by Robert Bartley

Pop Quiz: Are You and Your Spouse Money Allies?

Tips for a successful conversation about spending

We work with a lot of successful, caring couples. They tend to have fundamental values in common and to share specific hopes for the future. I bet that’s also true for you and your significant other. But are you two on the same page about money? Here’s a secret: if the answer is no, then you can pretty much toss your financial plan out the window. The plan falls apart without communication (and then, whoops, there goes your happiness too). Maybe one person enjoys spending without sweating the details, while the other feels quietly stressed. In my experience, spending is often the trickiest topic for married couples or committed partners. A couple can easily be at odds about finances—or they can be allies.

Answer these four questions to see how well you and your partner score as money allies.

  • Do you collaborate on spending and savings goals? (You know, the fun stuff.)
  • Do you respectfully collaborate when spending doesn’t match the plan? (This is when it gets real!)
  • Are money check-ins fairly regular, recurring events?
  • Do you agree or come to a peaceful consensus on big-ticket item spending, such as home improvements?

How’d you do?
(Was it incredibly obvious that these were leading questions?)

The more times you answered yes, the more aligned you are. Strong money allies will answer yes to at least three questions.

Plenty of thoughtful, high-earning couples struggle to get in alignment on money. More than once, I’ve heard a client say, “I can’t predict how much he’ll spend, and not knowing is the worst part.” Or “She just doesn’t want to talk about it.”

I’ve been married more than a few years, and I get it! It’s a long game. You pick your battles. But turning money conversations into a habit is worth the effort. Choosing not to talk with a partner about financial worries . . . failing to listen . . . forgetting commitments to a shared budget and goals. All of these are big problems. They undermine your financial strength and eat away at your everyday happiness. On the flip side, partners who are aligned on money get a triple win. They feel confident, relaxed, and connected in shared purpose.

TIP: To make it easy to peacefully collaborate on money goals (even for those who have money woes), think big picture. What are your big goals, both short term and long term, e.g. retire at x ages, put the kids through school, buy a second home, take a trip to __________? BE SPECIFIC and be sure to include short-term goals excite you. IMPORTANT: Write the goals down so you have the visual that you can revisit. Once you are in alignment on the big stuff, the small stuff is easy (or at least easier). We can forgo the instant gratification of buying coffee and lunch out every day when we know we’re building towards something even more rewarding. Try getting the kids involved: describe that trip to Disney we can save towards if they skip the 20th video game, compared to a staycation if we don’t save! The idea of the exciting short-term goals is to trick your mind so the emotional side of your brain (the part that dictates our impulses like eating what we know we shouldn’t) sees saving for the trip as more beneficial than the latte or the new game.

Saving and spending, why can this be so hard? Because the emotional side of our brain, not the practical side, often drives our decisions, especially short term. Think about it, what keeps us from being successful with our eating and spending habits? Emotions! Chip and Dan Heath’s book Switch does a great job of providing the keys to understanding and managing emotions to conquer the tougher trade-offs in life.

I also get that these conversations are hard for some people. I’ve seen the discomfort. Often, it’s rooted in care. A “money manager” doesn’t want to put her partner on the spot about erratic spending. A “worrier” doesn’t want to stress his wife out—so he keeps questions and concerns to himself. It helps to remember that being accountable about shared finances is actually something positive that you’re doing together. It’s really for each other. Here are some tips for opening up the lines of communication and keeping them that way.

1) Make an appointment with each other.

Agree on a day and time and keep the appointment just like you would any other. (Extra points if you start it off with a smile!)

Uneasy about the conversation? Even a little bit? Decide how exactly you’ll call a timeout if someone needs it. If the topics start to feel too difficult or seems to veer off track, take a quick break and then return to a constructive subject.

Before you charge ahead, remind yourselves of the many ways you’re already in alignment. What’s one financial goal you both agree on? Let’s take a fully funded emergency savings goal as an example. Picture the sense of security that comes with being able to cover all essential expenses despite a big, surprise bill or even a job loss. Or perhaps it’s a plan for helping your community through charitable giving. Maybe it’s a dream vacation, like an Alaskan cruise, that you envision taking without once worrying about money. 

2) Get honest about spending.

I’ve mentioned a few typical money roles that couples assume, like worrier or money manager. There’s nothing wrong with one person taking the lead in managing finances. It’s usually a convenient choice, plus a nice way to take advantage of different personalities and skills. But I do see that problems come up when one spouse is stressed and the other is unaware of that stress—or even spending in a way that directly contributes to it. (That’s taking the “don’t sweat it” approach too far!) Name the money management roles or habits in your relationship. Is there anything the lead money manager, if there is one, wants the other person to know?

Obviously, spending is a hot-button issue. It’s important to tackle because it’s often a topic that partners differ on, and it can make or break short- and long-term financial plans. Start by taking a look, together, at how well your spending matches what you agreed on or supports the savings you need to meet your short- and long-term goals. You can review bank and credit card statements or use an app like Mint or YNAB to track monthly spending. Are you hitting all your long-term goals (things like an emergency fund, plus savings for vacations, education, and retirement) with the current level of spending? Does anything worry you or give you pause? Bring it up. Look for places where money seems to fall right through a “hole” in the budget.

If you’ve gotten this far, you’re doing great! Now’s the time to collaborate on a few ideas for staying on the same spending page. One method I’ve seen work well is to decide on a monthly credit card spending cap that you both feel good about. A credit card app will alert you if you get close to that amount. Then you can check in with each other before exceeding the limit. What about those budget “holes?” Could a strategy like meal planning and using an online grocery cart replace a pricey habit of going grocery shopping hungry? If you like to use cash, agree on a weekly or monthly ATM withdrawal amount. Figure out what works for you.

3) End on a high note.

Whew! Was that tougher than you expected? Or maybe a whole lot simpler? No matter what, I bet you’re breathing a little easier. Look back at this spending conversation and any other recent money topics that have come up. If there’s anything you’ve heard your significant other say more than once that you haven’t covered, take the time to ask about it. You might be surprised by how happy that person is to be invited to talk about it. I once heard, “If someone tells you something a second time and you don’t acknowledge it, then they don’t feel understood.” Can you think of something your significant other has said more than once that you did not acknowledge? I know I have, and this piece of advice has provided better marital harmony for me! But you may want to ask my wife. There could be something else I’m missing! 🙂

Go back and review the actions you’ve decided on. What are they, and who’s going to do them?

Being each other’s money allies isn’t a one-time event; it’s an ongoing conversation. Go ahead and make another date (put it on your calendars as a recurring event) to check in about how things are going. And don’t forget to celebrate the work you’ve already done. Getting aligned on money is an achievement that pays off now and in the future.

What if you get stuck along the way? Remember that defensiveness is a conversation stopper, while empathy and thoughtfulness keep it moving forward. Try listening even more to your partner’s emotions than to his or her words. If you and your significant other just don’t feel comfortable starting this conversation, make an appointment with a CFP practitioner or a CPA who’s easy to talk to and who has a lot of practice with these conversations. Sure, you’ll still be vulnerable, but you’ll have that expert in the room to help you along every step of the way.

One question goes a long way for any couple looking to get on the same page about finances or strengthen their alignment. Any time you’re making a choice about money, look at your partner and ask, “Are you good with this?” Just like in the quiz above, answering “yes” is a good sign. Nice going. You’re on your way to having a strong money ally—and being the ally your partner deserves.

If we can help you further, if you have questions about whether you and your spouse are strong money allies (or anything else), PLEASE don’t hesitate to contact us. We eat, sleep and breath this stuff and love to help, honestly don’t hesitate! We won’t bite 🙂