How to Make the “Money Talk” Work

Let’s face it: talking about money can be very, very difficult. I’m speaking from experience here: when my wife and I first started addressing our financial situation, it was extremely challenging to talk about money. We’d look at our financial state, see that we weren’t where we wanted to be, and would seek someone or something to blame – and rarely would that blame be directed toward ourselves. Of course, that was when we actually even managed to make it to the discussion table at all.

Luckily, we managed to overcome this tendency over time. What brought about this change, though? How were we able to go from avoiding money talks (and being confrontational when the topic came up) to being able to rationally, calmly, and happily discuss things today?

I made up a list of ten distinct things that worked for us in terms of making conversations about money work in our relationship. Some of these might seem overly simple – others might seem like they won’t possibly work. Don’t overlook them, though. Give these tactics a try, preferably in combination, if you’re having difficulty talking to your partner about money.

Ten Tactics for Making the “Money Talk” Work

1. Be willing to admit your faults and mistakes.

During the conversation, your partner will likely point out mistakes that you’ve made along the way. Be open to this – don’t get defensive. Be willing to admit that you’ve done wrong in the past and also be willing to look for good solutions to these problems that work for both of you.

2. Pair any accusations with admissions of your own faults.

One good way to defuse a situation that might dissolve into accusations and counter-accusations is to pair any statements you might make about your partner’s behavior with statements about your own mistakes. You might point out that your husband spends too much on his golf trips, but at the same time admit that you spend too much on home decorations.

3. Identify some things you’re willing to sacrifice before you sit down.

During any money talk, you’ll likely have to be willing to commit to making some personal changes. This can be hard, especially if it’s simply foisted on you out of nowhere. Instead, all participants should spend some time before the conversation thinking about some changes they would be willing to personally make to achieve success.

4. Establish a “no yelling” rule.

No one involved in the conversation is allowed to raise their voice, period. If you feel an emotional wave coming on, simply ask to stop for a bit and do something to calm yourself down. Likely, when you feel an emotional surge, it’s a good thing, because you’re getting close to a truth that needs to be laid bare and actually discussed.

5. Open the books completely.

Don’t hide anything. You cannot come up with a great solution that you’re both committed to if things remain hidden. Pull out all of the bills, even the ones you’ve tried to hide from your partner, and allow your complete financial state to be an open book for both of you.

6. Don’t swallow the whole bite at once.

Quite often, when couples sit down and begin to address their financial issues together, they find that the rabbit hole goes much deeper than they thought. Instead of trying to address everything at once, break it up into pieces. Focus on optimizing your spending during one conversation, then coming up with a debt repayment plan together during another talk, then tackle retirement planning later. If you’ve clearly hit a stalemate in a talk, back off for a while with just a pledge that you’ll both think about the problem and talk about it again later. Remember, it doesn’t all have to be done at once.

7. Talk about goals FIRST.

Before you start digging into details, you should make it clear what you both want out of the conversation – and also what you both want in the long term from your situation. Establish the purpose of your conversation as clearly as you can so you have something to work toward. At the same time, talk about where you want to go in the future as a couple. Do this before you do anything else – not only is it a great way to open in a positive fashion, but it also gives you a nice framework for the rest of your talk.

8. Be realistic.

You aren’t going to make diamonds out of coal. You’re also not going to make truly radical changes in your life, particularly if your partner’s not deeply committed to the change. Instead, look for smaller steps you can make to achieve the goals you want. Don’t expect to change everything in one conversation – if you do, you’re likely wasting your time. Focus on a handful of realistic, smaller things that you can do to head in the right direction. Then, if those work, have further discussions and add more changes to the mix.

9. Share your thoughts asynchronously.

You may find that a face-to-face talk simply isn’t helping you get past a particular stumbling block. If that’s the case, try using email or another written form to help you work through the situation. Each of you should simply write down your thoughts on the situation and give them to each other, then respond to those thoughts, then respond to those responses, until you’ve reached some conclusions. This can be easily done over email. While you lose the face-to-face advantages here, you do gain the ability to carefully and calmly gather and organize your thoughts and share them in a way where the conversation can be followed later.

10. Develop very specific, clear, and tangible tasks for you both to follow.

If you both commit to spending less, find ways to make that reduced spending specific and tangible. Agree that you’ll both live with a $100 allowance for “free spending” this month, for example. If you’ve decided to set up retirement plans together, you should both be charged with getting the information needed from your respective places of employment. If you’re trying to dig out of debt, you should both commit to tossing your credit cards. A one-sided sacrifice or one-sided task is a sure recipe for resentment – you should both be involved in the solution.

Good luck!

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