My husband once described money as “a necessary evil.” Yet the poor guy married a woman whose career is to write about the green stuff. Even when I’m not working, I find myself compelled to talk about our finances—a lot. What’s working, what isn’t, what’s next; what we dream of doing, what we probably should do instead.
Money talk happens in our household daily, but I do most of the talking. “We should eat out less,” I’ll say. Or, “Maybe it’s time to call off the house search for good.” My attempts rarely lead to fruitful discussion.
Years ago, we took a couples and money class from St. Paul financial educator Ruth Hayden (ruthhayden.com). I wrote about the class in the Star Tribune (tinyurl.com/kh8skud), with the hope that readers would learn from our experience. I re-read that column recently and realized that we’ve pretty much fallen into our old patterns of (not) managing our money life.
It’s time to get out of our rut. Here’s what we plan to do. Hopefully these suggestions will help as you think about your money relationships.
1. Have a heart-to-heart.
Money is emotional. It’s complex. It’s uncertain. It’s central to life. Sounds kind-of like relationships. Having money talks are terribly important, but are not typically on the top of someone’s “can’t wait to do” list.
To start, set aside time to dedicate to the topic. Try to minimize diversions—consider hiring a babysitter and making it part of a date night.
Begin the conversation with a look backward. Share your money stories. Discuss your early memories of money, the emotions you connect with money, and your money values, or what money means to you. Try not to judge or interrupt your partner; just listen. When your partner is finished, it will be your turn.
2. Put numbers on a page.
Once you talk about what money means to you and explore why that has come to be, it’s time to shift from philosophical to practical. Crack open the laptop and check your bank balances, credit card bills, and retirement statements to suss out where your money is going. Are you both OK with the overall picture, or would you like to make some adjustments? Going forward, consider tracking your spending with a personal financial management tool like mint.com. There are plenty of online retirement and college savings calculators to give you a rough estimate of your needs. If you need help from a financial planner, see my September Grows On Trees column.
3. Practically speaking, decide who does what, and who gets what.
It’s perfectly OK to divide and conquer. Realistically, it’s the only option for running a busy family. Some people are good at paying bills on time. Others prefer the long term planning. Sometimes that person is one in the same. However, this is not an invitation to stay away from the kitchen table economics. It’s important for both people to understand the big picture and to jump in with help as needed.
One thing we learned from Hayden is the importance of having “his” and “her” spending accounts. Essentially, this is money that we each have to use however we’d like without judgment or discussion. We used this method for a long time (he saved up for phones and bike parts, I paid for massages and movies) until we fell out of the habit. Time to reinstate those dollar amounts.
4. Dare to dream.
It’s easy for couples to get mired in the tedium of daily money management, but it’s important to check in about dreams from time-to-time. Where will we be, as individuals, as a couple, and as a family, in the next five, 10, 25, or 50 years? Do those dreams align with financial reality, or must adjustments be made?
I know from experience that these conversations can be frustrating—either the unknowns are so great paralysis sets in, or the known fact that the money isn’t plentiful enough dashes dreams. Still, having these conversations help refocus spending and reignite goals.
5. Make a date.
Oh, if only money meetings were one and done, but you have to stick with them. We’ve had a money meeting on our calendar on Sunday night for as long as I can remember—in theory. Honestly, we rarely meet. That has to change. Instead of peppering my husband with money questions while he’s trying to unwind after work, I’m going to jot them down and save them for our weekly check-in. That way he’ll be more engaged. I’ll feel like less of a bother. And we’ll be more in tune with our family’s financial wants, needs, and plans.
Kara McGuire is a personal finance writer and a St. Paul mother of three. Send comments, questions and story ideas to