Communication Strategies for Talking about Money with a Significant Other


If you and your partner are constantly arguing about finances, your problems could run deeper than an overdue power bill or an expensive restaurant meal. Conflicts about debt, purchases and other money problems may indicate relationship issues that need to be addressed sooner rather than later.

“For couples, the hardest thing to talk about is sex and finances, and that’s because our parents didn’t talk about it when we were growing up,” said Jordie Smith, licensed marriage and family therapist (LMFT) and owner of Jordie Smith Counseling, LLC in Canton, Michigan. Having conversations about money with a romantic partner is important for developing and maintaining lasting and healthy relationships, she said. 

Why is talking about money important for relationships?

  • Conversations normalize the subject. If your parents treated money like a taboo subject, you might also avoid discussing savings and debt.
  • Financial peace brings a sense of safety. Calls from bill collectors or fear of the cost of an unexpected emergency can cause anxiety and stress.

“When you are in a relationship, you want to be safe with that person,” Smith said. “When you have some outside factors that aren’t addressed, that threatens the safety.” 

Being transparent and open to discussions about spending and saving keeps relationships strong and prevents financial infidelity—when a partner hides debt or purchases. Those unpleasant surprises do not help build relationships, she said.

Online Counseling Programs has rounded up resources for couples to help them understand why money should not be a taboo topic and how to consider finances at different stages in their relationship.

Table of Contents

How To Deal With Money Issues in a Relationship

Before the commitment stage of a relationship, couples should discuss money in the same way that they talk about their work, their friends and their families, Smith said. 

“Oftentimes, we will ask how your relationship was with your mom or your sister, but we don’t talk about our relationship with finances,” she said.

As individuals grow closer, those conversations should begin to touch on subjects such as their philosophy toward money and their spending habits. 

Talking About Finances in a Relationship

When people commit to a relationship, they should continue to engage in productive financial conversations. Smith offered strategies to help facilitate the discussions:

  • Schedule regular meetings to talk about money. If you have children, make it a family meeting. Make it weekly, bi-weekly or monthly.
  • Manage expectations about the meeting. Life changes, such as a job loss or promotion, affect money. Be prepared for emotional discussions.
  • Make clear how each of you values money. Does one partner like designer labels while the other does not?
  • Work together to find a compromise or financial plan that satisfies both. Identify what expenses are a priority, and make a plan to pay for them.

How To Have the Hard Conversations About Money

Finding ways to approach the subject of money may require sensitivity, but transparency encourages trust. Relationships require trust and effort, Smith said. She offered tips for partners to use when they are having the difficult conversations: 

Use the Speaker-Listener method. This facilitates active listening. By allowing one person to speak at a time while the other listens and confirms what they heard before responding, the process slows down to a more thoughtful interaction.

How To Use the Speaker-Listener Method: 

Partner A: I feel frustrated that we aren’t saving more money by staying home for dinner. 

Partner B: I understand that you feel frustrated that we aren’t saving more by staying home for dinner, but I get stressed by meal planning and preparation.

Partner A: I get it. Meal planning and preparation causes stress, so why don’t we do takeout? We’ll at least save on drinks, parking and a larger tip.

Use “I” language. Blame does not get assigned to the other person when starting the conversation with “I feel” or “I get stressed out.”

Move the discussion forward. Dwelling on the problem is not helpful and potentially continues a blaming cycle. Acknowledge it, and then discuss common goals to reach resolution.

Additional Resources for Couples With Money Problems

Articles

Books and Guides

  • Couples and Money by Jackie Black: Questions that will help couples understand each other’s values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors as they relate to money.
  • Couples Money by Marlow Felton and Chris Felton: Perspective on the financial dynamic of a partnership by a married couple in the financial services industry.
  • Home Finances for Couples by Leo Ostapiv: Advice on financial planning and practical exercises and budgeting tips.
  • Thriving in Love and Money by Shaunti Feldhahn and Jeff Feldhahn: Research to help couples understand each other, which will lead to better financial decision-making.

Podcasts and Videos

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What Should Couples Discuss at Different Stages of a Relationship?

As couples mature, their relationships change. Their money needs may evolve as expenses are affected by moving to new locations for jobs, unexpected medical costs or a growing family. The money conversations should continue at every stage.  

Planning for Engagement and Marriage

Because being in a new relationship can be exciting and distracting, couples might overlook the importance of talking about finances and/or money problems. Smith said that having those discussions is essential to avoiding future misunderstandings.

“If I value ‘high’ in clothing and my partner doesn’t, that might be an issue. We want to think (and talk) about what are some of these values when we’re having conversations so that we have clear expectations,” she added. 

To ease into the subject of finances, ask conversationally, “Do you like to keep up with the latest fashion trends or tech gadgets?” or “If you had more money, what would you spend it on?”. Smith said that once you’ve opened the door to the subject of spending, you can start asking important questions.

Smith provided these tips for talking about money before couples enter the commitment stage:

Be clear. Don’t be vague or ambiguous. Ask direct questions such as: “I feel very nervous about credit-card debt and try to watch my spending and pay off balances monthly. Do you worry about credit-card debt?”

Be observant. People usually can tell if someone is hiding something by their reactions to questions about money. Are they nervous, avoiding eye contact or trying to change the subject of the conversation?

Discuss debt. If you have debt from student or car loans, talk about it. Ask a potential partner what loans they have. Full disclosure helps build trust in a relationship.

State goals. Talk about what your plans are to pay off debt or other bills. Ask your partner to share theirs. You may discover ways to work together in a relationship.

Recognize incompatibility. If your money conversations leave you with any doubts, you should consider your needs before entering the commitment stage.

Additional Resources for Couples Before They Get Engaged

Articles

Books and Guides

Podcasts and Videos

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Planning To Buy a Home

Purchasing a home is another kind of commitment that requires careful consideration, Smith said. Being homeowners requires resources beyond money. Couples may have to put time into any desired upgrades or modifications, including researching, hiring and dealing with contractors.

Smith offered these tips for people who are thinking about buying a house: 

Don’t rush. Pause and ask if this is the house that you really want and how long you expect to live in it. Would it accommodate children or other family members (parents or grandparents) whom you might have to bring in later on?

Anticipate the unexpected. Take into account all potential expenses, such as repairs that might be needed sooner rather than later in the life of the house. How will you save for an emergency repair fund?

Use experts. Check which banks, credit unions and community organizations have advisors available, especially for first-time homebuyers. Some financial institutions provide free financial planning services.

Couples should not feel like they have to do everything by themselves. “If there’s an issue, there’s usually someone who specializes in it,” Smith said. “People just aren’t always aware of what’s available.” 

Additional Resources for Couples Thinking About Buying a Home

Articles

Books and Guides

Podcasts and Videos

Websites

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Planning for a Family

When couples start planning a family, they must budget for the obvious expenses: medical, food, clothing, supplies and more. Children’s needs have to be addressed.

“It always feels like there’s never enough money for children, and there’s always something else that we could spend or be saving toward,” Smith said.

Before having children, she said that partners should find common ground in these areas:

Attitudes about money: Think about the lessons about money from childhood and what they would follow or do differently. What kind of role models do couples want to be for their children? Will behavior emphasize earning, spending or saving?

Short- and long-term needs: Consider what expenses they will incur right away and later. Do they have money for child care? Will there be money for a car when the child gets older? What about a college fund? Will parents need to be vigilant about saving money?

Additional Resources for Family Planning

Articles 

Books

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Planning for Retirement

For people who have the resources to plan ahead, Smith said that conversations about what retirement looks like for each partner can happen even in the early stages of a relationship. Retirement should be part of overall discussions about goals that happen regularly.

Couples should share their vision of retirement and discuss ways to accomplish that goal. Do they see themselves lounging on a beach or enjoying the pace of a small town? 

Smith acknowledged that retirement planning can be a matter of privilege because saving can be difficult for many people.

“Sometimes people are just struggling and can’t think far enough toward retirement,” she said. 

“If you can’t think that far ahead, that’s OK,” she added. “For some people, it’s about thinking about how to save a little bit just for a rainy day fund right now.”

Additional Resources for Retirement Planning

Articles

Books and Guides

  • The Couple’s Retirement Puzzle by Roberta Taylor and Dorian Mintzer: Advice, anecdotes and exercises related to 10 conversations that couples need to have as they plan for retirement.
  • Don’t Go Broke in Retirement by Steve Vernon: Information and tools to generate the most income from Social Security benefits and retirement savings.

Podcasts and Videos

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How To Know When To Seek Couples Counseling for Financial Stress

Financial difficulties don’t always have easy answers. Sometimes couples need to seek help from a counselor, therapist or financial expert. 

“Typically, intuition will tell us that we don’t like the situation and that we should reach out,” Smith said.

Signs That Couples Should Seek Counseling for Financial Issues

Wishful thinking: One example is when a partner says, “I wish we would do X,Y and Z like we used to do” or something similar.

Communication failure: This happens when partners are yelling at each other or even walking away from conversations instead of discussing problems and potential solutions.

Screaming, withdrawal, avoidance or anything that a partner’s instincts tell them is wrong is worthy of attention because of the effects on the relationship. 

“Once we start seeing changes that may not feel healthy to us, it never hurts to reach out for help,” Smith said.

Additional Resources To Know When To Get Couples Counseling for Money Problems

Articles

Podcasts and Videos

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Information on OnlineCounselingPrograms.com is not intended to be a substitute for professional counseling advice. Always consult qualified professionals with any questions you may have about mental and behavioral health-related issues.

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