Why Some People Don’t Talk About Money With Their Partner

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Why Some People Don’t Talk About Money With Their Partner

New research shows that people who are stressed about their finances often shy away from talking to their partner about money, even though it could be beneficial to their relationship.

People who worry about bills, feel overwhelmed by overspending or are concerned about managing their money may expect a “money talk” to lead to an argument and therefore avoid bringing up the subject, according to a report by researchers at Cornell University and Yale University published this month in the Journal of Consumer Psychology. But previous studies have found that communicating about money helps couples spend more responsibly and better manage their debt.

“They expect conflict, so they choose not to have these conversations at all,” says Emily Garbinsky, associate professor of marketing and management communications at Cornell Business School and one of the study's authors.

Why do some people find it so difficult to talk to their partner about money?

Aja Evans, a financial therapist in New York, said some people feel ashamed about having money problems. They may fear that talking about such things with their partner will damage their relationship. (Financial therapists aim to help their clients understand how their feelings and beliefs about money can affect their financial behavior.)

“It's a defense mechanism,” she said. “But with financial problems, the more you avoid them, the worse they get.”

Megan R. Ford, a lecturer and financial therapist at the University of Georgia, says people from families that have financial problems or where conversations about money are not encouraged may lack good role models for productive conversations about finances.

“Each of us brings our own baggage of money into a relationship,” she said. “Sometimes it's a handbag. Sometimes it's three big suitcases.”

But the more people avoid conversations about finances, Dr. Ford added in an email, the more opportunities they miss to better understand themselves and their partners.

Brad Klontz, a psychologist and financial planner, said couples usually have “the talk” at some point about future plans, including whether to have children. “But I don't think people have that conversation about money,” he said. He likes to encourage his clients to think about questions that can help them find the source of their attitude, such as: “What are my top three financial goals?” and “What are my most painful and joyful memories related to money?”

When it comes to managing money, opposites often attract, says Scott Rick, associate professor of marketing at the University of Michigan Business School and author of “Tightwads and Spendthrifts: Navigating the Money Minefield in Real Relationships.”

Someone who normally lives on a strict budget might initially fall in love with a partner who is less financially restrained. “This can be charming at first,” Dr. Rick said, “particularly for a cheapskate who is impressed by a careless spendthrift.”

However, what is fascinating at first can become irritating in the long run, especially if the couple has children and must provide for their needs as well as their own. But generally each partner can balance out the other's more extreme tendencies. Dr. Rick said that he is more willing to spend money, but his wife is more cautious about spending.

“I'm married to a cheapskate,” he said, and it works great, he said, because he and his wife have a give-and-take relationship. “I let her win on material things, and she lets me win on experiences or vacations,” he said. “You don't want one person to always win. You need those different perspectives.”

The report by Dr. Garbinsky and her colleagues found that conversations about money are far from hopeless. Encouraging people to view financial conflicts as “solvable” rather than “eternal” — that is, conflicts rooted in fundamental differences in the way they handle money — makes them more likely to talk to their partner about finances, the researchers said.

When people see that “financial problems have solutions and compromise is possible,” says Dr. Garbinsky, “they are more willing to talk to their partner.”

Here are some questions and answers about relationships and money:

Research suggests that pooling money increases satisfaction in relationships, Dr. Garbinsky said. Having a joint account leads to conversations about money. “It helps couples come to an agreement,” she said.

Dr. Rick said a joint account helped the couple see all their money as joint rather than individual property. Big expenses like rent, mortgage or car payments and basic things like utilities should be paid from the joint account. “Launder all money through a joint account,” he said. “It's all 'our' money, for important decisions.”

However, Dr. Rick also suggests allocating an amount to each partner, kept in a separate account, to cover personal expenses and any bills he or she is individually responsible for. The amounts don't have to be equal, he said. If one parent is responsible for childcare, music lessons or sports fees for the children, that parent would receive a larger amount.

This way, each partner can spend money on a daily basis without feeling like their spouse is scrutinizing their every purchase. “We need our individual interests and goals,” he said.

If you're afraid of conversations about money, start by practicing “low-stakes” decisions, says Debra Kaplan, a trained therapist and author of “Coupleship Inc.: From Financial Conflict to Financial Intimacy.” Instead of discussing when or where you want to retire, start by asking how much you want to spend on your next vacation.

“Imagine you're part of a team solving a problem,” she said. “You're working toward an outcome that's for the good of the team, not 'what am I going to lose if I don't get my way.'”

Dr. Ford suggests that when you're talking about money, instead of sitting across from each other at a table, you go for a walk outside together. The fresh air will help clear your head. You can walk side by side so you're not looking each other directly in the eye, which can be less intimidating.

Ms. Evans recommends setting aside time regularly – ideally once a month – to talk about your finances. “I love the concept of the 'money date,'” she said. Topics could include a review of recent spending or progress toward financial goals. This can be done at home or at a restaurant, if you feel comfortable doing so.