• Robert Dunn

Money, Sex, and Communication


Many couples struggle with at least one of these issues. This post will help you with two of the three items. Read further to figure out which two. Hint: Learning about each other’s relationship with money can go a long toward solidifying all three pillars of a good life partnership.



Key Takeaways

  • Understanding your partner’s relationship with money can greatly help your communication.

  • Making more money isn’t the solution.

  • Once communication issues are resolved, couples can significantly improve their personal and financial outcomes.

“What you do speaks so loudly that I cannot hear what you say.”

-- Ralph Waldo Emerson

Despite how important money is to a couple’s well-being and future dreams, sometimes it seems money decisions are just another chore on a couple’s “Honey Do” list along with taking out the trash and making weekend social plans. To most Americans, our clients appear very well-off. They tend to live in nice areas, earn high incomes and have sizeable net worth. But, despite their high levels of education and affluence, we find that in many couples, one spouse handles 99% of the finances.

The reasons for this vary, but often it is because one spouse has some anxiety about money. This one-sided structure can make it difficult for the spouse who doesn’t have anxiety about money to communicate with the spouse who struggles with conversations about money.

As a result, many couples never discuss money with each other—yes, even in the year 2021. This situation is not fair to either spouse. It can lead to poor financial decisions that the couple will later regret and possibly blame each other for.

Why is it so hard for couples to talk about money with each other?

I’ve found that one of the biggest stumbling blocks for couples is that they don’t know how to start the conversation. That’s a challenge because open and honest communication is the foundation of prudent financial planning.

So how do you get started? We have found that having an open conversation about your partner’s relationship with money helps to get the ball rolling. Most of our clients haven’t seriously contemplated their relationship with money before they start working with us. They know anecdotally that they tend to hoard it, or fear it, or overspend it to help them cope with other issues. But they don’t know where those views came from.

I can’t tell you how many clients tell me when they first start working with us: “I don’t know the root cause of our issues when discussing money.” I’ve found clients who take the time to explore their feelings about money will fare better than those who simply continue with their old spending, saving, and investing habits. As Albert Einstein liked to say: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”

My colleague Ryan Vogel wrote recently about how the money messages we received growing up tend to stick with us throughout our lives. If the differences are significant enough, there is a very good chance that money conversation may get avoided because they become too painful to discuss. Maybe that’s why three in four (73 percent) married or cohabitating Americans say financial decisions have caused tension in their relationships, according to new research conducted by The Harris Poll on behalf of the American Institute of CPAs (AICPA).

Of these, nearly half (47 percent) admit this tension has negatively impacted intimacy with their partner. Intimacy issues are more often experienced by men (52 percent) than women (41 percent), and especially for those who have children in their household (60 percent).

Again, we’re not licensed counselors here. But those numbers don’t surprise me because we talk money issues with our clients all the time. We have had quite a few clients wait until it’s almost too late before they come to us for help. Heels have been dug in and each spouse believes they are right, and the other is wrong.

I’ve found that when couples don’t talk openly about their finances, the spouse that is less informed about money may feel defensive about spending money. Or the financially insecure spouse may spend recklessly because they have never been informed about their family’s financial situation. Meanwhile, the other party is responsible for managing cash flow and for ensuring there are enough assets to meet their needs. The stress of that responsibility can be daunting itself.

More importantly, once there is friction on the money front (or communication front), it usually ends up impacting other areas of the relationship. But if you can clarify how money impacts you personally and then talk about it openly with your partner (and vice versa), then you can get aligned with each other about how you approach money. Instead of money being a wedge in your relationship, you start to learn how to talk about money rationally with each other and come to understand your partner’s deep-seated issues with money. That gives you a foundation to build on.

Once couples understand that their spouse’s relationship with money often has roots in the money messages they received growing up, it can break down many barriers to having helpful and civil conversations about spending, saving, investing, charity and more. It’s not about passing judgement. It’s simply helping people recognize who they are, financially speaking. And it’s up to you to decide if this is how you want to continue your relationship with money.

For more about this topic, see my post: “My Relationship with Money

Real world example

A successful couple came to us a few years ago. By most accounts they had a very good relationship with each other—until the subject of money came up.

Despite their high household income, the wife had such high anxiety about money that the husband did not want to talk to her about it. Both worked extremely hard. The husband wanted to enjoy the fruits of his labor and he spent freely on toys, trips, concert tickets, high end restaurants and the like. But no matter how large the paychecks they were bringing in, the wife constantly worried about having enough money to make ends meet (today and in the future).

Here fears were not unfounded. We later learned the husband sometimes borrowed large sums from his 401(k) to pay for his spending—without his wife’s knowledge. He wasn’t trying to be deceitful per se, he just knew that any discussion about money with his wife would turn explosive. So, he simply avoided it.

Finally, they came to us for assistance. We put them on a reasonable spending plan that alerted them when they were going over their limit. The initial conversation about money revealed significant differences in their upbringing and relationship with money. The plan gave them each badly needed transparency about their household spending and allowed them to have civil conversations about money. These conversations in the beginning would take place in our office. Once we helped them have open conversations, they became closer as life partners. As a result, they became closer as life partners, they were able to hone in on their finances (together) and now they’re really enjoying retirement with a peace of mind they never imagined possible.

Conclusion

If you or someone close to you is concerned that money issues might be straining your relationship, please contact us any time. We’re happy to help.

ROBERT B. DUNN, CFP® is the President and Managing Partner of Novi Wealth