”

It’s kind of cheesy, but you could even try the old, “What would you do with a million dollars?” question. Is it corny? Kinda. But it can offer some interesting insight in how someone deals with and thinks about money.

To make things even easier, use this checklist with specific topics to discuss.

YOUR FINANCIAL PAST

YOUR FINANCIAL PRESENT

YOUR FINANCIAL FUTURE

🙿 Credit cards you’ve opened

🙿 Loans you’ve taken out

🙿 Foreclosures, bankruptcies, debt that’s been settled or charged off

🙿 How you’ve dealt with money in the past

🙿 How your parents dealt with money when you were growing up

🙿 Outstanding debt you owe

🙿 Debt you’re actively paying off, including credit cards, student loans, mortgages

🙿 Interest rates on those debts

🙿 Your income or salary

🙿 Money owed to you

🙿 Active financial accounts

🙿 Your budget

🙿 Your money personality

🙿 Debt payoff goals

🙿 Savings goals

🙿 Retirement goals

You need to hit on these topics whether you’re talking about money for the first time or in an established relationship. For example, my husband and I try to have a regular discussion about money every two or three months, just to make sure we’re still on the same page and our short-term and long-term goals haven’t changed. Of course, past financial issues will always be there, but your financial present and future goals can certainly evolve, and probably will.

Whenever you sit down and have the conversation, use this checklist as a guideline for stuff to talk about.

Find your money “script”

In “Get Money,” I interviewed Dr. Brad Klontz, a financial psychologist who identified four behavioral scripts that most of us follow when it comes to managing our money. In psychology, a “script” is simply a set of habits, beliefs, and opinions you hold. When it comes to money, those four scripts are:

Money avoidance: You prefer not to deal with money at all. Maybe you think it’s not important, it’s superficial, or it’s greedy. For whatever reason, money is not something you think about.

Money vigilance: You’re incredibly watchful and mindful of your financial situation. Many money vigilant people are also super frugal. They track their spending meticulously and may have a hard time buying things.

Money status: Money status people place a high importance in the symbolic value of money. They might be quick to believe the net worth equals self worth. For them, money is a symbol of status.

Money worship: Money worshippers often believe money will fix their problems. They chase money and thoroughly consider its role in every decision.

None of these scripts are inherently good or bad. Any of them can completely work against you or totally work in your favor — you just have to know how to deal with them. It’s a lot easier to deal with your behavior when you identify it, so sit down with your partner and try to identify both of your money scripts.

Think about how they hold you back and how you might use them to your advantage. For example, if you worship money, you might be inclined to take on a job that’s making you miserable just because it pays slightly more than another job. You might need to reconsider prioritizing your, y’know, happiness. On the other hand, money worship might mean you’re willing to invest your cash, while your money vigilant partner hoards it in a low-interest savings account. You can have more than one script, too. Chances are, you’ll identify with one script way more than the others, but you can be a money worshipper and still have habits of a money vigilant person.

Sit down and figure out where you stand together. Below are a few questions you can ask when pinpointing your own money scripts together. I know, it seems kind of silly, like you’re taking a Cosmo quiz together, but I promise you, this is an eye-opening exercise if you take the time to answers these questions seriously and thoroughly.

What was it like growing up for you around money? What was your socioeconomic status?

What did each of your parents teach you about money?

What are your biggest financial fears? What are your most important financial goals?

When I first read about these scripts, I realized I was a huge money vigilant person, while my boyfriend at the time (now husband) was a complete money avoider. Everything made so much sense! I was obsessed with frugality; he wanted a bigger apartment no matter the cost. No wonder we bickered.

People like to tell you that if you and your partner are not on the same page about money, it’s not going to work out. That’s not necessarily true. The thing about relationships is: the issue you THINK is the problem is never the ACTUAL problem. You know when your girlfriend complains that you never get her flowers and so you go get her some flowers and she’s like, “Wow, you don’t get it?” Well, you probably don’t. Flowers aren’t the issue, it’s about your gratitude and appreciation for her.

It’s the same with money. There’s always a bigger issue, lurking deeper: intimacy problems, a lack of respect, poor communication.

You and your partner will most likely have different views on money, but that doesn’t mean you’re doomed. If you can communicate and respect each other’s views, you can work together. But again, you have to know what your money views are in the first place! So go ahead, sit down, and answer those three questions together. Revisit them every so often, too, because things change. These days, my husband Brian is the vigilant one.

In other words, putting a label on our habits makes it easy to see how we might conflict with money. It also helps us to avoid those conflicts in the future.

How to avoid a blowout

Yes, your relationship can work out even if you and your partner have polar opposite ideas about money. But that doesn’t mean you’ll never fight about it.

Here’s a pro tip: when you have these money meetings (some experts call them “money date night,” but ugh, that’s so corny, I just can’t), have them in public. Sit down over coffee or at your favorite restaurant and talk about these things. It’s easy for a discussion about money to turn into a fight about money, but when you’re in public, you’re a lot more mindful about this. After all, no one wants to be the couple who gets into a fight about money at Starbucks or Buffalo Wild Wings, so you’re more likely to keep the conversation cool.

Aside from that, here are some tips to help keep the discussion in check:

  • Remember: there are multiple ways to manage or think about money. Your partner’s might not match yours, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he or she is wrong.
  • Focus less on trying to explain stuff to your partner and more on trying to understand them. That doesn’t mean you can’t speak your mind, but if you both prioritize understanding each other, you’ll set the conversation up for success.
  • Agree to take a time out if the conversation starts to get ugly.
  • Maintain eye contact. This is an easy trick our marriage counselor taught us for avoiding fights. If you’re not making eye contact, that sends a subtle message that you’re angry and you don’t care what the other person has to say. So try not to have these heavy conversations in the car!

Money is not a sexy topic to talk about. (And I’m sorry, calling it “money date night” does not make it better.) Your partner probably won’t be turned on when you start talking about the student loan debt you’re still paying off. But if you’re head over heels for this person and you want your relationship to last, money has to be part of the conversation.

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Kristin Wong is a freelance writer and journalist at the New York Times, New York magazine’s The Science of Us, and Lifehacker. Her book, “Get Money: Live the Life You Want, Not Just the Life You Can Afford is available now.

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11 Comments

 
  1. Tesseract

    Good points. I may add…. "here is my Mint.com overview page, what's yours like"

    • Kristin Wong

      That's a good one, too!

  2. Yuri

    Dear God, I cant imagine how that looks like. I´m panamanian and I remember the first thing me and my husband did when we began to think about living together and getting hitched was to do a table with his and my expenses and income. Now we are 15 years now down the marriage road and have 1 kid, a car and just opened a business but no money issues whatsoever. No, we are not rich yet but the plan is to get there in about 5 years time.

    • Kristin Wong

      Very nice. It's so much easier to reach those goals when you're both on the same page and check in with each other regularly.

  3. James

    There is a great show on Canadian television called, "Tell Debt Do Us Part" (a later version is called, "Money Morons"). It is a reality TV show where one or both members of a couple is forced to confront the other about their spending habits, and you watch while the host, Gail, tells things to their face like that at their current rate of spending, they will be several hundred thousand dollars in debt in ten years. Whatever your marital money problems may be, watching that show hopefully gives you the feeling of "thank God that's not us". Watchable in the USA with a VPN.

    • Kristin Wong

      Wow, haha. Definitely want to check this out.

  4. JokePearl

    One of the best articles I’ve read about money in a while

  5. kellie

    This is amazing! Wow, I can imagine using these scripts and the conversation be sooo much easier. This conversation has always scared me and most times I avoid talking about money with myself so thanks for this!

    Also love the attitude towards an open conversation where there are many ways and no one is necessarily "right."

    • Kristin Wong

      Thanks, Kellie! Yeah, I think it's important to keep things objective. It's just SO EASY to fight about money.

  6. Woolker Cherenfant

    This is serious stuff. Thanks guys. I did exactly something like that before my marriage, and till now we never have any money issues. This article just reminds me that we're on the right track and should be keeping on. Bookmarked & printed.

    • Kristin Wong

      Thanks, Woolker, I hope it helps!

      My husband and I are on the same page now, but when we first started dating, our money habits were wildly different. If we didn't talk about money openly, I can only imagine the number of money issues that would've come back to bite us down the road.

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