This is Part 4 of a series that looks at the research-based solutions to navigating this trying time in our lives and marriages—and emerging stronger. Feel free to share this with those who might benefit!
We all know that money is one of the main issues in marriage even during normal times.
These are not normal times. And coming together around money has never been more essential—not just for our finances, but for our relationship.
Believe it or not, Jeff and I just finished a three-year research project on this exact topic. On March 3, 2020 we released a book called Thriving in Love & Money. It is, of course, every author’s dream to work for three years on a book and have it come out one week before a National Emergency is declared.
And yet . . . I fully believe that God chose this time. Because suddenly we have millions of us who are stuck at home, worrying about money. And what we need most is what Jeff and I were studying: Not “how to create a great budget” (there are plenty of those resources already out there) but instead, “how to have a great relationship around money.”
In this Part 4 and in Part 5 of this series, I’m going to share several quick lessons from our research that will give you a starting point. And then (shameless plug), I’m going to urge you to take our free assessment and buy the book. Not because it helps us (although it will) but because I think what we learned will help any couple who wants and needs to come together around money in a whole new way.
Lesson 1: The key to a great relationship around money is to talk about money
I know many of you just winced, right? Most couples really don’t like talking about money. In our nationally-representative surveys, 77% of us cannot talk about money without awkwardness, defensiveness, or fighting. So we avoid it where we can. That is certainly where Jeff and I were before we began this research project. Overall, only 23% of couples can talk about money well, without discomfort or avoidance.
For those of you who are in that category, the rest of us are jealous of you.
We sort of think you’re mutants.
The thing is, before the coronavirus era, many of us could get by without really talking about it. Without having to come together around money. In a time of prosperity, we could get away with essentially saying, “You do your thing, and I do my thing, and we’ll make it work.”
Well, that time is gone, right? And it looks like it could be gone for some time, as the overall economy could take years to rebound.
The economy might hurt your finances. But it doesn’t have to hurt your marriage. The key, we discovered in the research, is to be able to talk about it. And thankfully, once we can, we’ll be far more able to come together around the steps that will improve our actual finances.
Now is the time when all of us have to learn how to talk about money well.
And it turns out, we don’t have to be mutants to do it. It is far easier than you ever realized. (We can tell you that both from the research and from personal experience!)
Lesson 2: The key to talking about money is to understand how it makes you feel
In order to talk, we have to first understand one another. And that includes not just understanding our spouse but ourselves.
For example, during “normal” times, why would I get irritated if I called Jeff after a long day of meetings and said I wanted to pick up Chinese takeout on the way home—and he said, “Well, that will be $35, and I’ve got some chicken in the fridge from Costco—how about I just grill that, okay?”
Why does that bug me?!
It turns out, when we have tension around money, it’s not about the money. It’s about how money makes us feel. And how it makes our spouse feel. It’s about a host of worries, expectations and beliefs running under the surface. And often, we don’t even know those feelings are there—much less how to articulate them and share them with our partner!
In our case, I wouldn’t have been able to articulate that after a long day of meetings I was subconsciously thinking, “We haven’t had any family time lately, and if we grill the chicken, there will be prep and cooking and clean up and then we’re going to have to start homework . . . so $35 to buy a precious hour of family time? You bet!” Where Jeff and many other “saver-types” like him (both men and women!) would be thinking, “If we keep making these choices and eating takeout, we’re going to be homeless in retirement!”
If we’re going to have a productive conversation around money, instead of one that devolves into defensiveness, blame, shame or other unhelpful previous patterns, we have to be able to bring those feelings and expectations to the surface. We need to be able to share them in a way the other person can understand. And then, unless there is an extremely unusual pattern of behavior (such as a gambling addiction), we have to honor what the other person cares about, even if we still disagree with it.
Understanding ourselves and our partner, and being able to talk about it, is what Thriving in Love & Money is about, specifically. (And I’ll cover more on this in Part 5, the next article in this series.)
Lesson 3: Building financial cushion helps the relationship
When we have tension around money, we tend to think that the solution is simple: more money! We think, “If we just made more money we wouldn’t fight or get irritated with each other.” And yet, it turns out, that’s not true. People of all income levels can have great marriages around money, or terrible ones.
What matters far more than income level, we found, is living below that line. Building up some savings. Building a reserve fund. How many of us are finding these days just how crucial that reserve fund actually is!?
And doing so is not just protective of our finances: it is also protective of our relationship. Because when income is cut, or someone loses a job, or the car breaks down, we aren’t as thrown. We don’t start bickering and blaming over whether one spouse should have spent this or saved that. When we have funds in reserve, we can still be nervous, and we still need to be tender with each other’s feelings and fears (more on that next time), but it acts as a shock absorber for the relationship.
Now, one note: Many of us have come into this time without enough of a shock absorber, and we are rightfully going to be focused on building up savings. But we have to do that in a way that honors the desires and needs of both partners in the marriage, not just the one who is a bit more “savings-oriented” than the other.
We’ll tackle how to do that next time, in Part 5. In the meantime, as mentioned, we strongly recommend that you take the free, 5-minute assessment to see where you are starting in love and money, and that you look through the book to learn how all this applies to you.
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Shaunti Feldhahn is a Harvard-trained social researcher and best-selling author who is sheltering-in-place in Atlanta with her husband and co-author Jeff, two teenagers who are figuring out how to do college and high school online, and two cats who are thrilled to have even more video meetings to walk in front of each day.
Shameless plug: The Feldhahn’s newest book, Thriving in Love & Money, about how to have a great relationship around money (even in a time of trial), was published right before the National Emergency was declared, and is even more essential now. You can support Shaunti’s research and team during this time by purchasing a copy for someone who needs it.