About the author: Margaret is a recent college graduate who, with her boyfriend, plans to save up money to get married, pay off student loan debt and head to seminary.
Money is one of those things you’re not supposed to mention in polite conversation. But if you’re married or in a serious relationship, you have to talk about it.
My boyfriend is the spender; I’m the saver. He’s never had any guidance on how to manage money; my dad had me putting money in a savings account while I was still in the cradle. Coming from such different angles meant that starting the conversation about money wasn’t easy.
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But it doesn’t have to be something you dread if you follow a few simple principles. Most importantly, pay attention to how your significant other views money, because that will help you learn how to best communicate what you’re thinking and feeling.
Start out slowly.
It would have done little to no good if I had immediately emphasized IRAs and CDs and how much money he can make in twenty years if he starts saving now. I started simply and slowly, not because he’s dumb, but because changing your views on money eventually transforms your entire life, and that kind of thing doesn’t happen overnight. I began the conversation by suggesting that he get on a budget. He was very positive toward this, so we sat down together and wrote up a plan. I also helped him set up an online high-interest savings account so that he could start building an emergency fund.
That said, it wasn’t all flowers and butterflies at the beginning. I helped him come up with a budget and gave him tools to track it, only to find out several months later that he hadn’t been tracking his spending at all, and often he had no idea how much money he had left in his checking account. At this point, I had to go back to square one. We revisited the budget and talked about why he hadn’t been able to keep track of his spending. I offered to keep track for him, if he would just give me his receipts.
It turned out that he really wanted to keep to the budget, but he got tired of keeping his receipts. I suggested he use his debit card for all his purchases so that he wouldn’t have to keep his receipts. That didn’t solve the problem completely — he still has trouble sticking to his budget sometimes — but by talking about it and being creative with solutions, we made the transition just a little bit easier.
One of the things I learned as a psychology minor is that it is more effective for you to come to a realization on your own rather than having someone try to persuade you. If your partner has outrageous spending habits, saying, “You should stop buying so many clothes” will not be welcomed. Choose instead to say, “Have you ever thought about keeping a budget? I’ve found it really helps me stay in control of my money.”
Even if they don’t stick to the budget the first few months, just tracking their spending will open their eyes to where their money is going. And that may lead them to address on their own their tendency to buy more clothes than they can afford.
Be patient and realistic in your expectations.
If you’re anything like me, it took you more than a few days to come to your current understanding of how to make wise decisions with money. Don’t expect your significant other to come to that point any more quickly. In fact, don’t expect them to ever feel exactly the same way you do about money. I’ve accepted the fact that my boyfriend will never, ever enjoy tracking every penny he spends, but that he can learn how the choices he makes today with money will impact his future. And so I focus on sharing personal stories I’ve read on blogs about how other people manage their money. This has actually made him more interested in personal finance, such that we listen to a podcast on personal finance together every week!
Don’t talk about money all the time.
If your finances are in trouble, then the last thing you need is for your talking about it to make it seem like money is the third member of your relationship. When my boyfriend told me that it sounded like I was getting a little obsessed with money, I knew it was time to step back. Now we pick a night each month to go out to eat and talk about his budget. Because I’m doing my best to avoid talking about money when we’re just hanging out, he actually looks forward talking about his budget once a month.
Only talk about money when you’re calm and composed.
If you just found out that your girlfriend maxed out her credit card, don’t start dialing her number. Wait. Money is a stressful enough topic on its own; add your own anxiety to the mix, and you won’t get very far. Of course, it’s most effective to talk about money before the stressful situations occur, but if you’re already in the thick of it, make sure you’re able to discuss any problems without being defensive or making broad generalizations. It’s amazing how quickly you can diffuse money-related tension by maintaining a calm presence of mind.
Stay in control of your own finances.
You are the best model for your significant other. If you’re telling him to save, save, save, but you consistently spend hundreds of dollars on clothes, then it will be hard for him to take you seriously. Even if you’re married and have joint finances, you can still manage your money in way that will keep you from being a hypocrite and also provide a very personal example of wise habits for your spouse.
By maintaining control of your finances, you say more about your philosophy with your actions that with your words.
See money as a means to an end.
You may be perfectly happy never going out to eat or buying new clothes, but that might not be the case for your significant other. Instead of letting it come between you, use money as a way to bring you closer together. Set a savings goal for a fun trip. When I helped my boyfriend make his budget, I made sure there was at least a small amount of what he calls his “fun money,” which he can spend anyway he wants. We also really enjoy cooking meals together, so we make sure we have a little extra money in the food budget for more exotic ingredients.
Earning and saving money is not a goal by itself. The power of money is not a big bank account, it’s what options you have with a big bank account. Money exists to be used rather than collected.
Choose your battles.
My boyfriend was fairly receptive to my suggestions, but you might be faced with a partner who isn’t so keen on making any changes with their finances. A few days ago, my boyfriend had about $40 left for food and eating out in his budget. He needed to buy groceries for the next week and have some money for food when traveling for Thanksgiving. I told him I wasn’t sure if he should go out to eat for lunch at work one day, but he went anyway and spent about $9. I was so tempted to get angry, but instead, I let it go. It wasn’t worth $9 for me to nag him and him to feel like I was completely oppressing him financially. That way, when a situation comes up where his choice about money really is important, he’ll know that I’m not just a Scrooge trying to take away all of his fun.
If all else fails, bring in a third party.
You can’t wait until your husband has hit rock bottom to address your finances. If your significant other feels like you’re nagging or doesn’t think that any of your ideas are appropriate or helpful, then bring another person into the equation who can speak into the situation. My boyfriend started talking to an older friend of his about money, and his talks with that man have done much more than many of my attempts. Seek out someone who your partner respects and ask them if they’d be willing to sit down and talk with you.
And encouragement is just around the corner. Just last week, my boyfriend was faced with car trouble. In the past, his parents had to loan him money to help him fix things like that. The cost for the repairs was almost $800, but he had been faithfully putting money in an emergency fund, and he had just enough money to pay for the expenses. He was so excited to tell his parents he wouldn’t need to use their money, and for the first time, I saw him taking pride in his control over his finances. All the pestering and obsessing I could have done would never have made him feel that way.
Above all, realize that change takes time. Celebrate staying within the budget, paying off credit card debt and finding more frugal ways to do things. Money has the power both to build up and to tear down, but by talking about money together in a positive way, you and your partner can stay in control of your relationship instead of letting money control you.
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Updated October 21, 2015 and originally published September 27, 2011.