Imagine this: Your date takes you out for a fancy omakase dinner. After getting home from a romantic evening, you check your phone for a sweet “goodnight” text, but instead, you’re hit with a Venmo request for your half of the bill. Although you were planning to use that money to pay off your car, you fulfill the payment anyway and feel frustrated since you’re low on cash.
Awkwardly dancing over the bill at dinner doesn’t have to be a thing anymore. Being upfront about where you stand money-wise with your boo can totally be the new norm — and for good reason. A 2015 study published by TD Bank found that 42% of couples who spoke about money once per week described their relationship as “extremely happy” compared with 27% of those who talk about money less than once per week.
There are many reasons why people get weird about money, and it comes down to what money represents; socioeconomic status, belief systems, daily behaviors, power, and values. Your attitude toward money can often reflect how you grew up and how you think about the future. That’s why being able to talk about how you view and manage money is essential — yes, even if your relationship isn’t that serious yet. After all, you’re still splitting the tab and spending money on the relationship, even if you aren’t living together or sharing a bank account yet. After a while, the numbers add up.
As a certified relationship coach, I’m all about radical honesty and coaching my clients to handle tough conversations of all kinds — financial topics included. If you’re unsure where to start, I’ve compiled tips from my own experience (I’ve been there and done that — personally and professionally) along with best practices from fellow experts. Here’s everything you need to know about smoothly navigating financial conversations with your partner, why it’s so dang hard to talk about money in the first place, and why it’s important to do it anyway so you can co-create healthy money habits with your S.O.
Why Is It Uncomfortable To Talk About Money With Your Partner?
First off, let’s address the elephant in the room. It’s tough to talk about money — period. We’ve been heavily conditioned to keep financial matters to ourselves. It’s so pervasive that according to a 2019 eMoney survey of 2,500 American adults, nearly half (43%) report feeling stressed, embarrassed, or confused when talking about their personal finances and 20% never talk about money with other people. Transfer that over to your relationship and you’re basically opening up Pandora’s box.
In addition, Talia Bombola, licensed family and marriage therapist and business coach, tells Elite Daily that it’s common to grow up in a household where money isn’t discussed openly — and if you did hear conversations at home, those discussions might have been surrounded by arguments. I can back this up: throughout my twenties, I lived with two different boyfriends, and it was always stressful to let them into how I managed my finances because of my immigrant upbringing. I grew up in an environment where discussions about money were hush-hush and a little shameful to share, which carried over to my romantic relationships.
Nobody wants to repeat their parents’ mistakes. “Yet, unless we learn how to discuss money healthily, that is what inadvertently happens,” Bombola says. “By avoiding discussing money, we fight and recreate the conflict that was modeled to us.”
How Soon Is Too Soon To Talk About Money?
Bombola recommends talking about money early and often. “It’s a part of life, and the more you talk about it, the easier it gets.” However, talking about money is a different story than working on financial goals together. Building healthy financial habits can be as casual or as serious as you want it to be; it just depends on what you’re both looking for, and where your relationship stands. As you’re figuring things out, it may be useful to begin a baseline discussion of your personal financial goals and timelines as a good starting point.
Dr. Carla Manly, clinical psychologist and author of Date Smart and Joy From Fear, agrees and adds that committing to a partner can be a great opportunity to address finances. This can be especially important if either of you has significant debt, a gambling habit, or the tendency to overspend. “Although such conversations are often challenging and anxiety-inducing, they build trust and allow partners to decide if they want to move ahead despite the financial concerns,” she says.
If you’re feeling nervous, start small. Instead of sharing the details about your 401K, you can share how you don’t like spending more than $20 per takeout order. (If you don’t want to go out to eat every night because you would rather save, that’s valid, too.) It’s also OK if you want to keep some of your private financial information to yourself (as long as it’s not harming the relationship), but Manly says it’s important to be honest about what you do decide to share. She recommends a few key areas to bring up in conversation: financial goals, overspending habits, budgets, debt, vacations, donations, and allocations for personal spending.
Figure Out Your Individual Money Philosophy
The truth is, Bombola says you may feel uncomfortable discussing money with your partner, especially if you had radically different childhoods or had unequal financial opportunities growing up. You may even be dealing with “money wounds” — aka limiting beliefs around money or events in the past that directly impact your current mindset around finances. Talking about money is more than just handing over the login link to your YNAB. It’s also sharing the good, the bad, and the ugly about your money habits and being open to building new routines. This isn’t always the easiest to do, even if you’re doing it safely with someone you love next to you.
Although research says talking about money can increase the quality of your relationship, it’s still super tough to lay everything out on the table. What happens if they judge you for how much you spend eating out on boba and noodles each week? Is it necessary to tell your S.O. about the interest rates on your student loans? You don’t have to tell them the exact dollar amount, but you can talk about your relationship to those expenses and why you spend the way you do. Understanding your personal philosophy about money — and even your money personality type — can help lay the foundation for future conversations, including those about potential pain points and triggers. Before you start talking about budgeting and debt, it’s important to understand your prior relationship with money and how it might be influencing you both today.
Bombola recommends that individuals view their relationship with money as if it were a real person and externally personify it so it’s easier to speak about. “If you think of money from this perspective, what comes up for you? Are you mad at money for never being there when you need it? Do you constantly feel like money is never enough? What judgments or beliefs do you hold about people who don’t have much money? What about people who have incredible amounts of money?”
Why Is It Important To Talk About Finances With Your Partner?
For better or worse, money impacts everything. Bombola notes finances can have a direct impact on the quality of your relationship, especially if you have vastly different financial outlooks like if you’re a penny-pincher saver and they’re a larger-than-life spender — and you aren’t comfortable discussing those differences. You might want to splurge on a pair of Charli XCX tickets, but your partner wouldn’t dream of dropping so much money on a single show. Understanding and negotiating these differences ahead of time can help smooth out any tension later on.
Discussing money with your partner doesn’t always feel great, but it’s important — a 2012 study published in the Journal of Family Relationships revealed financial incompatibility was reported as the biggest predictor of future divorce and another 2018 study published by TD Ameritrade found that 41% of divorced Gen Xers and 29% of divorced Boomers ended their marriage due to disagreements about money. Kicking the can down the road may save you some awkward conversations now, but the time will come when you can’t avoid it any longer, especially if you want to build a future together. Take the money conversation as a signal for compatibility, too: if you’re not vibing with each other’s financial habits, it’s better to know now rather than later.
According to Bombola, unmet needs and unspoken expectations are the top causes of resentment she sees in her practice. “Resentment is defined as bitter indignation at having been treated unfairly,” she says. Talking about money is the best approach to mitigating frustration.
Building Healthy Money Habits With Your Partner
To begin, you can start off small by evaluating your spending habits as a partner and both of your individual financial contributions to the relationship. It’s a good rule of thumb to run through different money scenarios and see how you might address each situation. The conversation can be super playful (“What would you do if you won the lottery?”) to something more tangible. For example, if you’re feeling nervous coughing up the dough to go away for a romantic weekend because you want to save money, that’s an invitation to bring up finances with your partner and see how you can remedy it together. Or, if your partner makes significantly more than you and you’re still going dutch on $$$ dinner dates, use it as a way to revisit how you can split costs so it feels fair on both sides.
To start building healthy financial habits with your partner, Manly suggests creating a budget together for joint financial goals. “It’s another healthy money habit that benefits partnerships; far from being constraining, budgets offer partners the safety of knowing that their spending habits are aligned with their goals,” she says. From there, it’s easy to have the numbers serve as limits for how much you’re willing to individually spend on dates as well as setting any financial goals to splurge on any mutual experiences together.
If you’re looking for a hard-and-fast rule to see when you should join accounts, Bombola advises waiting to merge accounts for way, way down the road — like if the relationship progresses into marriage. Until then, she recommends a joint spreadsheet for mutual expenses like date nights, gas money, groceries, eating out, plane tickets for long-distance relationships, concerts, travel, and any other expenses you share.
What Happens If You Don’t Agree With How You Spend Money?
Manly says, “It’s important for partners to be relatively aligned on monetary practices to avoid the stress and irritation that financial concerns can bring. That said, a mismatch on financial practices doesn’t have to be a deal-breaker if partners decide to keep finances separate or find a collaborative way to create sufficient financial compatibility.” However, if you or your partner are being dishonest or refusing to openly discuss financial issues, pay attention. It could be a red flag, either now or later on.
Bombola adds that there are many compromises if couples want more of a sense of equal contribution if one partner makes more than the other. Ongoing check-ins and a flexible attitude are key to a happy relationship so you can nip any lingering resentment in the bud. “I will give the caveat that couples may want to discuss how it feels if the numbers aren’t equal. The percentage method allows for an equal contribution based on each individual income. In contrast, the dollar amount method can feel unequal for partners who don’t make or contribute the same amount,” she says.
Opening up the conversation and showing that you’re willing to be transparent is the journey of building healthy financial habits together. If you’re still looking for help, Bombola recommends individual therapy, couples therapy, or financial coaching and mentorship as additional resources. Sometimes, it’s going to be tough discussing these sort of numbers. You may not always get the money talk right, but what’s more important is aligning expectations with your partner. It’ll help your wallet and relationship down the road.
Talia Bombola, licensed marriage and family therapist and business coach for women
Dr. Carla Manly, clinical psychologist, author, and speaker