If you’re not talking openly about money with your partner, you’re not building a shared future. But discussing finances is, for many, difficult. After all, beneath the surface of every financial conversation are the major factors underpinning any relationship: power, intimacy, and trust. They also hit on self-worth, one’s ability to provide, and security. It’s a loaded area.
One of the most volatile areas of financial discussion are spending habits. When you think your partner might be spending excessively, it’s easy to become riled up. You’re thinking, Why is this person spending so much on X when we need to save for Y and Z? How can they be so reckless? Such discussions can easily devolve into accusations and attacks.
When you want to talk to your partner about their spending habits, what to do? First, it’s important to understand the bigger theme, which is that the question of spending habits is a question of priorities, and to you, your partner’s are out of line. That means, the best way to approach this conversation, according to psychologist Robyn Landow, is to make it about shared goals and how to achieve them. Overspending will be a byproduct of that.
Now, a fundamental obstacle with most conversations about money is that finances aren’t being discussed as often as they should. The reason for the silence can be chalked up to tradition. Maybe your parents didn’t talk about it, so neither do you. The consequential feeling is that if money is brought up, there must be a problem.
Whatever the case, the course of action is to make money a less contentious subject. When bringing up a partner’s spending habits, it’s easy to say the wrong thing and come off as judgmental, and, if there’s one truth of relationships it’s that no one likes to feel judged. It becomes about picking the right words, and just as importantly, striking the right tone.
The Sentiment: We’re a team and we have shared goals. What can we do collectively to reach them?
What Not to Say to Your Partner About Their Spending Habits
First of all, it’s important to find the right time to have any financial discussion. It shouldn’t catch a person off guard or be presented as an attack. Find a time when both of you are calm and able to concentrate on the issue at hand.
It’s also important to not begin the conversation by simply saying “You’re spending too much.” Any such accusation will catch your partner off guard and put them on the defensive. Defensiveness does not lead to productive conversations.
That said, here are some other similar phrases to avoid:
- “I think we need to look at how money’s being spent.” (You sound like an auditor, and not a pleasant one.)
- “You spend just like your mother.” (Maybe true, but everyone wants to believe that they have avoided their parents’ less desirable traits.)
- “It’s easy to spend less.” (Maybe, but it’s better for a person to realize it than being told.)
- “Do you really need that?” (Maybe they do for a host of unknown reasons.)
- “You shouldn’t have bought that.” (It doesn’t understand your partner’s motivation.)
How to Talk to Your Partner About Their Spending Habits
When talking to your partner about their spending habits, it’s best to begin with something along with a blanket statement. Something along the lines of,“You know, we haven’t had a conversation recently about money and goals. I’d like to start that conversation.” This framing works best because, per Landow, it’s an invitation as opposed to an accusation.
Since the discussion that follows needs to take a certain shape, you must follow-up with something larger questions that offer a broad approach to financial philosophy. Something as simple as “What’s most important to you?”can be helpful as it leads to a list of priorities.
As list is being generated, Landow suggests adding “What are you most afraid of?” Why? Because money is tied to emotion. Fear and anxiety are huge motivators for how people treat it. Some can have plenty of money and always be worried; others can have little and never be stressed. By asking open-ended questions, you’ll tap into the bigger picture about what’s driving your partner’s behavior. You might find that they grew up in a house where money was guarded, so there’s the fear of having no freedom to make a choice. You might tell them that, in your family, money never seemed to be an issue, but you don’t feel as comfortable.
Whatever comes out, you’re gaining a better understanding of each other. From there, you can establish priorities and drill down more. Pinpointing areas of over-spending are a byproduct of these larger discussions. If saving for college is key for you, you share that you don’t want the kids to be burdened with loans, and so on and so forth. Then the conversation becomes a practical exercise of plugging numbers into tuition calculators. Eventually, the question becomes pretty straightforward. “How are we doing so far?”
This could apply just as easily for a family vacation or a new furnace. Whatever it is, if there’s a shortfall, you figure out the needed monthly number, then ask, “How do we do it?” The emotion is removed from the conversation because you’re both examining your personal spending habits and places to save, all to get to a mutual goal.
“If you massage this enough, you never actually have to tell your partner you think they’re overspending,” says Landow. “They’ll come to it on their own.” And that’s exactly the point.
How to Follow Up
Financial conversations are never one and done. They need to happen at a regular cadence. At the end of the initial talk, it’s important to say “We’ve covered a lot. Let’s take a pause.” This allows each of you to absorb what was said and think about what you actually want.
Importantly, make sure to say, “Let’s pick a specific time to talk again,” and actually do it. Put it in the calendar. Plan for it. Then, no one will be surprised and it won’t feel like re-starting the entire process. There’s built-in momentum. Soon, it becomes a regular occurrence instead of a surprise attack.
Finally, it’s important to say something along the lines of “How should we go about talking about this in the future?” This is a helpful tactic for any relationship issue, Landow says, because you’ve asked your partner for their input. It makes them accountable, and forces you both to work as a team.
Will any of this make stress of money conversations disappear? Not likely. Finances are inherently stressful. But, by following this course of action, the topic becomes open and far less charged. It may be hard to bring up, but staying silent rarely leads to success. It certainly doesn’t allow for sharing the heavy load. “If you’re going to be a team, it’s something the team needs to talk about,” says Landow.