Talking relationship finances with U of M
Finances are a common and often problematic topic of discussion among couples that, left untended, can hurt even the best relationships.
University of Minnesota College of Education and Human Development Professor Joyce Serido shares approaches couples can consider when discussing their finances to avoid common issues.
Q: How can couples benefit from discussing their finances?
Prof. Serido: We know that discussions about finances can be difficult, especially when they lead to disagreements and conflict. While occasional financial disagreements are unavoidable, frequent arguments about finances undermine relationships, whether due to different priorities, lack of money or unexpected financial shocks. However, when couples openly discuss finances and jointly make decisions about saving, spending and investing, they become closer and more satisfied with their relationships. We also know that sharing values and life goals is fundamental to continuing relationship satisfaction. It is precisely because so many life goals involve finances that couples benefit by learning how to discuss finances.
It is important to distinguish between discussing finances and arguing about finances. When couples wait until a problem arises and forces them to talk about it, the discussion is more likely to lead to conflict and unresolved issues. One alternative approach is to be proactive, incorporating finances in a broader discussion of shared values and life goals. The latter approach helps the couple focus on what’s important to them (e.g., career, home or family) and to see finances as one of the tools they need to achieve what’s important to them as a couple.
Q: When is the right time to discuss finances in a relationship?
Prof. Serido: Probably not on a first date! However, people in new relationships are more open to discussion as they get to know each other, discover mutual interests and plan for a future together. Talking about past experiences or future goals around travel, homeownership or vehicle purchases can be used as an opportunity to talk about finances in a casual setting.
It is also true that interaction patterns are established early in a relationship and gain strength over time. Proactive discussions early in a relationship may help couples develop a communication style that fosters open discussion about a range of topics, including finances.
Q: What are examples of financial decisions couples make together?
Prof. Serido: Financial decision making refers to the choices people make about what to do with their money; notably spending, saving, investing and sharing. A good starting point is deciding if finances are to be managed jointly, separately or some combination of both. The same goes with credit cards, assets and loans. Research suggests one approach isn’t necessarily better than another; what’s important is that both partners have a voice in the decision and understand the outcome.
Q: How can couples work through differences in financial priorities?
Prof. Serido: Every couple needs to determine their decision-making style and approach to financial management. Be mindful that each partner comes to the relationship with different financial experiences, which shape the way each partner thinks, feels and talks about finances. Openly discussing these topics is helpful in distinguishing between different priorities versus different approaches to a shared goal.
Financial priorities and goals can and do shift over time. In situations such as the birth of a child or a job loss, talking openly about what is happening, and what to do about it, is a way for couples to reflect on their shared goals, discuss changing expectations and work together to adapt to the change.
It’s important to note that financial disagreements may not be about finances at all, but rather about unequal relationship power and control. If a couple is experiencing frequent financial disagreements, it may be a signal to seek professional advice.
Q: What resources can you offer to couples to guide them through a discussion?
Prof. Serido: It’s challenging to talk about finances, especially during a disagreement. The next time a financial disagreement ensues, consider using it as an opportunity to change a pattern with the following suggestions:
1. Focus on how to solve the specific financial problem at hand. Avoid blaming, shaming or admonishing.
2. Make a date to consider new ideas that may be helpful in avoiding the next unexpected expense, because there will always be another one. Choose a neutral location, such as a park or a coffee shop, to make the date something to look forward to rather than dread.
3. Each partner commits to coming to the date with a proposal.
4. Establish a few simple rules so that your time together will be positive and productive. Include time for each partner to present their alternative without interruption.
If the first date doesn’t go well, try again. It is worth the effort.
Joyce Serido is a professor in the College of Education and Human Development’s Department of Family Social Science and a University of Minnesota Extension Specialist. Her expertise is in financial parenting; financial behavior and economic well being; and financial behavior and early romantic relationships.
About the College of Education and Human Development
The University of Minnesota College of Education and Human Development (CEHD) strives to teach, advance research and engage with the community to increase opportunities for all individuals. As the third largest college on the Twin Cities campus, CEHD research and specialties focus on a range of challenges, including: educational equity, teaching and learning innovations, children’s mental health and development, family resilience, and healthy aging. Learn more at cehd.umn.edu.
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