It Took Eight Years for My Partner and I to Learn How to Talk About Money

Why is it this so difficult?

Couple kissing in front of a wedding backdrop

There are a lot of lists out there about questions to ask your partner before marriage. Some are meant to be a little bit humorous, some are very serious, some are designed for Catholic pre-marital counseling (and you can check out APW’s list here). While they vary with the details, all of them agree of these three pillars: religion, children, money.

I can still hear my heart beating in my chest when I asked Kalen if he wanted to have children; it was a deal breaker for me, and I just didn’t.want.that.deal.broken.

Spoiler Alert: He does want kids! We have a two-year-old! (I also have a fourteen-year-old from a previous relationship. But I’d been worried about wanting more kids. I dated plenty of men who knew I had a daughter and felt like that was perfect because I could check that off the list.)

Religion was less stressful, maybe because it was less of a deal breaker. He is an atheist, which I prefer over a lot of other options, and I am a sage-burning agnostic who squeals about the synchronicity and a Higher Power. It works for us, and we try to have open conversations about all the possibilities between science and faith with my daughter, who is navigating this strange world in this strange time as a teenager in Los Angeles (I know, right?).

How We Managed To Never Really Talk About Money

So here we are, eight years after our first date. We live together, we are raising two children together, we have a combined bank account. But, we… still hadn’t talked about money. Well, that’s not entirely true. In our time together, we’ve talked a lot about graduate school (me), career goals (us), our overdrawn bank account (us), and eBay vinyl records (him). But hard, meaty, conversations with numbers and goals and a plan? Not really.

Sitting with couples as a counselor, I navigate the pre-marital conversations on a daily basis with other people, and I was jealous. These conversations were sometimes painful and always awkward at first, but I got to watch connections form as partners explored their stories about money and their hopes for their futures. I watch all the fear melt away as couples discover that financial fears were worse when they were silent, and talking it out is better for everyone. Assumptions benefit no one in these scenarios.

Starting The Conversation

A few months ago, I was tired of being jealous of my clients, and I was tired of the assumptions I knew were present in our own marriage. I wish I could say I marched into our living room with a calculator and a budget book, taking control like the strong Twenty-First Century Woman that I like to think I am. Instead, I sort of chewed my fingernails and looked down at the floor and spoke in my softest voice, “We need to talk about money.” Kalen didn’t ask for a divorce. He didn’t laugh in my face. He didn’t say I was bad with money or that he wanted to spend more than we make. It started out awkward, but we started connecting as we shared our hopes for the future. We’ve never had very much money, and I think we kept avoiding the conversation because it felt pointless and a little embarrassing to plan for the future when we were really living paycheck to paycheck. As we waded through the awkwardness, we found out that we were actually having fun because no one was judging the other person. We were just having an open conversation about numbers. We aren’t good with money, but we aren’t bad with money either. We’re humans with money.

I’m not earning what we thought I would by now in my career, but Kalen isn’t resentful that he’s supporting more than half the load. Kalen is dedicated to his creative career, and I’m happy being his partner and figuring out how to make that work together. It was one of the reasons I went back to graduate school—so that one of us would have a “more” dependable career. It is thus far better for our family that I am a therapist who writes, than when I was a waitress who writes. We took on a lot of debt, but we’re working on it the best we can without carrying shame around about it along with everything else.

Making A List Of Our Dreams

The important thing between my husband and me is not that we fixed all our money problems. I don’t have a champion ending about how we buckled down and paid off debt and bought a house. I don’t even have the answers to how we are, in the end, going to address all our dreams and debts. The victory for me was in the talking about it. We brought out all the elephants in the room, and we figured out what each person was assuming about the other. We made a huge list of ultimate dreams, and we made a list of responsible dreams, and we made a list of very boring needs.

Kalen presents himself as a very laid-back dude, and he is. But one way he stays that way is by avoiding things that overwhelm him, like financial details beyond a savings and checking account. (I’d argue that this means he’s not laid back, but it’s not a chilling contest. I digress.) By giving ourselves permission to explore all the high- and low-stress possibilities, regardless of whether or not they were realistic, helped relieved some pressure and anxiety, and Kalen was able to have fun. The most boring but important goals for us are paying off debt and maintaining our clunky cars; those topped the list. Having a certain amount in each account at all times felt like a practical but cool idea; we wrote it on the list. I would like a chateau in Provence; Kalen would like a movie screening room with an overhead projector. We put it all on the list! And between the South of France and an in-home cinema, we talked about college accounts for the kids, about retirement and vacations, about the stock market, braces, health insurance, independent film making, plastic surgery, all of it!

Without all the assumption elephants in the room, I felt closer to my husband; there was a vulnerability between us that I actually found sexy. So, that was a nice surprise benefit.

Then One Dream Came True

It’s a good thing we leapt that hurdle when we did, because Kalen was promoted last month. For the first time since we met, it looks like we won’t be overdrawing our bank account for a little while, if we’re careful. But I keep having stress dreams about wild purchases gone awry. Our shiny BMW is stolen before we even have license plates! Kalen buys a fixer-upper mansion without talking to me first! They were just dreams; without any hand-wringing, we looked at our list of very boring needs and started there. The Honda has a new bushings suspension system, guys.

We’ll be meeting with a financial planner for the first time, because we both have lots of questions about the modern financial landscape. It was super fun to organize our lists, but we are pretty clueless about actual numbers and we want help designing a plan that feels realistic. I want my children to afford college, but I don’t even understand how much college costs anymore (like literally half a million dollars, or… what?) or what the best way to prepare for it is (a bathtub of money? Is tiered level marketing a wise investment?). Kalen’s promotion may be short-term, so what should we look at first? How does someone do the stock market? I am tired of assumptions between my husband and me, and I’m tired of feeling embarrassed about what I don’t know. Many questions, new life, no shame.

But I am so thankful that we busted through our uncertainty already, that we had the talk we needed to have, so we can address the financial planner as a husband and wife who know—not just assume—they are on the same page.

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