In my book, Making Cents, I share the story of Faith and James, who for years discussed everything, except money.
They entered into marriage with different mindsets on money. James was brought up to “take care” of his family, but no one clearly explained what that meant.
When Faith stopped working, they did not talk about money, as one might have expected.
Unspoken resentment started building up in both of them as their financial habits got magnified. Both worried about finances but said nothing.
Passive aggressive fights started that did not address the core issue. It got to a point where they had to sit down and talk, or call it quits
Money is a tricky issue in relationships, and nobody teaches you how to discuss it. Different influences can cause a rift.
For instance, if one is under pressure from peers, family or friends to maintain a certain image. This makes the financial conversation harder, but all the more necessary. So what does this conversation entail?
Understand your own baggage first
Take stock of why you do what you do and the way you do it.
Why do you spend, or even save, the way you do? Whether you are the “provider” or “provided for”, what does it really mean?
You might be penny pinching because you experienced lack that you never want to see again and so resent it when your spouse spends on anything that is not absolutely necessary.
But this thinking is your baggage, not theirs. The fact that they do not conform to your beliefs does not mean they are doing something wrong.
You could also be genuinely worried about something you have not verbalised. Maybe you are privately thinking about school fees or mortgage, so you feel the money could have been directed there.
We often mistakenly think that people should think the way we do, but we are all different.
If you have lost your income and are scared of telling your spouse, that is your fear; you have to deal with it rather than expect him/her to change so that it is easier for you to say it.
Verbalise what you want
After taking stock of yourself, you can separate the baggage from the truth.
The baggage might be the belief (and consequent resentment) that any spending on the unnecessary is irresponsible.
The truth is that you want to build up an emergency fund, pay off debts, save for fees, et cetera. The baggage could be that you are spending to keep up with others.
The truth could be that going on holiday once a year is what you would really like. You might not do it all, and certainly not at once, but respectfully speak about what is important to you.
It is common in this conversation for one person to dominate while the other falls in line.
This is unhealthy and indicates that something is not being said, which leads to resentment. Irrespective of who brings in more money, both partners have a right to speak.
This can be very uncomfortable, and fear will tempt you to play it safe. But it will come back to haunt you later.
Also, talk about what is not working for you. Saying what you feel about a situation is not tantamount to attacking your partner.
For example, many people, especially women, are uncomfortable with how property is owned, which breeds insecurity.
There are also many men who would also want their partners to contribute to the household income.
Maybe there was a time when one person could afford to stay home but now things need to change. These situations are often not resolved because they are not talked about.
Also, if you are the listening party, remember not to bring your baggage or judgement. It does not mean there is lack of trust, it is what you feel.
Agreement and compromise
It is important to establish your priorities as a family and what you are working towards together.
This helps identify the common values and you usually find that it is saving for retirement, school fees, wider family obligations, debts, et cetera.
This helps one move from judging to dealing with what is important. There might be certain things you also agree to pursue individually, such as business or social interests beyond this.
Deciding what’s ours, yours and mine is usually healthy. Which financial decisions do we make together, which ones do we do individually?
Nobody wants to be micro managed on everything. What do we own together, and which things does it make sense to do individually?
This is not a one-time conversation. It should happen every year and you should touch base every quarter to ensure you are still on the same page. But things also change.
DO NOT POSTPONE
There are situations where things have become more serious then I can cover in this article.
It is okay to take a breather and come back to it another day or get someone to moderate the discussion. The first step itself can be many conversations.
Irrespective of the process you have to go through, when it comes to money, leaving things unsaid is more dangerous than the things one is afraid to say.