Your Money and Your Honey
posted: Aug. 23, 2018.
Talking about money with your partner can be an ordeal. Even when there’s plenty of it, talking rationally about it is a chore. How do two people decide how much they need, what to buy, is this a year for a new car? What’s more important — Mom going back to work (and hiring a nanny) or Mom staying home with the kids? If one of you has a much better paying job than the other, how do you divide things up?
Those are some of the easy situations. What if one or both of you have been married before, and there are financial responsibilities connected? Many a second spouse is enraged about how much the alimony and/or child support takes away from shared income. Elderly parents? Dysfunctional siblings? It goes on. And on.
What’s more important? Making a lot of money now, for the future, or having more time together?
What kind of system do you have? Do you put everything in one pot, or do you have discreet accounts? Do you share all details, or are some things private?
Every one of these is a serious question, with no right or wrong answers. Each of us sees finances in an individual way, depending on how we were brought up, and what we have learned as adults. Where were we, in history, when we learned the value of money? People who grew up during the Depression have/had a very different outlook than those who grew up in the 70’s. Or the 90s. What makes sense in one era makes none in another. And yet we’re shaped by not only parents, but even grandparents’ attitudes about how to support ourselves and our families.
What makes it so hard to talk about?
Stop a minute and think: what is money? What does it mean to you? Is it a source of pride, because you’ve earned it? Or if you don’t have "enough," is that a source of shame? I put "enough" in quotes, because — what does "enough" mean? What is it like to share it? Does it feel like giving a gift? Or being impoverished? Does your partner deserve half of everything just because you’re partners?
Money, in essence, is simply a medium of exchange. Rather than me trading my eggs for your garden vegetables, we have an agreed-upon currency (just in case you don’t need my eggs). Then you can take this symbolic thing I gave you for your vegetables, and buy fruit. At this level, it’s so simple! And vital. At bottom, money stands for everything we need for survival, and THAT’s what makes it so fraught with anxiety and defensiveness. Somewhere in our primitive brains, we know that our lives depend on this stuff.
Of course, so does our position in society and our ability to get all the nice stuff that makes us comfortable. And let’s not get started on industry and politics!
So, here we are, smart, civilized, generous, kind people, who can become angry, frightened banshees around shared finances. We forget that the money most of us are talking about doesn’t mean the difference between life and death (as it does, for some people in some countries).
What's to be done?
I work with a lot of couples, and I can’t think of one that liked to sit down and look at their finances. You're probably both under the sway of historical "shoulds" — "It’s good to save, and bad to spend." "It's better to enjoy life now, in the present, than save up for an unknown future!" "We NEED to have AT LEAST a year’s expenses put aside, just in case…" "But little Jenny needs to go to a GOOD school."
Every one of these attitudes is, in its own way, reasonable. And partners can get deeply entangled in the idea that one point of view is 'better" than another. Often people just give up, and resent one another’s choices, feeling impoverished by what is seen as the other’s greed. The wedge between the two people in the couple grows.
To turn this around, you need to become aware that you have hooked a lot of baggage to your finances, most of which are relatively non-vital. To come back to the table, you have to declare a truce. Remind yourselves that you have a roof over your heads and food on the table and clothing to wear. Heat in the winter and air conditioning in the summer. Even plenty of entertainment at home, I’ll bet. Your world isn’t going to collapse tomorrow.
Agree on a time when you will both be relatively relaxed and well-rested, and choose a place to talk. It might even be useful to pick a neutral place, like a coffee shop, or the nearest Barnes and Noble. You’re not going to be deciding anything yet. Just talking about talking.
Let yourselves become curious. Why do you suppose your partner has that crazy idea that you need a YEAR’s worth of savings before you can go on that trip? (Or why DOESN’T he agree with that idea?!?) Even if you disagree, listen to what he’s saying and try to identify with what he feels. Listen, and try to understand. Don’t try to change anything yet.
Each of you could make a list of your own priorities — what do you consider a necessity? A luxury? An investment? And why? With increased understanding of what is important to each of you, at the very least you won’t think your partner is nuts for wanting this and not wanting that. You might even find that on some issues you actually agree.
Congratulations! You’ve made a space for discussion, where there was none. I’m not going to get into the nitty-gritty of developing a financial plan that you can both be comfortable with. (We’ll save that for another time.) At this moment, with NOTHING solved, you are nevertheless several miles closer to developing financial fluency and transparency.