Making Sense of My Financial Mess: Money, Relationships, and Communication

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Earlier this month, my husband and I had one of those awkward money conversations. We were both trying really hard to navigate the topic with grace and understanding, but we've both got a few money hang-ups we're working through. Every word was spoken with caution and nervousness. Nobody was angry, or yelling, it just felt uncomfortable. Do you know what I'm talking about?

He knows how hard I am trying to change my spending habits, to keep better track of what I spend and to get our family on a good budget. At the same time, we are married, so this isn't all about me and what I want for our finances. We have to work together. We share a bank account and when we got married, we decided to work together to pay off our debt and save for our future.

The exact details of discussion aren't all that important, but he needed to spend money I hadn't budgeted for because we hadn't talked about it. So I sat on the phone, feeling anxious about a big unplanned expense and feeling guilty for asking him to until next week to make the purchase.

When we hung up the phone, we were good, but I felt worried about a bigger issue. We hadn't talked about the budget, because we don't really talk about money. And when we do, it's really touch and go, short conversations like, 'I spent this' or 'Can I spend this?' When it comes to budgeting for next month or making plans for our future together, we rarely have these conversations.

That is when I realized the next step in my year of making sense of my financial mess had to be learning to communicate about money in my relationship. My husband I have a pretty solid marriage, but we struggle in this area. I didn't really know where to start, so I decided to reach out to Dr. Gretchen Kubacky, a Los Angeles psychologist with a long history working in finance.

The first thing Dr. Kubacky made very clear is that tension in relationships surrounding finances isn't abnormal.

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"Couples almost always have disagreements about money," she told me. "Budgets seem to be more of an idea than a real-life practice. A lot of times, people are afraid of what they will see if they put the facts all down on paper."

When I asked her why it is so hard to talk about money with your significant other, why it is is often such a sensitive topic, she explained how each individual's history with money plays a big role in how couples talk about money with each other.

"In some families, money is easy and abundant. In others, money (or lack of it) was a source of shame, frustration, anger, and deprivation."

I only took me a few seconds of reflecting to realize how drastically different our families approached money when we were young. His parents are frugal, saving as much as possible, while my family didn't talk about money at all, almost as if it were taboo.

Dr. Kubacky was able to offer really practical advice for a few first steps for couples, like my husband and I, who want to open the lines of communication about money.

First, she advised all couples to make a commitment to talk honestly about money. At the same time, she pointed out just how important it is that couples agree they will not shame each other for their past mistakes with money and that they will work together to make sure both people in the relationships get their financial needs met.

Next, Dr. Kubacky suggested the couple work together to get education about financial management. This is especially important for couples who have a lot of debt, have anxiety about the topic, or have big goals that don't align well with their current financial circumstances.

Lastly, she stressed just how important it is to write down any decisions you have made together. "Not writing it down is a big mistake," she warned. "Writing it down allows couples to track, hold each other accountable, and make meaningful long-term plans. It also is a way to force specificity; it's really easy to say 'let's throw something in savings,' and a whole other thing to say 'we're taking $500 off the top every payday, and putting it in savings.'"

I still feel nervous when the topic of money comes up, but I am also noticing that the more frequently we talk about it, the easier it gets. I'm less fearful of what he'll think if I make a mistake with our money, because I've seen how understanding he is and how he responds with kindness. Of course, it isn't going to be perfect, but if I learned anything from talking with Dr. Kubacky, it's that conversations about money can't be optional in a long-term relationship, no matter how imperfect or messy they feel at first.