How to talk to your spouse about money

Posted by Shelly Eweka

Money talks…but not all of us like talking about money, and sometimes it's our spouses who are the most tight-lipped.

Beyond Mars and Venus: financial planning for couples

Back in the '90s, John Gray made the bold claim that men are from Mars and women from Venus, implying that gender differences put us on different planets, psychologically.

I would argue that it's our distinct attitudes toward money that put spouses so many light-years away from each other—even more so than the Y chromosome.

Never mind Mars or Venus—what if one of you wants to vacation three times per year while the other believes maxing out on 403(b) plans is more of a priority? The ability to defer gratification, to sacrifice an immediate pleasure for the sake of future gain, can be a bigger divider than hormonal differences.

6 things marriage taught me

When I first met my husband, I inhabited the planet Penny-Wise and he was on a distant sphere we'll call Extravagance. Worlds away in our financial outlooks, he clammed up whenever I suggested he stick to a budgetOpens PDF or save for retirement. When we finally got an apartment together, the elephant moved in with us as well to occupy his proverbial space in the room.

This impasse may sound frustratingly familiar to you, so I wanted to share these six nuggets of wisdom extracted from 17+ years of marriage:

  1. Compromise and negotiation are more important than romantic gestures. We spend more on vacations than I would like, but contribute more to retirement than he would have otherwise.
  2. Your partner and you are both wrong—and both right. When you have such polarized financial worldviews, the temptation is to label the other person as misguided or just plain wrong. The truth lies somewhere in the middle. My husband grew up in a totally different kind of household; my attitude toward money is no more correct than his. Where we fall on the spectrum depends a lot on temperament and early experiences. I didn't really appreciate this truth when first starting out in our marriage. Coming from different ends of the universe, we now, at least, inhabit the same planet.
  3. Difference of opinion is healthy because there are times when his extravagance needs to be reined in and times when my penny-pinching needs to be prevented from descending into stinginess.
  4. Don't hide your spending out of fear. Commitment to openness and honesty is paramount. That doesn't mean you have a moral obligation to disclose every little purchase; however, those financial decisions you make now affect the marital unit. Therefore, it's better your spouse hears you confess to your little splurges as they happen rather than read about them on a financial statement!
  5. Be patient. Managing joint finances can be especially challenging for newly formed couples because trust is still being established and boundaries negotiated. The idea that you are both a single unit—a "household"—can take months or years to get used to.
  6. Marry together some, but not all, of your funds. Establishing a "shared fund" for any bills you split can relieve the stress and pressure that may otherwise accompany the division of bills.

How to talk to your spouse about money problems

For a lot of women I know, the biggest hurdle is getting their partner to have a conversation in the first place. Strong feelings on the topic of money can easily get in the way, and negative emotions like anger and frustration can make civil conversation almost impossible. Your spouse might not even acknowledge the problem, causing you to feel unheard and unsupported.

If your significant other won't engage, you can turn to outside help—someone you both respect—like a financial professional, whose impartiality and outsider's perspective can help break the deadlock.

Or, try this simple but effective technique

Nonviolent communication (NVC) is one of those self-help buzzwords that developed in psychology over the past few decades but which I find to have real practical value. Central to NVC is the understanding that violent or aggressive communication is all too common between loved ones. It's simply a style of communication that purposely avoids the confrontational, accusatory approach that can cause a partner to go on the defensive.

When I find myself getting frustrated with my husband’s latest purchase, I try to recall these four steps:

  1. OBSERVE the situation objectively, without blame or moral judgment
  2. IDENTIFY the feelings that the situation brings up
  3. DIG deep to identify what needs are (not) being met
  4. REQUEST actions that would better meet those needs

None of these steps is easy—they take some practice. And if your partner is on another planet, step 4 can be the hardest. The following script may help you break the ice by simply summing up your observations, feelings and needs, building up to a request:

What to say

By articulating your underlying feelings, you can help diminish their power to drive your behavior unconsciously, in destructive ways. Also, by revealing your feelings instead of listing what's wrong with your partner, he or she may feel less attacked and get more insight into how important the issue is to you.

After all, we don't really occupy different planets, no matter how different our attitudes toward money. With a bit of effort, we can learn to understand each other.

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The TIAA group of companies does not offer tax or legal advice. You should consult an independent tax or legal advisor for advice based on your own particular circumstances.

Any information related to physical or emotional health is not intended to be used in place of a consultation with a physician.

This material is for informational or educational purposes only and does not constitute fiduciary investment advice under ERISA, a securities recommendation under all securities laws, or an insurance product recommendation under state insurance laws or regulations. This material does not take into account any specific objectives or circumstances of any particular investor, or suggest any specific course of action. Investment decisions should be made based on the investor’s own objectives and circumstances.