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A young, married (happy) couple who were expecting a baby began a discussion about financial priorities this way: He got a bonus, cashed it and surprised her with a new state-of-the-art TV. When he told her the “good news,” she burst into tears, which progressed to sobbing. They had no washer or dryer, and she had to wash clothes at a coin laundry . . . and dreaded the thought of having to do it with a baby in tow. (The TV went back immediately; a washer and dryer were delivered; she recalls it as the best Christmas present ever — she had never wanted anything that badly.)

There are lots of ways to open a financial discussion with your spouse. For many of us, the default choice is waiting for the subject to come up on its own.

A Loaf of Bread, a Jug of Wine & a Credit Report

Personal finance expert Terry Savage says there’s a better way. She also said that couples often have the idea that a money talk isn’t romantic. She disagrees. “What is more romantic than a conversation demonstrating trust, respect and concern for each other’s well-being?” Wine and candlelight, you say? She says there’s no reason they can’t be combined. “Have a glass of wine, print out both of your credit reports, and exchange them,” she suggests. Or check out even more credit data (you can check your credit scores for free at Credit.com) and show your partner how creditors see you.

Savage, co-author of The New Love Deal: Everything You Must Know Before Marrying, Moving In or Moving On, says the haze of romance blinds us to many issues of financial compatibility. In fact, she says a lot of us are more comfortable with being sexually intimate than we are being financially intimate. And part of the reason is we don’t really know how to do that. The book, co-authored by a judge, Michele Lowrance, and a divorce attorney, Gemma Allen, aims to provide a road map for helping couples to understand one another (and themselves).

Chapters have some food for thought (or conversation), such as:

  • “I believe financial generosity is a sign of love.”
  • “I am sad when I do not feel trusted.”
  • “I am angry when I do not feel trusted.”

The idea is to figure out which beliefs are yours — and to become aware of which are your spouse’s. Talk about your histories and money personalities. You can discuss practical issues, but also emotional triggers. (Maybe his mother hid purchases from his dad, and he finds a charge slip for something she hadn’t mentioned buying. Maybe seeing a parent who scrimped and saved die well before retirement age affects how she wants to use money now.) And make a plan so that finances don’t become a battleground.

What Am I Supposed to Say?

Savage says the keys to intimate financial disclosure are the same ones couples use for effective communication.

  • You must disclose your own thoughts and feelings. (It all starts with openness, Savage says.)
  • You need to learn how to listen and to see someone else’s perspective.
  • You must learn to appreciate feedback.

“The ingredients for a successful marriage are the same as for a financial discussion,” Savage says.

Almost no one has so much money that they don’t have to prioritize, she said, and couples need to hear — and understand — why the other person’s priorities are what they are. It gets tricky because for a lot of us, we can’t afford to do everything that we consider “important.” And so we prioritize. How much to save for retirement, the sports car he’s dreamed of for years, the European vacation, whether to buy long-term care insurance. But telling your partner that it really IS important enough to you to go to the championship game to spend hundreds of dollars on a ticket, or that if you had to cut household spending to the bone, the very last thing to go would be Botox, is intimate. It’s revealing a part of who you are and what you value.

Savage says there’s not a lot you can do to change your own money personality or your partner’s. But you can recognize your money personalities and respect them when you make decisions and decide how to handle finances. Because a lot of money fights aren’t about money at all — they’re about feeling heard, respected and cared for.

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