Personal finance is a tough topic. When we share our money life with a partner or spouse, the complicated dynamics of close relationships come into play, and we can experience even greater stress. Differences between partners in income, debt burden, attitudes toward spending and saving, and other factors can lead to misunderstandings, conflict, and resentment.
They may even bring about “financial infidelity” — hiding money-related behaviors and issues from partners — a form of unfaithfulness that can be as devastating to a relationship as a sexual affair.
Psychotherapist Thomas Faupl, LMFT, SEP, offers some guidance to couples for whom sharing money is a source, or potential source, of relationship strain. Based in San Francisco, he’s a practitioner of financial therapy, where the focus is on a person’s core beliefs, behaviors, emotions, and interpersonal relationships concerning money.
You and your partner have different attitudes and habits concerning money. Perhaps one partner is comfortable managing money and the other is not. “One is a saver, the other a spender. These differences come up in relationships, and why? Because opposites attract!” Faupl notes, adding that while being opposites can make a relationship more exciting, those differences are also where people often get stuck.
You and your partner have significantly different financial histories, incomes, or earning potential. If one partner has a high-paying job, a significant inheritance, and no debt, and the other has student loans and a modest income, the couple may be uncertain of how to establish equitable ground rules for sharing financial responsibilities.
You’re worried about how financial issues will affect the dynamics of the relationship. “Money questions can bring up major power issues,” says Faupl. “Like, Who has control? Who has veto power? So how do you have a financial partnership that’s equitable for both partners?”
You are anxious about trusting another person with your financial affairs. “Money is a primal issue for a lot of us,” says Faupl. “Some people really treasure their ability to control their finances, all by themselves.”
You don’t know how, and on what terms, to start the shared-money conversation. You may feel so anxious about money matters in general, and sharing finances in particular, that you anticipate awkwardness or conflict in the discussion. So how should you approach it?
You’re not certain what financial sharing should entail. Should the two of you have a joint account or separate accounts? Do you merge everything or keep certain things separate? “All these questions need to be navigated,” Faupl says.
Strategies for Success
Think of discussing money as a way to find out more about your partner and yourself. Rather than holding tightly to set ideas and trying to convert your partner to your point of view — an approach that almost always guarantees conflict — Faupl advises seeing money discussions as inquiries and opportunities for greater intimacy.
“Couples can agree that they’re going to explore this issue as a way to get to know each other on a different level,” he says. “I encourage couples to have an inquisitive approach to their relationship with money, and to ask, ‘How do we become a good financial team?’”
Because the use of money is so intimately tied to what we consider important in our lives, discussing it opens a precious window into the values and priorities of both partners, he points out.
Strive for a compassionate understanding of your partner’s point of view. “Whether a person is a spender or a saver by inclination, or whether they know how to manage money or don’t, they are trying to bring parts of themselves to the money relationship that they think are important and of value,” Faupl says. “It’s really wise to explore where you can have empathy for what your partner is trying to contribute, whether that is more care and frugality, more spontaneity and fun, or whatever. This doesn’t mean that you have to agree with what they’re trying to do, but you can communicate to your partner that you really are trying to hear them and to see their perspective on money.”
Start the discussions as early as possible. Faupl recommends proactively communicating about money issues and financial values. The discussion can start as you begin to get serious about each other, even before a definite commitment, he says. “An early discussion is so much better than waiting until a crisis — until one partner says, ‘What on earth is this credit-card charge for?’”
On the other hand, Faupl adds, it’s never too late to begin talking to avoid a buildup of resentment and anger, which could result in an impasse in communications.
Discuss goals. “Once you and your partner have been honest and clear with each other about your values, then you can move to the more granular level,” Faupl says. What does your financial future look like? Do you need to save to make home repairs, to put kids through college, or to retire?
Set up a specific structure. “Next, it’s important to decide on a structure that you both agree on,” explains Faupl. “It might involve choosing a particular budgeting-software system or other method of keeping records. It might be a joint account, individual accounts, or a combination. Some couples merge everything; that’s something I see in older couples, and in some younger ones too. But if you’re going to put everything in one pot, you’d better have some clear agreements up front!”
Consider a combo shared-and-individual plan. A setup that works for many couples, Faupl notes, is a joint account plus individual accounts. To accommodate differences in income, couples can establish a proportional split in contributions to the joint account.
With the individual accounts, there can be an agreement that each partner will inform the other when they’re planning personal spending in excess of an agreed-upon amount. “That way,” he says, “a new Lexus doesn’t appear in the driveway as a total surprise to the other partner.”
Make records and share them. Faupl underlines the importance of writing down your basic financial plans and sharing your records with one another, so there is something to refer to when disagreements arise. “One thing that really trips couples up is when they’re arguing about money and there’s no spending and savings plan document that has the numbers down in black and white,” he says. “The argument becomes nothing more than a battle between different perceptions about what’s happening.”
Regularly schedule your money meetings. It’s important to establish a schedule of money meetings — Faupl advises meeting once a week to start — so you don’t drift into conflicting perceptions about what’s happening.
Seek outside support. Couples can also spend time capitalizing on the wealth of available financial-education resources by taking a class, tuning in to a webinar, listening to a podcast, or reading a book or articles.
And if couples are having a hard time or feeling like they aren’t making progress, Faupl recommends reaching out for help. “Because there is help out there,” he says. “The field of financial therapy is developing rapidly and it can create a safe space for couples to work through these issues.”
He notes that many couples, especially younger ones early on in a relationship, come to him for guidance about money matters well before problems arise.
This article originally appeared as “Invest in Financial Intimacy” in the November/December 2023 issue of Experience Life.