Learning to dance: How couples can have constructive conversations about money
Today, the Get Rich Slowly summer of books concludes with an excerpt from Cashing Out: Win the Wealth Game by Walking Away from Julien and Kiersten Saunders. Julien and Kiersten are the power couple behind the rich & Regular blog and YouTube channel.
The following excerpt from Cashing Out (published by Portfolio/Penguin) is used with permission. Copyright © 2022 by Rich & Regular LLC. This passage has been edited to be more readable on the web.
Dr. Sue Johnson is a clinical psychologist who specializes in emotionally focused therapy. She says that when couples fight (regardless of the topic), they're doing a dance. One partner makes a move, and the other one responds accordingly. She insists the dance is always the problem — not you, not me, not us — and not the topic.
By focusing on the dance, we can shift our focus and look at our interaction patterns whenever there's an issue. The rhythm of one person responding to the other person's moves is what ultimately. defines the dance, and our ability to instinctively know when to reach and and grab the other's hand for a spin requires what Dr. Johnson calls emotional attunement.
If the conflict is the dance itself, think of your emotions as the music. Being emotionally attuned means you can both hear the same song, or at the very least can acknowledge that yours isn't the only song playing. In other words, it's not enough to just go through the moves together if one of you is grooving to Barry White and the other is swinging to Barry Manilow.
When you've been in a pattern of avoiding conversations with your partner about money, it's as if you've both been attending a silent disco. Everyone's dancing, but you can't hear any music. If you want to get attuned, it's important to understand what unresolved money arguments sound like, emotionally speaking.
Name-Calling: Conversations About Spending
Over the years, we've met and spoken with hundreds of couples about money, and the most common argument we've heard is about spending. Latoya wants to know why her partner has more shoes than an NBA locker room, while Ricky wants to know why his front door has more boxes than an Amazon warehouse.
In most cases, it's clear that one person dragged the other to us because they needed them to understand something. They'll say, “Y'all can explain it better than I can,” or, “Every time I try, it just goes in one ear and out the other.” It always reminds us of frustrated pet owners who bring Roscoe to a dog whisperer because nothing they've tried has worked: Roscoe just keeps peeing on the couch.
Almost without fail, as they're detailing the scene of the conflict, someone says something along the lines of “one of us is a saver and the other is a spender”. The premise is rooted in the assumption that the saver is the good guy, the responsible one, the one who makes the best or better decisions about money. On the other hand, the spender is the bad guy, the irresponsible one who always gets it wrong and needs to be fixed.
- For starters, we're not relationship police doling out punishment to people who overspend at the mall.
- Second, we disagree with any framing that locks people into fixed financial identities. Those labels are just that — labels. And no single label can fully encapsulate anyone's identity because in reality everyone spends.
The idea of “savers” and “spenders” is simple, convenient, and easy to remember, but it's not a reflection of the world we live in. Saving and spending are fluid concepts. The only difference between savers and spenders is the time horizon.
Spenders are spending for today. Savers are setting aside money to spend in the future.
For example, if we save $20,000 in one year to buy a car with cash, and then we spend that $20,000 the following year to get it, are we savers or spenders? It depends on which year you ask us, right?
Getting attuned with your partner starts with freeing your relationship from the contraint of labels, and it's the first step to inviting curiosity back into your conversations. Whenever you're having a conversation about spending, you need to go into it acknowledging that there are no villains. Your ability to have a non-judgmental conversation about money requires swapping the paradigm from “good or bad” to “now or later”.
J.D.'s note: Please go back and re-read that last sentence. It is so, so important.
Whenever anybody spends money, they're chasing a feeling, and the goal of the conversation is to find out what that feeling is. Whether it's wanting to feel security, spontaneity, or pleasure, once you acknowledge that both you and your partner want the same thing — to feel something — the nature of the conversation becomes less about the spender/saver persona you've assigned each other and more about looking at the decision objectively and finding new, creative ways to reach the goal.
Couples usually describe their goal as getting on the same page, but it's important to go much deeper than that. The ultimate goal with your partner should be to achieve a state of harmony, where each person is allowed to express themselves fully in a way that contributes to your collective dance.
Nagging: Conversations About Saving
Not only does nagging strain a relationship, but it's also guaranteed to put someone on the defensive because of its persistence.
Saving money is an ongoing part of managing your finances. Over time, constant panicky warnings that someone should be saving more erode the ability to look at any situation objectively. This level of surveillance makes sense in totalitarian governments, but in relationships it's conversational quicksand. The more you do it, the deeper you sink.
Soon, the reminders about money blend with the daily chorus of other unsolicited prompts to wipe the counters or to take out the trash. It all begins to sound like a broken record. If you don't get the tone right, at some point the person being nagged will start to think that your real beef is with them, and not about the money at all.
Attunement in this area boils down to classic reframing. As we mentioned, saving is just “planning to spend later”, and guess what's more fun than talking about what we're not buying in the present? Obsessing over buying it in the future!
Our tried-and-true advice for conversations about saving is to talk about your future plans. Meaningful conversations about future plans act like a release valve, giving a potentially high-pressure situation a chance to stabilize.
Instead of saying, “Babe, what's with all the Starbucks cups? We need to be saving, not slurping!”, start your request with an “I” statement. That indicates you're participating in the conversation as a partner, not a parent. For instance: “I'm so excited to upgrade our TV. I think I'm going to cut back on Chipotle to see what kind of dent that makes in our saving goal. Would you consider doing the same for Starbucks? I'll bet we could have the cash by November and catch a great deal instead of waiting.”
Anticipation is a helluva drug, and there are positive psychological benefits when you look forward to something. Optimism is more reliable than willpower when it comes to doing things you don't want to do.
For instance, when we had to cut back on eating out in order to save for a vacation, we'd cook foods at home that were reflective of the local cuisine and play their local music to help set the scene. Sometimes we'd even YouTube the destination and watch other people's experiences and anticipate what we were looking forward to the most. Not only were these small rewards a welcome distraction from another night in, but they also helped us become more disciplined.
Blaming: Conversations About Debt
It's pretty common for one partner to owe more than the other, and that disparity can lead to feelings of resentment and insecurity. Constant reminders about how much debt somebody brings to a relationship, as well as the approach they use to tackle it, can be a source of tension.
The person with the debt may feel a deep sense of shame from believing their debt means they're wrong or bad. On the flip side, the person without debt can feel obligated to help pay for it, which can create resentment. Trying to dance to a song that's composed of shame and obligation is like trying to waltz to “Cotton-Eyed Joe”.
For Kiersten, the shame surrounding her debt triggered defensiveness. She'd mastered her ability to use religious platitudes whenever she didn't know the answer to something. She was also accustomed to avoiding conflict in other areas of her life and had learned to live among her problems instead of trying to solve them. From that emotional vantage point, our initial conversation about her debt felt like a personal attack. (And to her credit, it was.)
For us, attunement in this particular area required letting go. Kiersten needed to let go of any romantic notions of being rescued, and Julien needed to let go of his judgment. We both needed to let go of popular debt-payoff plans that treated debt as a moral failing, and learned how to strike a balance where frugality and flexibility could coexist.
Once we teamed up, combined our finances, and started to pay off our debt together, we became critical of the social and cultural norms that created it to begin with. We learned to dance together.
Our approach worked well for us, but there are legitimate reasons to tackle your debts separately, like eligibility restrictions on forgiveness plans or just personal preference. In those cases, you can agree that each person is responsible for their debt and that you won't ever co-sign for loans together unless you both benefit from it equally.
Either was is fine as long as you remember that regardless the path you choose, emotional attunement still makes it a highly coordinated effort where both people contribute to its success or its failure.
“Tell Me More”
In any money conversation you're having, use the phrase “tell me more” as a way to indicate when you don't understand your partner or need more context. It's a signal that more context is needed and follow-up questions will allow a better understanding of the other person's perspective.
Judgement and harsh language are the equivalent of placing your finger on record player in the middle of your dance. That sharp and sudden scratch completely wrecks the flow and halts the conversation. But saying “tell me more” is a gentler nudge, inviting the other person to continue expressing themselves and feel encouraged to take a conversational risk.
There's an important caveat to using “tell me more” in charged situations. It's impossible to feel curious and inquisitive when you also feel threatened and intimidated.
After our first argument, it took a while for one of us (ahem, Julien) to regain the other's trust related to sharing financial details. For a long time, one of us (ahem, Kiersten) would cry every time we talked about money because she was overwhelmed and replaying “if I'd known, I never would have dated you” in her head.
In those moments, Julien wasn't blasting Kiersten with the phrase like a fire extinguisher. In fact, using “tell me more” in times like these can do more harm than good, undermining its future use. In hotbed moments, good old-fashioned patience works best. Instead of forcing flammable conversations, you're better off preserving the dance floor for future use.