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How to Keep a Money Talk From Becoming a Money Fight

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Talking about money with a partner can be difficult. Partly because if things are going great and everyone’s in harmony, there’s no urgency about it. And when you’re dreaming about what you’d do if you wins the lottery, nobody is seriously worried about what will happen if you don’t.

But when decisions need to be made, or when you’re concerned about your finances, there’s no getting around the need for a conversation. You’re probably already worried that what you hope will be a money discussion will turn into a money fight (more about that later).

And so you summon your courage and say, “We need to talk.” Personal finance expert and mediator Paula Langguth Ryan calls those four words “the worst way to begin a difficult money talk,” no matter how well-intentioned. Though the statement is simple and to the point, those words are so often used as a preface to bad news that your mate will almost certainly have a Pavlovian “fight or flight” response says Ryan.

But figuring out what to say to open a conversation isn’t easy either. And money fights, Ryan notes, aren’t really about money. They are much more about fear, she says. So, how do you begin the conversation? We got some general advice and some specific examples.

First the general advice:

“Something that ties the two parties together AND lets the other party know that the first person is sharing something that makes them feel vulnerable” is a better way to open the conversation, Ryan said in an email.

“Anytime you can bring the money talk around to the feelings and the fears … it’s a good thing, she said. “Avoid getting stuck on the positions people are taking and the stories we are telling about what our fears mean about us (you’re stingy, you never want to have fun, you’re breaking an agreement, you have put us in the position of losing the house).”

Delivering Scary News

headshot smiling with blank space on rightHere’s how that might look in practice. Let’s say your very unreasonable boss got the better of you and you quit (or were fired). How do you explain that to a spouse?

Ryan says family circumstances would make a lot of difference. If this were a second income that allowed for vacations or extra retirement savings or went for some other goal other than simply keeping the household afloat, it’s an easier conversation, because your mate is likely less afraid. It’s crucially important that the money problem be presented as a problem to be faced as a team. Here’s how Ryan might introduce the topic:

“My boss and I came to a mutual decision that it was best for me to leave my position. I know this is going to create some big financial changes for us, and I wanted to talk with you about what fears might be coming up for each of us so we can come up with a plan that works and makes both of us feel financially secure still. . .”

You acknowledge your own vulnerability, ask about your partner’s feelings, and then tie the two of you together against the problem. It’s still not a pleasant discussion but it’s a lot less likely to turn into mutual accusations. The goal is to create something you both want… in this case, a survival plan.

You’ll have to go into specifics, like a tighter budget, perhaps, or how you’ll manage debt with less income. Talking about how to protect your credit will likely be necessary, too, but it can be done with partners fighting the problem rather than each other, Ryan says.

But money talks or disagreements aren’t just for when there’s not enough of it. They can happen when there’s an unexpected bonus or inheritance and one person wants to take a monthlong “trip of a lifetime” and the other wants to finish paying off the mortgage before retirement. Ryan says the formula is the same. The feelings may be that one spouse sees money as a route to security and the other grew up unable to afford much and really, really wants to splurge. Creativity can help solve the problem, Ryan says — thinking way outside the box. And still, the goal is to create something that you both want.

Once More — With Feelings

It’s a good idea to explore where the feelings are coming from and where any fears or insecurities lie. Or where someone picked up a particular pattern. (Is it really important to have a latte every day? It might be … although if you recognize that it’s getting in the way of creating something both partners want, it may be easier to cut back.) “You have to recognize they’re not doing something to irritate you — it’s just a habit,” says Ryan.

Another thing couples should do together is check their free credit reports, which they can do once a year. They can also check their credit scores, which are free every month on Credit.com. First, it’s important to be sure credit reports are correct, because credit scores are derived from information in credit reports. Second, understanding where you are can help you decide where you want to go and make a plan to get there.

What’s most important is working together despite differences. And if by “we need to talk,” you’re really thinking “I need to talk, and you need to listen,” it’s important to figure out how you — yes, financially responsible, careful-with-credit you — might be contributing to the problem.

Consider a newly married couple who open a joint checking account together. She doesn’t always pay full balances on credit cards and makes liberal use of ATMs. He pays bills in full the day they arrive and rarely carries much cash. You can imagine how quickly they will need to talk. But the talk isn’t, “You have got to stop using ATMs without telling me!” It is: “I just realized you are taking money out, and I pay the bills as soon as they arrive — now we have a problem.” And then asking for your spouse’s help in solving it.

He just might find out why it feels so important for her to carry cash, and she might gain a new understanding of how determined he is to avoid debt and late fees — because he came from a home where finances were chaotic and he craves stability now. But if one of them starts the conversation with “we need to talk,” it could take a whole lot longer to find out.

More on Managing Debt:

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