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’

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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  • Jess

    How we started:

    me – “Hey, I know we have talked about wanting to buy a house in the next year. We should work with a finance planner to figure out how much house we can actually afford.”
    me – [waits six months]
    me – [sends google calendar meeting request for “Finance Discussion” complete with stated pre-work of R reaching out to his said planner and an explicit goal/scope of developing a list of topics to work our way through prior to planning]
    R – “Saw that invite, sounds like a good plan”
    Us – Get worked up while making list, remind each other that we don’t actually have to make decisions on those topics just write the topics down, compile large list, start having meetings about a single topic.
    Also Us – Find out that this is actually a lot easier than we thought.
    me – admit R “believing we’re on the same page and not talking about this all the time” was not, in fact, stupid and irresponsible, because it turns out he was just listening to my (loud and frequent) opinions and agreed.

    So yeah, pretend it’s work and send out a meeting invite.

  • Amy March

    Yes to the stress dreams on a change in finances, even if it’s good! I’m very set it and forget it, so suddenly having to revisit those decisions is stressful.

    • ART

      I distinctly remember the panic I felt during and after a dream in which I had bought myself a $50 lunch…this was years ago and I probably had just gotten a raise or something. Lifestyle inflation nightmares!

  • norah_charles_ftw

    This is a great essay! For me it was both comforting and scary. We are…not great about money. We’re not terrible, but with massive room for improvement and part of that is getting better at just talking about it, which we are…slowly. Scary to think how long the road is to feeling on top of the money situation, but comforting to read about other couples making the first strides too. Now if I can just keep my husband from getting sidetracked again on these discussions into his “I just need to change jobs/get promoted/make more $$ and then we’d be fine” thinking…this stuff is hard guys

  • Zoya

    This is such a great piece! Well done, Eve.

    Wedding planning brought the money conversations to a head for us. We ended up going WAY over budget (for a variety of reasons), and this freaked. my. shit. out. Even though we had the money, even though it wasn’t going to pose a financial hardship for us. I fretted constantly about every budget line item and would blow up or melt down every time we ended up spending more than expected.

    Eventually he sat me down and was like, “What’s really going on here?” And it’s the age-old story: he earns a whole lot more than me and I have Feelings about it. Ninety-five percent of what we spent on the wedding, on the down payment for our condo, on every big pre-marriage life expense came from him. Particularly now, as I baby-step my way into a creative career, I’m hyper-aware of being a woman financially supported by a man, living a lifestyle I wouldn’t be able to afford without him. As someone who’s stubbornly (almost pathologically) independent, who lived alone and supported myself for years before we moved in together, this feels…not good.

    We’re still practicing talking all this out. He’s helping me reframe the situation. The fact is, we’re fucking lucky to be in the financial position we’re in. And actually being married is helping with the “our” money versus “yours and ours” thing. But yeah. This stuff is surprisingly emotional. And the conversation is ongoing…

  • Pingback: How We Finally Learned To Talk About Money (After 8 Years) | Wedding Warriors TC | Wedding Planner | Kennewick, Richland, Pasco()

  • e.e.hersh

    I’m definitely surprised at how much *work* it can be to feel on top of our finances. But also how much better (like, vastly better) we both feel when we are in some kind of control over our money. Like others have said, setting up family meetings (I call ours “Financial Summits”) is huge, but it’s also taken a ton of time to research and switch banks, research investing, research and get life insurance (I felt like this literally took 6 months of my life), research and switch credit cards… that was A LOT of work! It’s daunting for a non-money person to jump into that stuff. But it’s worth it – definitely worth it not to feel that slightly-sick, overdrawn, money-stress feeling!

    • Jess

      It is so much work! Like even just non-emotionally. We’re assigning “pre-work” for our Finance Meetings, and it’s been a couple hours a week even on the easy stuff (like “look into online programs for tracking spending”).

  • ssha

    “But one way he stays [laid back] 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.)” hahaha

    • Abs

      Oh my God this line described my husband and I’ve been trying to put my finger on this for such a long time. About to go send this to him.

    • I KNOW. Killed me.

    • Zoya

      I spit-taked my tea at that line.

  • AmandaBee

    Yes to money conversations becoming easier with time. This summer was a bit of a financial disaster for us (like, all of the possible mini-disasters you could imagine…in a single month), but digging ourselves out has really forced us to have consistent and regular conversations about money. What we want our money to be doing. What our money is actually doing. How we close that gap.

    In addition to goals, I think it’s really helpful to talk about HOW you like to manage your money. I’m an active money manager – I like to look at balances, bills, etc. every week. My husband does best when he creates a system that pretty much runs itself (auto pay FTW). We’re working on creating a setup that works for both of us, while still helping us move in the direction we want.

    Also, we schedule Budget Nights and bribe ourselves with pizza and wine. Just being real with you all.

    • MC

      Bribing ourselves with food and alcohol is how we got through wedding planning and also how we get through a LOT of adult decisions.

  • Violet

    As with most things, with us it’s not how can we talk about money, but how can we do so productively. Growing up financially insecure (an understatement) means my partner responded by becoming obsessed with all things finance. He reads, researches, plans, creates spreadsheets, re-does his spreadsheets, and researches some more. He recognizes that this level of interest goes beyond what is truly needed to be financially stable and grow and is heavily influenced by his own fears and anxieties. So far, so good. But then when he wants to drag me into every little thing he’s looking into, we get into disagreements about how much I really need to be involved. By all means, I want input on the important, big picture stuff. If we have a target of w% house down payment in x years, while he makes y money and I make z, of course I need to agree to a plan and make sure I’m doing my part. But I draw the line at having to be an active participant in things like this fund versus that one, when my investments are already in buckets I’m happy with.
    Sometimes he gets frustrated that I don’t want to get involved in a level of money discussion that I feel is unnecessary and is more about his own psychological state. He pretty much always begrudgingly agrees by the end, but the number of times we’ve gone round the cycle of, “I need a partner in this,” “Actually I’m pulling my weight in planning, you just have unreasonable expectations,” is staggering. It’s probably one of our recurring arguments that they say some couples have that will just never truly go away.

    • BSM

      Interesting. I *definitely* recognize this dynamic going on in my relationship, except it’s mostly me acting like your partner and with different life-related projects (wedding, trips, house projects, baby) rather than our finances. I’m sure it’s related to me processing my anxiety/feelings around the big stuff and also because I’m a huge planner and lover of logistical minutiae by nature.

      Curious how you two drew the line on this, why you drew it where you did, and what your partner does to compensate, if you’re up for sharing!

      • AmandaBee

        “I’m sure it’s related to me processing my anxiety/feelings around the big stuff and also because I’m a huge planner and lover of logistical minutiae by nature.”

        Yup, I’m here with you. I handle anxiety by making plans + making spreadsheets + doing all the things, and my husband handles anxiety via denial. Figuring out how to handle money concerns has been one steep learning curve.

        • BSM

          My husband is more laid-back/we’ll get to it at some point, which is hard enough for me to find middle ground with; denial would be tough!

          We don’t seem to have this same dynamic when it comes to our finances; we both play a fairly equal role in initiating conversations, making short- and long-term plans, managing the budget, etc.

          I think for me it tends to crop up more with stuff that traditionally would be considered “women’s work.” We have a really egalitarian relationship, but we’re still both (at least me) fighting against decades of socialization around all this. And then of course I feel extra bothered because I get concerned about falling into traditional gender roles and doing outsized amounts of childcare and housework and emotional labor…

          It’s safe to say we haven’t quite figured it out.

          • AmandaBee

            Ah, yeah, that’s a really tough one to deal with too. It takes a lot of work for us to get into a good balance with housework and whatnot, and it feels like once we
            do, something happens that
            messes it up. I can imagine that kids makes that extra challenging.

        • Violet

          It’s odd because I am a planner too, but not really in response to anxiety. Just as a way to get something done. So his planning stands out even more by contrast as being pretty excessive. I think one person being a planner and the other a denier is definitely a situation that requires more negotiating and finesse, so kudos to you for working on figuring it out!

          • AmandaBee

            Ah, I guess denial is the wrong word, maybe more of an avoider? He won’t deny if there’s an issue, but he doesn’t dissect issues in the way I do.

            He’s actually great with money once he sets up a system, it’s getting to a system that works for both of us that’s been a challenge, just because we have opposite tendencies. We do kind of cancel out each other’s bad habits, so theres a positive side of it too.

      • Violet

        Sure! The first stage was him being in denial that his obsessive planning was related to his emotions. He kept defending it as just what one needed to do to be a successful adult. That was a hard argument for him to defend, because I manage to have my shit together on way less planning (and I also have natural planning instincts myself, just in much more moderation). Therefore, his argument that what he was doing was absolutely necessary for success always rang a bit false. Sounds like you’ve already acknowledged that’s what’s going on for you too, so consider Step 1 of drawing the line accomplished!

        Because the initial default was he shared everything, that got draining for me. I started to push back. I would be very concrete- do you have an actionable step coming up you need feedback on before you can make a move? Is there an actual timeline, based on some external event (ie, not in his head)? Fine, I’m happy to give you my two cents. Are you just stewing about things that may or may not happen in 15 years’ time, given a whole host of other assumptions that may or may not occur? I will listen (to an extent) and politely go, “Uh huh,” but I’m allowed to tap out on having any real opinion.

        Where we keep getting stuck is when he’s feeling particularly stressed, he gets resentful that he’s “the only one making these plans,” whereas I question the validity of whether or not these kinds of abstract plans even need to be made in the first place. And they DEFINITELY don’t need to be discussed on a Friday night. We go through our tired argument- he feels like he’s shouldering it alone, I remind him that once there’s an actual Thing to discuss I get on board, and in the meantime, me not caring allows him to fantasize and plan as much as he wants without constraints. So in a way, me tapping out allows him to stew over things as much as he wants without having to account for how I may feel about it. Because he sees this, the argument is ultimately resoled, but sometimes I just wanna press the Fast Forward button on it.

        • Lisa

          We have quarterly meetings about major things, financial and otherwise, and I wonder if that would help. During the meeting, we write down whatever plans we make so we can refer back. As in, this is our goal, this is what we decided to implement, we will revisit on X date to see if it needs to be changed. If there are questions or plans that need to be made on top of that, write it down so we can discuss it at the next meeting. Then he would have those concrete notes to reassure himself that there is a plan, and he would still have an outlet for future questions/concerns/decisions, but it would be scheduled so the important stuff would rise to the surface. If you already do this, you could gently remind him (e.g. “If you think this needs to be dealt with, we can discuss it at the next meeting. Why don’t you research and come up with the best two options in the meantime and we can add it to agenda?”) *Note: we don’t actually use words like meeting and agenda, but that’s essentially what they are.

          • Violet

            I wish we could keep it quarterly! Instead we have to lay down a “quarantine period,” during which he is not allowed to bring up the subject we’d already previously agreed requires no discussion/action until a specific date. And then he still tries to break the quarantine, and that’s usually when the argument kicks back in. So for him, I guess knowing we’ll *eventually* discuss it still doesn’t feel like enough for him. Argh!

          • Lisa

            Dang. Well, it was worth a shot. :) I love the quarantine period idea (and name!) though. So funny.

          • Violet

            Oh, I’ve got to keep a sense of humor about it, or I’d lose my mind. ; )

        • Kara E

          There’s also a risk tolerance thing. I am generally not very risk tolerant when it comes to investing $. My husband is. We agree on the overall approach he/we are taking with savings, but I don’t want to know the stock market details. I get updates on my investments quarterly, he gets them daily to weekly (which would make me insanely anxious). Our financial conversations have gotten a lot easier / more transparent since we started using Quiken – most of the other online tools weren’t working well for us because of our particular financial situation (like base salary vs “extras” – which we try not to include in our normal budget). He’s also much more long term focused (which is sort of the opposite of the rest of life) and I’m generally looking 1-2 weeks/months down the road.

  • Emily

    I overdrew my bank account two weeks in a row this month. I am not usually bad with money, we have money (in the way that one has checks that have not been cashed and cash in a box in a drawer), I just like couldn’t get it together and my debit card got declined at the grocery store and it was EMBARASSING. J and I are sitting down to work out a better system this weekend. Ugh.

    • Jess

      Good luck with your system this weekend!

    • AmandaBee

      Bah, that’s been me this month. Too many other things going on so I just can’t keep things straight. I tried to pay our rent with a check for an account that I no longer keep money in, so it was declined. And then I had to call our new landlord to explain that, yes, we have the money, I just can’t keep accounts straight. D’oh.

      • Emily

        Too many things are always going on for us! We used to have almost all of our bills on automatic payment, but I quit that when my husband started his own business and we didn’t even an even cash flow every week. I think I am going to have to go back to it though.

        • Eenie

          That is so tough. We cannot pay all of our bills on time without auto pay. My husband had his water shut off one time cause that used to be the only not auto pay bill, but he kept forgetting which utility it was that wasn’t set up and wouldn’t know which to pay manually. Our water bill is $20.

          • Emily

            Yes! See, that is currently my problem–it’s not that we don’t have the money to cover groceries and bills, it’s just getting the money into the account which is really dumb. Why can’t we just go back to bartering farm animals lol?

    • laddibugg

      Checks that have not been cashed? what is that? ;-)

      I cash checks immediately so that they don’t become stale. For me it”s now, or 6 months from now…

  • NolaJael

    One of the things that we struggle with is that my husband has a more vivid imagination than I do and he’s always dreaming up creative ways of improving our lives (remodeling projects, home-office upgrades, etc.). My brain works in more of an if/then way, so if we can’t afford a new car (or even new-to-us car) I pretty much stop thinking about it. One way we’ve improved “upgrade” conversations is by prefacing them with better timelines (this month, this year, etc.) or to state plainly if we’re just talking in a day-dreaming way, because before I felt like I was always shooting down his creative musings as a broken record of “we can’t afford that.” It still feels like that a lot of the time, but not always, so improvement?

    • Jess

      I’m a big fan of the “now” “five years” “maybe one day” categorization for discussions. Like… right now, we need to fix your car so it runs safely. Five years from now we would like to own our own house. Maybe one day, we’d like to… I don’t know, pay for a kid to go to college or own a boat.

      So much improvement!

    • MC

      I feel this SO HARD – my husband is the same way, one of his favorite things to do is walk around our neighborhood and look at all the houses and talk about all the things he wants to do to our house. It stresses me out! Because I do feel like I have to always point out the fact that we can’t do that for x number of years. I might suggest your strategy to my husband because I think it would help keep my stress levels down to know that he’s not saying we should do all the things that cost money RIGHT NOW.

  • Brooke

    It’s interesting hearing this perspective, since my partner and I have always talked about money. Too much, perhaps. It takes a lot of vulnerability to really be open about money, because if we’re being honest, money is an emotional topic. We’ve had many disputes due to our VERY different incomes, how much we want to spend when we buy a home, how we wanted to handle our banking, etc. The reality is that we’ll never truly be 100% “there” when it comes to money, but that’s okay. While I know that it’ll forever be a work in progress, I’m glad we took a leap of faith and had some of those uncomfortable conversations almost immediately after we got serious about dating, because I can’t imagine how hard it would be to start that conversation after so many years. Kudos to Eve for initiating these discussions, because now is better than never.

  • jfunny

    I love this!

  • Amanda L.

    Thank you for this – it’s a real struggle, and I feel like no one talks about it. My husband and I are terrible about talking about money, but we need to start being more open.

  • I feel talking about money matters is probably one of those most important things, which one should discuss in a relationship. Financial worries can often lead to divorce. The best way to start talking about it is to plan a budget together. Doing so, it’ll probably help to discuss about short and long term financial goals and to plan accordingly.