This is a guest post from Sierra Black, a long-time GRS reader and the author of ChildWild, a blog where she writes about frugality, sustainable living, and getting her kids to eat kale.
Talking about money is one of the great taboos of our culture. I know more about my friends’ sex lives than I do about their bank statements. Many of us find it hard to discuss finances under the best circumstances. When we’re stressed about money, we tend to clam up even more.
If you’re married (or living with a partner), you don’t have that luxury. Financial success is not a private affair. You need to talk to your spouse or partner about your money. This is vital for both the health of your relationship and the health of your bank balance.
You don’t have to take my word for this. This week, I had the pleasure of interviewing Lou Scatigna, a.k.a. The Financial Physician. An entire chapter of his new book is devoted to “lack of spousal communication”.
How big a problem is failing to talk to your spouse about money? “If you have money conflict, your marriage is doomed,” Scatigna says.
OUCH! My husband and I have our share of differences when it comes to handling our dollars, and I’d like to stay married. In addition to genuinely liking the guy I married, divorce is expensive.
The monthly family finance meeting
Scatigna’s prescription for this ailment? Have a monthly family finance meeting. Scatigna says its vital for both partners to sit down together once a month and pay all their bills together. Even if you’ve automated many of your monthly bills with an electronic bill pay system, you need to be looking at them each month. Doing this together has a lot of advantages:
- You both know the real cost of living in your household. When only one partner handles the finances, the other can be genuinely unaware of how much credit card debt your family is carrying, or how high the winter heating bills are. This is information you both need to have.
- You can hold each other accountable to shared financial goals. It’s harder to justify an extra latte when you know you have to own up to your spending at the end of the month.
- Working together can make it fun. Instead of a tiresome chore, handling the finances can become something you do together. Finding ways to save can become something of a game, and as you get better at it you’ll both reap the rewards.
- Having both partners fully up to speed on the household management protects you both from being left in the lurch should the other suddenly not be available. People die or suffer sudden illnesses, and the business of life goes on. You don’t want to have to learn how to pay your home’s monthly bills while you’re handling a family crisis.
I’m a long-standing believer in the theory of a monthly household finance meeting, but I also know it’s a lot harder to practice than it is to theorize about. Scatigna says it’s the rare couple that actually sits down and talks about finances every month.
Making the time to talk
Managing finances together sounds simple, but there are a lot of stumbling blocks. People are busy. You’ve got a career, a family, maybe kids of your own, plus friends and hobbies. Spending an evening a month on a boring chore can seem like a lot to ask.
Plus, money pushes a lot of buttons for people. It brings up fear, anxiety, guilt, anger. A lot of negative emotions most of us like to avoid. So we avoid talking about money with our spouses until it explodes in a financial disaster or a relationship meltdown.
Even when we do sit down to talk, it can be hard to make good use of the time. Should you discuss long-term goals or just go over this month’s bills? How can you avoid spiraling into a fight?
My husband and I have been in a groove with this lately. To get started, we sat down and worked out a master list of financial goals. We also made a huge spreadsheet of our fixed and flexible expenses. We use these as guides when we’re looking at how cash flowed in and out during the month.
Here’s a list of do’s and don’ts that are working for us:
- Don’t spring a big money talk on your spouse by surprise.
- Don’t talk about it when you’re already angry. Just got a surprise overdue notice for that parking ticket your honey forgot to tell you about? Don’t call her up at work to complain about it.
- Don’t talk about it after midnight. My husband and I tend to leave money talks for the end of the day, and wind up trying to deal with it when we’re both exhausted and edgy.
- Do set a specific time to sit down and discuss your finances. If you expect the conversation to be difficult, try scheduling two dates at once: one to talk about money, and another one a few days later to do something fun you both enjoy.
- Do have an agenda. We’ve wasted many household money talks staring at each other over a pile of bills and not knowing what to do. Now we have a pretty clear routine: go over each spending category on our spreadsheet, look at how much we spent, figure out if we can cut back on it at all in the coming month, and check in about how that fits into our big-picture money goals.
- Do be gentle with each other. Scatigna warns that in households where one spouse pays the bills, that partner can become resentful for having to carry all the weight. That was certainly the case in our house, but once I learned to control my temper about it, my husband became much more willing to come to the table and get involved.
While cooking dinner or getting ready for work is not the time to have this conversation.
Talking about money really has eased tensions between us. It’s also helped with our cash flow. We’re on the same page a lot more often. We’re both paying more attention to the kinds of details that used to cost us a lot in mistakes or careless spending. We feel like a real team, and we’re actually saving money.
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