Having 'the talk' about money with your spouse


A common relationship truism is that "relationships are built on trust and honesty." That phrase applies to the emotional aspects of a partnership, but it also applies to your joined finances.

An August 2016 CIBC poll of adults about to get married or enter into a common-law relationship found that while virtually all (99 per cent) agreed that talking money was important to discuss finances with their partner, about two-thirds had not done so. The majority of those who hadn't had "the talk" said they were unsure how to address the topic.

According to experts, these couples could be heading for trouble.

"If you look at the research of why people have conflict in a relationship, money's one of the top three," says Jason Abbott, a certified financial planner with Toronto-based WEALTHdesigns.

If you're avoiding this conversation in the "honeymoon period" when everything's rosy, how will you be able to do it when there's a problem?

Find out where you stand
"If you don't know your spouse's attitude toward finances, you have to have this conversation," says Abbott. You need to know how your philosophy about money is similar to your partner's, and how it's different.

"It's going to be an ongoing conflict if the two spouses don't see eye to eye and aren't philosophically aligned when it comes to managing money," Abbott says.

That doesn't mean you have to mirror each other, but you do have to find some middle ground. Do you agree about what constitutes a problem?

"Because you can't fix a problem unless both people think it's a problem," says Abbott.

Start the conversation early
When you think - or know - there's a problem, start the conversation. "Don't let it get so far behind that it's a major undertaking to fix it," says Abbott.

For example, you know if you have a problem with overspending. "If credit card balances are accruing and interest charges are being generated, then I think you have to come clean," Abbott says.

Similarly, if bills start getting behind or you're getting late notices or collection calls, you'll want to check in with your partner.

It's also often easy to spot a shopping problem in your spouse (or soon-to-be spouse). "The signs are usually pretty obvious because there's new merchandise that finds its way into the house," says Abbott.

If your partner has a serious problem and is trying to hide it, then you're likely dealing with more than a financial issue.

"If someone doesn't have control over their actions, then it goes beyond the scope of what a financial planner would do," says Abbott. However, you can still help bring this problem out into the open and help your partner find appropriate help, such as regular counselling.

Having the talk
Perhaps your partner is primarily responsible for finances, and you're out of the loop and didn't realize there's a cash flow problem. Or perhaps your spouse is an over-spender, or you discover a secret bank account.

Whatever the situation, you need to have a discussion with your partner, but, "You don't want to just go barging in and talking about this," says Marian Meade, a marriage and emotional fitness specialist. "You need to really prepare for it and strategize."

She recommends taking the following steps if you've uncovered a problem:

  • Recognize your feelings. You may be angry. You may feel that your boundaries have been crossed or that you've been disrespected. There may be a loss of trust.

    "Feel those feelings, but then don't let them run the show," Meade says. "Otherwise, you're not only going to have a financial problem, you're now going to have a relationship problem."

  • Make an appointment to talk to your partner. This ensures that you find a time that suits both of you, when you have time and privacy and can give the matter your full attention.

    Take the whole picture into consideration, Meade suggests. If it's your partner's birthday the next day, that might not be the best time to bring this up.

  • Strategize ahead of time. Think about what your objective is. Do you want to rake your partner over the coals, or do you want to understand what has happened and solve the problem?

    "Keep the focus on what the results are that you want, and imagine yourself having the conversation ahead of time," says Meade. "If you do that, it's easier for you to keep your cool and avoid getting off track."

  • Set up the rules of engagement. "When our emotions are really intense, we cannot think clearly," says Meade. "The rules of engagement need to be discussed ahead of time."

    If you or your partner notices a rise in intensity, allow yourselves a timeout. Decide ahead of time how long you will allow for such breaks - you do need to get back to the conversation.

  • Keep cool. "You have no idea what's going on with your partner unless you ask, and if you get all uppity about it, you're not going to get the information you want," says Meade. So watch your tone of voice, use clear and neutral language, and don't exaggerate, all of which will put your partner on the defensive. Instead, treat your partner with compassion and respect.

    If you're calm and collected, your partner is more likely to be as well. If you lose your cool, apologize and move on.

    "You really want to understand what's going on and find solutions moving forward so that this doesn't turn into a pattern," says Meade.

  • Be genuine. Be open and honest about your feelings and allow yourself to be vulnerable. Don't just talk about the overt feelings such as anger, but the fear or sadness that might be lurking beneath. This puts you on equal footing and it gives your partner the opportunity to express his or her feelings as well.

The steps aren't much different if you're the one who's gone afoul. You may have to allow a longer timeout to give your partner time to process the situation.

"Go in with an open posture rather than a defensive one," says Meade. Take responsibility for your actions, and empathize with your partner's feelings.

"Now you've paved the way for the good feelings to come back. You're a team," says Meade, and you can work on solving your financial problem together.

Take care of the finances
Now that the emotional aspect has been taken care of you, you're ready to tackle the financial problem.

"You're in an economic partnership," Abbott says. That means that even if your spouse has the primary responsibility for the finances, you still need to check in, no matter how busy you are.

"You might not have to know the numbers specifically, but you should always have a general awareness of how you're doing," he says.

He suggests having a brief money conversation, once a month. Put a budget down on paper. It doesn't have to be formal, just write down the money coming in and the bills that need to be paid, and anything that needs to be planned for, such as a child's birthday or Christmas.

"It only takes a few minutes to sit down and have it organized," Abbott says. "But again, both spouses have to want to and be prepared to put that little bit of time aside to have that financial check-in."

Online banking and other tools make it easier to keep on top of things and to ensure bills have been paid and spending has been kept in check.

Depending on how big a debt hole has been dug, you might also want to seek outside help from a financial planner or credit counsellor.

"The fear of having the conversation gets in the way, but once you get started, it only gets easier," says Abbott. "And now you've got two people working on the problem rather than one."

See related: 3 signs your spouse is lying about finances; How to prevent debt from spoiling your wedding; Debt, income disparities take toll on marriage
Published March 9, 2017

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