Most of us learned early on to avoid three things in polite conversation: sex, religion, and politics. Oh, how times have changed! Today, sex, religion, and politics seem to be the hottest topics—in the news and on the tips of everyone’s tongues. Unfortunately, few of these conversations are spurring rational, thoughtful discourse (often quite the opposite). And while it’s unlikely any of us can personally shift what seems to be the new societal norm, the one conversation we can shift is the one about taboo-topic number four: Money.
In my last blog post, I wrote about the importance of having “the money talk” before you get married. But what about the rest of the time? Talking about money before you say “I do” is important, but breaking the silence and keeping that conversation going in every relationship in your life can deliver some fantastic benefits. A stronger financial partnership with your spouse or partner. Better balance between your long-term and short-term goals. More financially aware children. A better understanding of your aging parents’ financial needs. And less money-related stress for everyone.
It’s a grand goal, but fostering healthy money conversations can be a challenge, especially when we’ve been taught that money talk is as taboo—if not more so—as sex, religion, and politics. In my own family, my parents seemed always to be talking about money. While it seemed to be their favorite topic, the taboos still existed. They talked (and argued) about money, but they never, ever mentioned amounts. Were we rich? Were we poor? I never knew. But I do know I walked away with my own deeply held beliefs about money, and not all of them were good.
I’m not alone in that experience. I meet many people who don’t know a thing about their parents’ assets. They don’t know if Mom and Dad have enough saved to fund their old age (which can have a dramatic impact on the finances of their adult children). They don’t know if their parents have an estate plan, if they have any significant debt, or how they plan to pass on their assets to the next generation. Worse yet, many people carry on that tradition of money secrecy into their own relationships—and bring a whole lot of money “baggage” along for the ride.
It’s a tough cycle to break. Not only do many of us lack the vocabulary to talk about money, but breaking free from our old ways of thinking can be a huge challenge. If a friend or co-worker asks how much money we make, we cringe and wonder, “How can she ask me that?! She broke the rules!” The better question is, “Why wouldn’t she ask?” Does the question bring up negative emotions? Self-judgment? Pride? Ego? Shame? Consider this: What would the conversation be like if we could let go of those emotions and have a real conversation about money?
While you might not be ready for the leap of discussing your salary at work (though I urge you to get there eventually), the place where it is vital to start talking about money is in your own home. The first step: explore your money mindset by looking at the conversations you have with yourself about money. Ask yourself these questions and think deeply about the answers. Don’t be surprised if your answers run the gamut—from easy or exciting, to stressful or shameful, to downright emotional. Remember that there’s no right or wrong. Just be as honest with yourself as you can:
- Talking about money is ?
- Talking to my romantic partner about money is ?
- Talking to my parents about money is ?
- Talking to my children about money is ?
- At work, money is ?
- My parents taught me that money is ?
- My religion taught me that money is ?
- My biggest fear about money is ?
Once you’ve thought about your own responses, ask your spouse or partner to do the same—and then share your answers with each other. It’s a great way to open up the channels of communication and understand your unique perspectives about finances. It may suddenly make complete sense to you (and to him) why your spouse has a hard time putting money away for that next vacation, or why your stomach drops every time you take on even a little extra debt. There’s nothing like good communication to foster understanding.
Of course, understanding your partner’s perspective isn’t the same as agreeing with it. Money problems rank as the number-one reason for divorce, and it’s no wonder. In her book Breaking Money Silence: How to Shatter Money Taboos, Talk More Openly about Finances, and Live a Richer Life, wealth psychology expert Kathleen Burns Kingsbury suggests couples agree to the following rules for whenever money is a part of the conversation:
- Be respectful.
- Use “I” statements.
- Listen actively.
- Don’t mind-read.
- Practice curiosity.
- Agree to disagree.
- Reward yourself.
Following these basic guidelines can help you turn money arguments into real conversations that spur the rational, thoughtful discourse that can lead to better decisions, better finances, and yes, better relationships. And if you find that you need assistance appreciating each other’s differences and working together toward a more sound approach to your finances, a financial advisor—especially one trained in mediation techniques—can be a tremendous benefit. As always, we’re here to help.
Let the conversations begin!