Family Finances: How we communicate about money

When you’re about to commit to someone for your entire life, it’s beyond wise–nay, should be mandatory—to have some big (and small!) financial discussions.

The purpose of this column is to start a conversation about money, and that’s because conversations about money are important. I feel confident in offering one piece of financial advice to anyone who is married or thinking about getting married: communication is key.

I know, I sound like your mama. What a smart woman she is! But I can promise that you and your spouse will enjoy many more drama-free days if you are on the same page. I’m talking values and vision. If you’re not driving in the same direction, you aren’t going to end up at the same destination. The same age-old advice holds for your finances as well as the number of kids you plan to produce. Here’s the story of how my handsome man and I got on the same page financially…and how we stay on the same page.

When my husband, Aaron, and I got married, my mom gave us a worksheet that she said she wished she and my dad had completed when they got married. The whole point was to get couples to discuss stuff like goals and values before they tied the knot, which, let’s face it, is as much of a financial knot as anything else. I looked at the worksheet…and then lost it and didn’t do it. I mean, who is smart enough to do that kind of stuff when you are twenty-two?! But luckily, Aaron and I did discuss the big things before we got married: whether we wanted kids, how we felt about religion, and our general philosophies in life. For his part, he was made very clear about the level of frugality he was in for when he signed up.

Throughout our marriage we’ve had two kinds of financial conversations. 1) Big picture–“what do we want out of life” kinds of conversations and 2) Month-to-month–“where is the money going” types of convos.

Big Picture Conversations

Big picture conversations tend to happen for us on Sunday afternoons and on vacations. Before we had kids, we used to take long bike rides. Now our Sunday evenings involve a pile of younguns in a wagon behind us, but the same principle applies. There is something about being out in the wide-open, walking beside someone (not actually looking them in the eye–this is key) that makes you spill your guts. I think it is also important to have these conversations when you are relaxed–if you want a “spirited” discussion, just try bringing up money when your honey just got home from a twelve-hour shift or when the kids have been driving you both up the wall.

There is something about being out in the wide-open, walking beside someone that makes you spill your guts.

On these excursions, we ask big questions like: Are we making progress toward our goals? Have our goals shifted? Do we need to make any changes? We have discovered surprising, deep things about each other during these quiet, low-pressure meanderings. And some of our biggest decisions have been made while we were having these conversations on vacation. Aaron decided to go into business for himself while we were driving around in a rental listening to Latino music in Puerto Rico. I realized I wanted to leave my job and figure out a new path while reading Ice T’s biography on the beach.

Monthly Conversations

Usually once a month (although we do tend to skip entire months at a time when the semester gets really busy) Aaron and I do a financial check-in. I enjoy these quick money updates almost as much as our deep discussions. I give him an update on how our monthly income and spending have kept to the expected course or how they’re about to scream way out into the stratosphere. For example, if our annual health insurance premium is about to come due or something. We have easy discussions like “Should we have this thing done in the house this month or put it off,” “How is the business cash flow looking in the near future.” and “Why is the credit card payment looking scary high/refreshingly low this month?” Aaron also has a account that allows him to see the balances in our accounts any time. (I have no need for the service because these numbers are burned into my head due to the fact that I check things like our mortgage balance on the reg.)

Even with all this checking in and deep conversations, I still worry that I am making too many of the financial decisions. We agree to every financial decision together, but I’m the one driving choices–choices like our savings allocation and the funds in which our savings are invested. I don’t ever want Aaron to say that, had he really and truly understood a suggestion I made, he wouldn’t have supported it, or that he didn’t know why “we” made a certain financial decision. But in the here and now, I thank goodness that we share the same values and goals and that we have a strong enough relationship to communicate with each other about money matters and make financial decisions together.

And really it is all about communication. How do you and your partner communicate about money? As little as possible? By telepathy? I kid, I kid. I know you have some great ideas and suggestions that I am hoping you’ll share below.

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Amanda Gibson

Amanda Gibson used to teach folks about money at the Fed. Now she spends her days reading history books, raising kids, and thinking of ways to rule the world.

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