Talking about money is why my husband and I are married. Done right, a big money talk can be exciting and fun.
Then, of course, there’s the way most people do it.
When you’re broke, which we both were when we met, thinking about money is stressful. It makes some people cry, others freeze up, and others want to throw things at the wall. It doesn’t have to be that way.
The trouble is, most people don't know that. All we have to go on are the examples we learned in childhood, the sanitized academic exercises we might have learned in one semester of personal finance, what we see in the media, and maybe what we’re being pitched by someone or other in an MLM scheme.
(I have one of them in my life *again* - sending me texts and emails over the holiday weekend asking me to pitch her company’s product to my work, which is a non-profit - and probably quite cheesed off that I am ignoring her).
(Come to think of it, I’m probably going to have to have a sort of big money talk with her, too).
Fear of conflict is what holds so many of us back. We won’t take the initiative because we don’t really know how to do it, how to open up a conversation about a topic that is so loaded.
Go first. That’s the first rule. Be willing to take the lead, be willing to be the planner and the researcher. One way or the other, there is no escape - you must take total responsibility for your own finances whether you are alone or whether you have a partner.
It might not work. People often need to be told that they don’t need permission to break up, that their relationship might not be viable and that they might need to get out before doing anything else. Your partner might be completely unwilling to make changes in this area, and that’s okay.
You’re not the boss of them and they aren’t the boss of you.
All right. Assume that you do have a partner, which is why you would need to have a money talk, and that you are fairly sure your partner is willing to hear you out.
What you’re aiming for is a high-level strategy, not something like “I can’t believe you spend $5 a day on chewing gum.” (True story). Or, “You have to quit buying so many Funko Pops or we’ll never be able to go on vacation.” Your motivating force may be irritation with your partner’s spending habits, and if so, I don’t blame you - but it also means you’re losing the game.
The truth is, at a certain income level, an “excessive” spending habit is actually affordable, or even negligible.
The big money talk, on a strategic level, is about two things. It’s about lifestyle upgrades and it’s about personal empowerment. The first is about what sort of stuff you would buy or what you would do in your spare time, if you could “afford” it. The second is about whether you both actually enjoy your jobs and find them interesting versus feeling constant stress, burnout, and background dread.
Getting rid of debt is both a lifestyle upgrade and a personal empowerment.
Talking about the debt first doesn’t really work. Generally it will make anyone flinch and start feeling defensive. The entire concept of debt revolves around guilt, blame, and shame. You can skirt right around that by talking about blue-sky visions first.
This is where you have to do a lot of prep work before you initiate the talk. What do you personally want? What would you do differently if you were debt-free? What would you do differently if you had $100,000 in the bank?
These are the types of questions that get the juices flowing. These are the types of questions that encourage your partner to actually want to engage with the discussion.
In my coaching work, I have discovered that almost nobody has an answer to the question, “What do you really want?” Most people can’t finish the “perfect day” exercise, either. We don’t know what to do with ourselves when we aren’t fussing and fretting over something. It’s so, so important though!
Most of the items in my perfect day/dream life don’t cost money. They include lots of time in nature, staying in touch with my family, eating a hot breakfast on weekend days, and reading a lot. It’s possible to do all of those things regardless of one’s income or balance sheet. This is another area you can explore with your partner, to wit, “What do you already know makes you feel wealthy?”
The goal of the big money talk is to figure out how you can facilitate each other in whatever you both need to live a bigger life. There are two ways to do it, the trapped way or the liberating way. Either you feel like you’re pinching every penny until the end of time, or you feel optimistic and lit up because you know you’re making steady progress.
Our first big money talk happened not long before my husband proposed. The way I remember it, he spontaneously offered to come over and do a ten-year financial plan together. The way he remembers it, I suggested it and asked him to show me how he did his. Somehow we both think it was the other’s idea. It was fun. That evening is probably why we finally did get married. This year, we realized we had hit the target right on schedule - in fact, we were .1% over our goal.
If you want to start this type of discussion with your partner, you can start with any introductory personal finance book. Or you can start by introducing the concept of FIRE, financial independence/retire early. (We don’t plan to retire early because neither of us plans to retire at all). Start by asking what your partner would really like to do, and offer to facilitate that in some way. Make sure you can both explore the topic with curiosity and willingness. If you’re going to be a strong team, this big money talk is going to go on for years or decades, so make it easy to agree with you.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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