Couples can fight about anything, it’s just a fact of relationships. But arguments about money have a tendency to be particularly toxic, since they’re layered with deep emotional and personal history.
In fact, researchers have shown there’s a direct relationship between the number of times a couple has argued about their budget per month and their divorce rate.
Despite this, or maybe because of it, people tend to avoid financial talks with their partner. While standard marital advice has us studiously marking out “date nights” on the calendar to keep passion alive, there’s no phrase for scheduling nights to preserve fiscal harmony.
I wanted to skirt that pitfall. Once a month, I have a calendar reminder pop up. It reads: “HOTTALK DOLLARDOLLAR BILLS Y’ALL.” (Yes, in all caps.)
This is a little over-the-top and ridiculous. But injecting some levity into what can be a heated and emotional discussion — one where we lay our bank accounts bare — has allowed my husband and me to laugh a bit while tackling one of the most important conversations couples can have.
These chats do have their challenges, but they can also be deeply bonding. And more important, they can keep serious money problems at bay and help us save and invest more smartly. Here’s how to start up your own financial date night with your partner.
Dig into your history
Your attitude about money begins in childhood, starting with your parents’ behaviour around spending and saving, experts said.
“Your first money memories were created when you understood money was more than just a toy,” said Suze Orman, the financial expert and author of “The Money Class.” After that moment, your attitude became shaped by a series of firsts, including your first allowance, first paycheck, first big-ticket purchase, first major money loss and so on. Analyzing this history is a key step in achieving financial harmony with another person.
These early memories are our “underlying blueprint,” she said. Benjamin Seaman, a couples therapist and co-founder of the New York Center for Emotionally Focused Therapy, said that “unpacking the origins of our approach to money” leads to a deeper understanding on both sides and “an appreciation of people’s raw spots.”
In other words, just as you exchanged your romantic history with your partner, share your back story when it comes to money.
Don’t withhold information
Money is an intimate subject, and we’re coached from an early age to be secretive about it. It’s hard to break that habit and let someone else in, and inviting another person into your pocketbook can mean risking judgment. (“You spend how much on avocado toast?!”)
Revealing your finances also means losing some autonomy. Many of us see our bank balance as the ultimate achievement of independence. Mr. Seaman acknowledges this and sums up those feelings as: “Finally! I get to do what I want. I don’t have my parents telling me what to do anymore.” It’s the freedom of impulse purchases and ice cream for dinner when no one else is watching.
But while sharing this information may make you vulnerable and accountable, you’ll also gain a new openness in your relationship.
“You have to stand in the truth with your financial partner,” Ms. Orman said. “You have to have the overarching goal of honesty and integrity.”
Face the hardest things head-on
Consider financial date nights the moment to unburden yourself. In these discussions, “fear, shame and anger are the three internal obstacles,” Ms. Orman said.
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Mr. Seaman added that these feelings can multiply, leading to “cycles of shame and spending.” (Picture a closet full of unused Amazon purchases or an online poker habit.) But voicing that burden, and being met with acceptance and love from your partner, can put you on the path to healing.
If you’re on the receiving end of a confession from your partner, remember that having a common enemy is incredibly bonding. Teaming up to face something like student loan debt together can unite you, and these financial date nights give you the opportunity to be in the trenches together.
Remember that solutions aren’t universal
If you’ve found a system that works for you — like using only cash for purchases, money-tracking apps or a swear jar — don’t assume it will work for your spouse.
Gretchen Rubin, a habits expert and best-selling author, believes you should avoid the mentality that “if your spouse would just do it the way you did it, then problem solved.” Some of the deepest discords can occur when you shoehorn your approach onto your partner.
In her latest book, “The Four Tendencies,” Ms. Rubin has identified several character traits that shape people’s habits and perspectives.
One of the trickiest is the “rebels” who want to buck the rules. While rebels won’t respond well to Excel spreadsheets and budgeting mandates, they can get on board with other approaches.
“Rebels like a challenge,” Ms. Rubin said. “They like to do things in unconventional ways. You could say to them: ‘Let’s do something crazy! Let’s try to spend $10 a day for the next three months!’” and they will eagerly get on board.
Another personality group, “questioners,” needs to do its own research before committing. Before signing up for a 401(k), for instance, a questioner might want to see a chart showing the compound interest the account would earn.
“Obligers” seek outer accountability, so framing a financial step as a way to set a positive example for their children could motivate them. Give your partner room to zero in on his or her own approach to your shared goals.
Take time to dream
A budget can seem like drudgery: a forced diet on your spending buffet. But budgets aren’t just about reining in your wallet; they’re also about deciding where your money will go, roadmaps to shared destinations.
For this reason, financial date nights should include a discussion about the dreams you’d like to realize with your income.
“You should talk about your financial future,” Ms. Orman said. A European getaway? A three-bedroom house? A pair of matching hoverboards? These are all dreams you can save toward.
Regular check-ins with your partner will keep you both excited and focused on those goals, and, if you want to get creative, you can even bring a little arts and crafts into it.
“I’m a big fan of vision boards and making things real any way you can,” Mr. Seaman said. “When you put a little time into creating a goal chart or vision board, you’re telling yourself, ‘I believe in this.’” And you’re giving that message to your partner, too.
Keep it light and laugh about it
There’s a reason my calendar reminder doesn’t say, “Reoccurring Money Talk With Husband,” which sounds so crushingly serious. A little sprinkling of silly can keep your spirits up, even if your numbers are down.
“You want to have that levity. It helps people think more clearly and it helps them connect,” Ms. Rubin said.
Invite in humour anywhere you can, including account nicknames with personal jokes or spreadsheets with silly line items. (Our Hawaii honeymoon budget had an entry for “shark repellent.”) The goal isn’t to avoid hard subjects, but to dodge the hostility that could surround them. And if you’re laughing, you’re already defusing any potential anger.
But apart from humour, Ms. Rubin said, it also helps to “be mindful about shaping the experience to make it as pleasant as possible.”
She suggested pairing your financial date nights with a special coffee drink or time outside on a nice day. Ms. Orman has her own approach, scheduling her financial check-ins with her wife on a relaxing Saturday night over a glass of wine. Make the setting and the associations positive, so when that calendar reminder pops up again, you’re thinking, “Great!” not “Unsubscribe.”