Most Americans would rather have a talk about the birds and the bees than any conversation related to finances.
In a Northwestern Mutual study, money outranked other uncomfortable topics that included not only sex but also asking adult-age children to move out and discussing one’s own death.
While you can argue for a certain level of discretion when talking about money with friends and even family, the one person you need to come financially clean with is your mate. Couples who are on the same page about issues like saving, budgeting, and retirement feel more financially secure, argue less about money, and have hotter sex lives, MONEY found when we polled 500 boomers and 500 millennials on their behaviors and beliefs concerning money and relationships.
For many couples the hardest part is simply getting started. “I can guarantee that you and your partner won’t have the same views on finances. There are always variations in thinking about how much goes to what and what goal should take top priority,” says Jonathan Rich, author of The Couple’s Guide to Love and Money. “You want to work out those differences and reach compromises before there is an actual money problem.”
If you’re having trouble getting your partner to open up, follow these tips to steer the conversation in a productive direction.
THE STRATEGY: Solicit your partner’s opinion about someone else’s financial situation.
WHAT YOU CAN SAY: “My dad is thinking about retiring this year, and he wants my mom to retire with him. I’m worried about my mom retiring that soon. What do you think?”
WHY IT WORKS: “People are always more comfortable discussing others’ choices and responsibilities than they are their own,” says CPA Kitrina L. Wright. Talking about a financial decision made by a family member or close friend can be an easy way for you to get your partner to share thoughts about money without feeling like all the attention is on him. Then you can use the moment as a springboard to related topics or questions that hit at more personal issues.
Financial planner (and Kitrina’s husband) Brian Wright recommends opening by sharing a detail about a parent’s financial behavior, since most people learn their financial habits and attitudes from Mom and Dad. “Everyone has lessons they learned about money from growing up. Getting your partner to open up about those experiences, good and bad, can give you the best insight into how they view money and what their expectations are.”
Hearing about family experiences can give you added perspective on your partner’s financial choices, or insight into why they may be reluctant to talk about money, says Ed Coambs, a marriage and family therapist. “”Maybe they’re quiet because they grew up in a household that never talked about money, not because they’re hiding thousands in debt.”
THE STRATEGY: Pose a hypothetical question.
WHAT YOU CAN SAY: “If you inherited $100,000 from a relative, what would you do with it?”
WHY IT WORKS: Asking an open-ended question is a way to talk about financial priorities without being confrontational, says Paula Levy, a marriage and family therapist. “People tend to get defensive when taking about finances. The key is to focus on your future hopes and dreams more than the money itself, because after all, when we talk about money we’re really talking about it as a tool to achieve what we want,” Levy says.
Avoid launching into too much talk about your own plans; instead, Levy advises, let your reticent partner speak first. “You want to avoid interrupting as well,” she says. “If they get a strong reaction from their partner, then they’re even more hesitant to be open about that topic again.”
THE STRATEGY: Make an appointment
WHAT YOU CAN SAY: “I’ve been wanting to go over our monthly bills with you. Can we set aside some time tomorrow night to do that?”
WHY IT WORKS: If there is something in particular stressing you out about your union—maybe you don’t feel like you have a good handle on where the money is going, or you’re concerned about debt—it’s best not to blame or blindside your partner when bringing the topic up.
Rather, be intentional and make time, says Coambs. “It’s about pacing. It’s going to take time to get all the information you want, and you need to be patient.” Avoid delving into the nitty-gritty when you’re feeling heated or stressed. Your already defensive partner will feel under attack and clam up even more. By creating a time for this kind of talk, you’ll both feel prepared and can keep things free of an emotional charge.
You’ll also want to start small. Set yourself a time limit, maybe 10 to 15 minutes to talk about the issue, then go out and do something fun together, recommends Kitrina L. Wright. “Keep having these talks and work your way up to longer conversations.”
THE STRATEGY: Show your appreciation.
WHAT YOU CAN SAY: “I’m glad we’re doing this. I feel like I know so much about you except in this one area.”
WHY IT WORKS: You want your partner to know that you understand these discussions are difficult and uncomfortable—but at the same time you don’t want to let them off the hook. Stress why it’s important to you that you and your partner discuss finances together, and that this is just one piece of a much larger and ongoing conversation. You want your partner to know that you appreciate the openness and want this kind of exchange to continue.
THE STRATEGY: Engage a neutral third party
WHAT YOU CAN SAY: “I think we should meet with a financial planner to make sure we’re on the right track.”
WHY IT WORKS: If you’ve tried to start the financial conversation several times with little engagement, involving an objective third party might be the icebreaker your partner needs.
“A meeting with a financial adviser can help with this process. They’ve done this many times before and can ask the right questions and make your partner feel ok talking about money” says Alan Moore. You can also consider meeting with a therapist or counselor trained in the area of financial therapy, a new field of study that merges money and psychology.
Shelling out for the extra help, even as you tussle over money, will be well worth it in the long run when you consider the rewards—financial, emotions, and sexual—that being in sync financially can bring.