8 Tips to Have Successful Money Conversations with Your Significant Other

Jessica Nelson, PhD, LMFT

Mar 15, 2024

Money. Finances. Investments. They may sound like cold, impersonal topics – but they are usually super-charged with emotion.

We all have different feelings about money based on our family history and personal experience. To some, money is about safety and security. To others, it’s about control and power. To many, money represents freedom and opportunity.

Since there are so many individualized memories and emotions wrapped up in the topic of money, many people struggle having conversations about it. At TCI, we see it every day – with people of all ages and stages, from long-time clients to new prospects.

As a financial planning associate, I often attend client meetings with our Advisors. On an average day I can draw equally on my knowledge of finance AND my background as a licensed marriage and family therapist and former professor of counseling to help clients navigate conversations about money. The conversations dealing with your emotions toward money are equally as important to your financial journey as the conversations about portfolio growth, investment strategies and rates of return.

The entire team at TCI believes our work is about more than just growing your portfolio. It’s also about understanding why you think the way you do about money, what money means to you, and what you want to achieve with it – so we can help you get there.

Let’s Set The Stage

Imagine there’s a decision that needs to be made about your finances. For example, let’s say you just got married and you’re trying to figure out whether to have joint or separate accounts. Or there’s a new addition on the way and one partner wants to stay home. Or maybe you or your partner just received a windfall inheritance, and you’re not sure if the money is “yours, mine or ours.”

While the conversation topic may be “money,” there are almost always underlying factors at play. My goal with this blog is to give you some best practices around preparing for, beginning and successfully finishing talks about money, so you can feel confident and empowered to have them when you need to. Here are eight tips for having tough conversations about money!

1. Figure Out Your “Why”

The very first step in a conversation about money isn’t talking at all – it’s thinking. Get curious and introspective about:

  1. What you want.
  2. What it means to/ for you.

Ask yourself, what are those life experiences – those “money memories” – that are influencing your feelings about finances?

In our previously mentioned example of the newly married couple deciding about joint vs. separate accounts, maybe having a joint account makes one person feel more secure about the relationship. Meanwhile, the other person wants separate accounts because they want more independence when it comes to money.

So, take some time to identify not only what your preference is, but why you feel that way.

2. Be Rested, Relaxed, Ready to Talk

The next step is identifying the right time to approach your partner or family with the topic. My husband knows never to start an important discussion when I’m hungry. I know it’s not a great time for a big conversation with him at the end of a busy workday.

So, pinpoint a time and place when all parties are rested, refueled, relaxed and ready to talk.

3. Recognize Your Differences

When you bring up the topic and share your “why,” recognize that your partner very likely has different feelings about it. For example, if you grew up in a family where a lack of money wasn’t an issue, but your partner was raised by a single mom who had to work three jobs, your comfort level about how much to keep in savings is probably vastly different. And that’s okay.

Ask your partner what they think and how they feel, and then really listen to what they have to say. Leave judgement at the door: There are no right or wrong answers, and this isn’t a competition with a winner and a loser.

If your partner’s “why” doesn’t make sense to you, that’s okay. You don’t need to agree with it – you just need to be open to hearing it and, eventually, coming to a mutual understanding.

4. Remember Your Goals

Oftentimes, the goal of an initial conversation isn’t to make a final decision (and it’s definitely not about changing the other person’s mind!). Rather, it’s simply about starting the conversation (which can be the hardest part), laying out the topic, and hearing each other out.

Most financial decisions aren’t critically time sensitive. It’s important to remember that there are short- and long-term goals. So, give yourselves the gift of time and space to talk, process and decide. Understanding that can relieve some of the pressure around a tough discussion.

5. Choose Your Words Carefully

Sometimes the difference between a successful and an unsuccessful conversation (about anything!) is the phrasing of the language. Imagine these two different scenarios:

Scenario 1: “I want to have my own bank account.”

Scenario 2: “I’ve been thinking, and it is important to me to have a joint account and two separate accounts. Not having my own account scares me because (fill in the blank). Is that something you could consider?”

Scenario 1 presents the “decision” as “my way or the highway,” and very likely makes the other person feel like they are not being heard or considered.

In scenario 2, sharing your “why” and using phrases such as “can we discuss …” or “could you consider …” will make your partner feel like their opinion matters.  It’s important that you phrase it as you are asking them something, not telling them. This shows that they are being considered and respected, and that they have a say in the decision.

6. Be Transparent

Some financial decisions may not impact your partner – but they are still important to talk about. Picture this: A wife wants to keep some money in a separate account under her name. It’s important to her because of her experience growing up, and it makes her feel more stable and secure. It’s a nominal amount that won’t interfere with the running of the household or attaining the couple’s joint financial goals.

Scenario 1: She shares her preference and her “why” with her partner. Her partner may have some initial questions, but they come to a mutual understanding.

Scenario 2: She does not tell her partner about the account – and they later find out. A fight ensues, raising questions and accusations like “What is this money for?” “Are you planning to leave me?” “Are you taking the kids?”

A lack of transparency is where people get in trouble – and usually that’s because they’re scared to have a conversation. If conversations like this are challenging, consider sharing them with your advisor. Advisors are neutral and have experience facilitating emotionally charged conversations.

7. It’s Not All Black and White

While the market may be a zero-sum game, it’s important to recognize that most financial (and emotional!) decisions are not black or white, win or lose, all or nothing. Going back to the example of the couple deciding whether to have separate or joint accounts: It doesn’t have to be one or the other. They can choose to have only separate accounts or only joint accounts. Or they can choose to have individual accounts, as well as a joint for their shared expenses.

The bottom line: Don’t dig in your heels on one specific outcome. What’s most important is how you emerge from these conversations, ideally more connected and with a better understanding of where your partner is coming from. Be open to exploring all the options and finding one that works for both your individual and joint goals. (And if you’re not sure what those options are, talk to us!)

8. Change is Inevitable (and That’s Okay!)

When you DO make a decision, remember that there are very few financial decisions that are binding. You as an individual, as a couple, as part of a family ARE going to change over time. There are very few financial decisions, estate plans and investments that you can’t later change if you and your partner decide that you want to.

I can tell you that I am a very different person than I was 11 years ago when I got married. Over the past decade, which included starting a family, making a cross-country move, and launching a new career, I have changed a lot – and so have my feelings and priorities around money. That means my husband and I revisit topics around our finances regularly. Remember, you need to give your partner grace and patience to evolve. What was true for them when you first met may not be what they are comfortable with now and vice versa. Furthermore, while healthy communication takes time and effort, it does get easier.

So, when having these conversations, think about what makes you comfortable now, knowing that your relationship will evolve, you will evolve, and you will have life experiences that cause you to see things through a different lens. Remember that this isn’t a “one and done” conversation; you’ll have multiple conversations and you’ll probably navigate them throughout your relationship over and over again.

Still stuck? Reach out

After reading, I hope you feel more confident and empowered to have that conversation you’ve been putting off. If you’re still anxious or unsure or uncomfortable, I encourage you to reach out to a financial advisor. Each of us at TCI are here to talk about more than just portfolios and returns.

Other resources, such as a spiritual leader, a marriage counselor or a financial therapist, are also available to help you navigate tough discussions. You’re not alone!

2-Second Takeaway

If you only had time to skim this article, here’s a quick, 2-second takeaway: When it comes to financial decisions, there is very little that needs to be done immediately. Allow these conversations to evolve. You’ll likely talk about the same topic over and over, with varying context. Even though you may be discussing money – it’s usually not about money. If you get stuck, reach out to a financial advisor, spiritual leader or therapist for help.

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