The Money Conversation Your Relationship Needs

Want to align your financial goals and priorities without fights? Start here.

Posted May 14, 2019

Both fraught and essential, money conversations lead to struggles in many romantic partnerships. And while advice abounds on how to budget and how much money to save for retirement, technical conversations alone will not help a couple align their financial philosophies and goals. To do that, couples must go deeper. They must learn about each other’s financial past and learn how their childhood experiences with money influence their adult financial beliefs and priorities.

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Couples can ask one another questions such as:

  • Did your family have money when you were growing up?
  • What feelings come up for you when you think about money? Where do you think that comes from?
  • Did your family discuss their finances openly?
  • Were you and your siblings involved in financial discussions?
  • Did you ever hear your parents talk about financial stress?
  • What did your parents teach you about money?
  • Was money taken for granted as available? Was it a struggle?
  • Was money a struggle?
  • How was money and earning potential spoken about as it related to career track?
  • Did your parents fight about money?

These questions open up the financial conversation. After all, children start learning about money early. They watch parents argue, negotiate, or avoid discussing money and sense the tension or ease with which parents address financial concerns.  Children compare their homes and clothes to their classmates’ and learn whether they should expect to shop in the clearance section. Even in homes that shield children from explicit financial conversations, children learn what their parents value by watching the way money is spent. When couples discuss these fundamental questions, a variety of responses will emerge.  

Examples include:

“In my family, money was tight and my parents fought a lot about it. I would do anything never to go back there.”

“My parents always taught me that it was important, first and foremost, to get a well-paid job.”

“My parents sacrificed their own happiness so I could attend whatever school I wanted.”

“My parents never talked to me about money. It was always kept hidden. I’m sort of intimidated by money conversations now… I feel so behind in my understanding.”

“Whenever I got mad at my dad, he bought me a present. Money was how he showed me love.”

“We always had more money than the rest of our family so my parents made us hide it. We were taught never to speak about money. That just wasn’t done.” “Honestly, money was never a stressor. We had enough to live comfortably and I don’t remember any arguments about it.”

Notice What Emotions Emerge About Money

These early lessons, deeply connected to emotions like shame, pride, joy, fear, and love, form a child’s emotional associations with money. In re-telling these stories, couples can begin to connect the dots between their early experiences, the emotional impact of those childhood experiences, and their current feelings and beliefs about money. A child from a financially insecure home may experience ongoing financial anxiety. A child who felt shame about having or not having money may become an adult who avoids financial conversations. A child whose family believed money was evil may feel guilty about building wealth.

Armed with a deeper understanding of one’s self and each other, a couple can begin to craft values and make intentional decisions about how they want to move forward. They can actively decide which aspects of their parents’ financial legacy continues to resonate and what elements feel incongruous with their adult priorities.

Financial Arguments

A couple that understands the context of each other’s financial standpoints can also approach financial arguments with deeper compassion and connection. Imagine, for example, a couple disagrees about whether to spend money on a vacation. Instead of falling into the trap of a yes/no stalemate, they can begin to tie the question to larger financial values. They might ask questions such as, “Help me understand why this feels so important. What does it mean to you that we spend this money on a vacation?” or “I know spending large sums of money sets off alarm bells after watching your family struggle. Is that coming up for you now?” The tenor of the conversations shifts dramatically toward a goal of understanding and alignment.

Indeed, the tenor of most financial discussions can shift when a couple moves beyond the numbers to tap into the emotional associations that undergird their relationship to money. And those associations start early.