This article is part of a Modern Love project on the intersection of money and relationships.
Have you ever had a flip remark about, say, a romantic partner’s late-night internet purchase devolve into a corrosive and existential fight?
Online shopping is about money, and in our romantic relationships, a lot of us aren’t very good at talking about finances.
This makes sense! Most of us were raised to be vague about specifics but firm in our habits around money. Now, as you build a household with this outsider that you fell in love with — someone who doesn’t know the particular secret codes you were raised with — there’s a lot for you two to snag on.
The good news is that talking about money openly makes you better at talking about money. You’ll get to know each other’s abstract beliefs about money and how you want to translate them into concrete actions. Your shared vision as a couple will take on more dimension, and as you get comfortable with each other’s money habits and hangups, you’ll also be more readily able to ask and offer help to other loved ones in your lives.
These questions are designed to jump-start those conversations, taking them one step at a time. And though this is designed as a guide for couples at that critical stage of moving in together, like a vow renewal ceremony, they may also help longtime couples adjust how they talk about, and manage, their money.
But first, a suggestion: Approach money questions in a romantic relationship with the same care and consent as you do conversations about physical intimacy and each other’s sexual backgrounds. They can feel similarly sensitive as you move from one stage of reveal to the next, so try to ask each question with an empathetic smile.
What do we want our life together to look like?
Before making mutual money decisions in a relationship, a couple should start by envisioning what they want their future to look like — what Stephanie Zepeda, a financial therapist in Houston, calls “a relational budget.”
“Get their drink of choice and go sit down and have a ‘hopes and dreams’ conversation,” she advises.
Talk about lifestyle routines, housing priorities, career ambitions, fantasy purchases and experiences. You’ll get to constraints later, as well as the how of it all, but first, describe the broad strokes of how your lives could look together.
What would you do if you won the lottery?
Now, take even bigger swings. What would you do with a surprise windfall? The lottery framing can be especially useful, Ms. Zepeda said, for couples who come from different cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds, helping to describe the key values underlying the more abstract question of what money is for.
That, in turn, can help identify the roots of any future money misunderstandings. And it will help you clarify what you want to drive your future financial decisions together.
How do you think your financial priorities might change in the next 10 years?
A financial goal-setting conversation with a more distant time horizon will fill in more of the details on the shared vision you’re drawing up as a couple. “It’s not about money priorities and goals,” said Megan Smith, a financial educator in Jackson, Wyo. “It’s about life priorities and goals.”
If you’re moving in together when you’re both early in your careers, with no kids, this question may help guide you to what may come next. Do you want to be a parent? Is owning a home important to you? Is marriage something you see as the next step?
This approach can also be applied to couples who find each other in midlife or later, where there might be financial obligations to children or aging parents looming or questions about their own health care as they age.
How much money do you have? How much debt?
Disclosing how much money you make, along with your savings and your debts, is an essential relationship conversation, and also, a delicate one.
Approach this sharing like story swapping, just as you’ve caught each other up on your family backgrounds and your relationship histories. Brace for a little embarrassment: You’re revealing how much your public presentations match up with your private credit histories. Anticipate inequalities, and discuss but don’t dwell on them.
And remember, like most major life decisions, facing financial facts can take time and emotional preparation. When it comes to your partner’s private financial details, no snooping without permission! And because it needs to be said: No lying either.
Is there anything about your finances or future finances that I should know about? Anything about my finances or future finances you’re curious about?
Lying in response to direct questions is one thing. Evading, though, can happen more easily, even unintentionally if you keep putting off the disclosure of embarrassing or uncomfortable financial information.
So, after you share basic facts like earnings, debt and built-in expenses within a relationship, Ms. Smith advises you each circle back with open questions to invite more exploring. This could be when you hear about a past bankruptcy or an expected inheritance. As much as you can, “listen without a lick of judgment,” she said.