Money and sex are two weird, taboo subjects in modern culture. We can’t stop thinking and talking about them, but at the same time we don’t really talk about them, because they make us uncomfortable.
Both money and sex are idolized and magnified and mythologized in our media, movies and television shows. The message we get is that if you’ve got plenty of both, your life is perfect. But of course, that’s not true.
Of the two – money and sex – it’s not easy to say which is the more complicated and causes the most hang ups. But it’s probably money. Certainly money is an issue that upsets many couples, or causes them to fight or even to break up or get a divorce (which, of course, costs a whole lot more money).
Whether you have too much money, or too little, or just enough, the subject of finances is like an electric “third rail” in a relationship, and it can be very scary and dangerous to discuss it.
So, what’s the best way to talk about money? How do healthy, happy couples handle their finances?
Honesty and transparency are usually the best ideas – be honest about how much you make and how much you spend. Your spouse should be able to ask you about any details of your bank accounts and your spending, from “What was this December 16th ATM withdrawal for?” to “How much is in your retirement savings account?”
Many married couples have “mingled” their finances anyway – they have one checking account which they both use, so all their earnings and spending are visible to both partners. Theoretically, anyway. The most common reason one spouse or the other doesn’t keep track of money is just laziness. Or tiredness, if you want to put it more sympathetically. Given the dozens or hundreds of other chores and things to get done or worry about in a marriage, keeping close track of everyday financial details falls off the list.
But it’s important to talk about finances regularly – as important, if not more important, than having sex regularly. Vagueness about money, or willful ignorance of your finances, adds a great deal of stress to your marriage.
So How Do You Talk About Money?
For a few lucky couples, talking about money is easy and natural. For the rest of us, it takes work. It may seem awkward and artificial at first, but once you get the hang of it, the conversation will become routine.
To get started, have a conversation once a month where you “do the numbers.” Both of you show each other your records – how much you earned, where you put the money (savings, checking, etc.), and what you spent during the month. Who bought the groceries, and how much did they cost? Did one or both of you eat out? How much were those meals?
Who bought clothes or shoes for themselves or for the children? How much? What about any savings, investment or retirement accounts? How much went into or came out of those? Who paid the rent or the mortgage?
In this era of ubiquitous automatic electronic bill payments, it’s still important to keep track of those fees. If the money for your phone bill is automatically taken out of your account once a month, make sure you know when that happens, and let your spouse know.
Sit down together with whatever records you need, either your checkbook, a printout of your bank statement, or just your laptop with all the records on screen.
Keep the Conversation Simple
Each of you takes a turn saying what you earned during the month, and detailing what you spent money on. Often your bank will provide you with free money management software that crunches the numbers for you and shows you a little pie chart or other easy-to-grasp picture of your finances. That can be very helpful.
The most important thing is for you and your spouse to both know what money is coming and going. Discuss whatever debt you have – credit cards, mortgage, car payments, and so on – and make sure you both agree on your plan to pay that debt off. Be clear about the difference between “secured” debt and “unsecured” debt.
Secured debt is based on a physical asset, like a car or house, which the bank that made the loan can repossess if you ever default on the payments. Unsecured debt is something like credit card debt that you can’t escape so easily because there is no asset to “give back.” It’s better to take on secured debt than unsecured.
Once you’ve done this for a few months, it won’t seem awkward anymore. It will just be something you both check in about.
The nice thing about it is that this kind of regular checking in will eliminate a great deal of anxiety and stress and shame about money in your relationship.
Most of us in today’s society have some hang ups about money – we worry that we don’t earn enough, or we worry that we’re spending too much, that we are too deep in debt. These hang ups are normal and quite common. Talking about them with your spouse will eliminate most of them.
More serious financial worries, like hidden debts from past spending, or money lost to gambling or bad investments, for example, should be brought out into the open to make them less painful and problematic.
Financial Secrets Are Like Other Types of Shameful Secrets
They’re only shameful when they’re kept secret. Talking about them with your spouse, who is your faithful and loving partner, will make you feel much better. You can both come up with a plan to deal with any problems.
Give yourselves the gift of that regular financial check in. Having a normal, comfortable time to discuss money matters will make it less likely you talk about money at bad times – while shouting at each other in anger, for example.
Lastly, no matter how much or how little money you have, it’s important for your marriage that you have some sort of dream you are saving for.
Incorporate some “dream time” into that conversation where you can both talk about what you’d like to save money for. Even a little money invested every month eventually adds up, so set some aside for a trip you’d both like to take, or a major purchase for your household.