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Why Some People Don’t Talk About Money With Their Partner

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Bruce J. Smith III

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People who are stressed about their finances are often wary of talking about money with their romantic partners, even though it may be beneficial to their relationship, new research finds.

People worried about bills, feeling overwhelmed about overspending or concerned about money management may expect a “money talk” to lead to an argument, so they avoid bringing up the topic, according to a report from researchers at Cornell University and Yale University, published this month in The Journal of Consumer Psychology. Yet previous research has found that communicating about money helps couples spend more responsibly and better manage their debt.

“They anticipate conflict, so they’re choosing not to have these conversations at all,” said Emily Garbinsky, associate professor of marketing and management communication at Cornell’s business school and one of the study’s authors.

Why is it so difficult for some people to talk about money with their partners in the first place?

Aja Evans, a financial therapist in New York, said people may feel ashamed that they are having money troubles. They may worry that talking about such things with their partner will hurt their relationship. (Financial therapists work to help clients understand how their emotions and beliefs about money can affect their financial behavior.)

“It’s a defense mechanism,” she said. “But with financial issues, the more you avoid it, the worse it gets.”


Megan Ford, a faculty member and financial therapist at the University of Georgia, said people from families that struggled financially or that didn’t encourage talking about money might lack good models for how to have productive conversations about finances.

“We’re each bringing our own money baggage into a relationship,” she said. “Sometimes it’s a handbag. Sometimes it’s three large suitcases.”

But the more people avoid financial conversations, Ford added in an email, the more they lose out on opportunities to better understand themselves and their partners.

Brad Klontz, a psychologist and financial planner, said couples at some point typically had “the conversation” about future plans, including whether to have children. “But I don’t think people have that conversation about money,” he said. He likes to prompt clients to reflect on questions that can help them home in on the source of their attitudes, such as, “What are my top three financial goals?” and “What are my most painful and joyful memories about money?”

When it comes to managing money, opposites often attract, said Scott Rick, an associate professor of marketing at the University of Michigan’s business school, and the author of “Tightwads and Spendthrifts: Navigating the Money Minefield in Real Relationships.”

Someone who typically operates on a strict budget may initially be enamored of a partner who is less fiscally restrained. “It can be charming at first,” Rick said, “especially for a tightwad who is wowed by a carefree spendthrift.”

Over the long term, however, what’s initially fascinating can become irritating, especially if the couple have children and must budget for their needs as well as their own. But in general, each partner can balance out the other’s more extreme tendencies. Rick said that while he was more willing to splurge, his wife was more cautious about spending.

“I’m married to a tightwad,” he said, and it works out great, he said, because he and his wife have a give and take. “I let her win on material things, and she lets me win with experiences or vacations,” he said. “You don’t want one person to win all the time. You need those different perspectives.”

— Here are some questions and answers about relationships and money:

Q: Is it best for couples to have joint bank accounts or separate ones?

A: Research suggests pooling funds increases the satisfaction in relationships, Garbinsky said. If you share an account, it forces conversations about money. “It helps get couples on the same page,” she said.

Rick said a joint account helped the couple think of all their money as belonging to them as a unit, rather than as individuals. Big expenses, like rent or a mortgage or car payments, and basics like utilities should be paid from the joint account. “Launder all money through a joint account,” he said. “It’s all ‘our’ money, for high-level decisions.”

But Rick also suggests that each partner can be allocated an amount, kept in a separate account, to cover personal expenses and whatever bills he or she is responsible for individually. The amounts don’t have to be equal, he said. If one parent handles child care payments, music lessons or sports fees for children, that parent would get a bigger allocation.

That way, each partner can spend on a day-to-day basis without feeling as if his or her spouse is scrutinizing every purchase. “We need our individual interests and pursuits,” he said.

Q: What’s a good way for couples to begin talking about money?

A: If money talks feel scary, start by practicing with “low stakes” decisions, said Debra Kaplan, a licensed therapist and the author of “Coupleship Inc.: From Financial Conflict to Financial Intimacy.” Rather than debating, say, when or where you want to retire, start with something like how much to spend for your next vacation.

“Imagine you are on a team solving a problem,” she said. “You’re working toward an outcome for the greater good of the team, not ‘what I will lose if I don’t get my way.’”

Q: How often should couples talk about money?

A: Evans recommends regularly setting aside time — ideally, monthly — to talk about your finances. “I love the ‘money date’ concept,” she said. Topics might include a review of recent spending or progress toward financial goals. It can be done at home or out at a restaurant, if you feel comfortable doing so.

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Bruce J. Smith III profile photo

Bruce J. Smith III

The WealthKare Investment Center
Office : (814) 542-5433
Schedule a meeting