In Love and Marriage, Money Matters
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In Love and Marriage, Money Matters

Find money hard to talk about? Try these conversation openers.

5 Questions

An excerpt from Talking Money: Everything You Need to Know About Your Finances and Your Future (Warner Business Books, 2000) by Jean Sherman Chatzky.

Before you can begin putting a financial plan into action, you need to identify your goals. Ask yourself and your partner these five questions to get you started.

1. What do I want to accomplish financially this year? Don't censor your answers. They can be anything from "I want to spend winter break in Boca," to "I want to have $1,000 in my savings account," to "I want to pick better stocks." All are acceptable. Just be sure to list accomplishments that are possible to achieve in the next 12 months. Red Flag! Don't allow yourself to be wishy-washy. Being specific is key. Otherwise, a year from now you'll still be starting from scratch.

2. What do I want to accomplish with my money in the next 10 years? Again, be very detailed. Perhaps you envision having $30,000 in your IRA or 401(k) by that time. Perhaps you can see yourself having zero in credit card debt. Or maybe you'd like to be working for a company that grants stock options. Knowing what you're striving for makes the path toward those goals easier to find -- and therefore easier to follow.

3. What do I want to accomplish with my money far off in the future? These are your stretch goals. They may include retirement at age 55, a second career in the Peace Corps, or the ability to leave your kids a sizable inheritance. One of my colleagues at Money magazine, Jason Zweig, says his long-term investment time horizon is 100 years. No, he's not expecting to break the Guinness Book records for longevity, but he has children and he's planning to leave certain investments to them.

4. Am I willing to begin? There is only one thing standing in the way of achieving your goals -- at the very least your short-term ones -- and that's you. Are you willing to do it? Perhaps you decided you want to save an extra $1,000 this year. Are you willing to cut your spending by the $20 a week it'll take to accomplish that? Or to take on a freelance project or some overtime? Are you ready to do it today? When it comes to your money, procrastination can be a killer.

5. Do I know how to get started? The key is to break that goal down into smaller chunks that you can wrap your hands around. Take that $1,000 example. As one sum, it sounds like a lot of money. But when you realize saving it on a weekly basis only means socking away a $20 bill, it's manageable. If you want to buy a house five years from now and need to come up with a down payment, you're working with larger sums of money -- but they can still be broken down into manageable parts.

Talk About Money

Money is the biggest source of arguments in a marriage -- that's a fact that has been documented numerous times, including in studies from Citigroup, Worth magazine, and the Prevention and Relationship Enhancement Program (PREP). And according to California-based financial planner Victoria Felton Collins, author of Couples and Money (Gabriel Books, 1998), money is the driving force in divorce a whopping 90 percent of the time.

In fact, therapists say it's harder to talk about money than it is to talk about sex. Why? In part, it's because talking about sex in the safe-sex era has gotten easier. Talking about money hasn't. But just as we learned to ask about condoms and HIV testing, we can learn to ask about spending habits, financial goals, and credit card debt. It's a matter of diving in. And for that, it helps to have a bit of a script (at the very least you need a good opening line). Here's how to get off on the right foot.

  • Find a neutral time. It's best to talk about money when money is not the issue. If you start talking while you're paying the bills or after your spouse has just purchased something you thought was a little too extravagant, your discussion is going to degenerate into an argument. You're better off talking about money issues over breakfast or during the commercial breaks on Friends.
  • Give a little to get a little. This is a trick reporters like me often use. We'll serve up some fact on our own lives to get our sources to similarly open up, a strategy that works really well with a spouse as well. Explaining how you feel about a particular money issue will encourage your partner to do the same. Say you want to talk about who pays for what, you might begin: "I think it's really nice that you paid for dinner the last couple of times we went out, but I need to know how you feel about that. Are you the kind of guy who feels good paying for women, or do you feel like it's a burden? Because I'm perfectly comfortable with picking up the check, too."
  • Know where you stand. It's important to be honest with yourself about how you feel. It may be hard to have a relationship with someone with major debt problems if you've paid every bill on time and in full your entire life. You may have mixed emotions about letting a date/spouse pay your way (part of you may enjoy being taken care of, while another part wants to maintain some independence). You can't be up front with your partner if you're not willing to be up front with yourself.
  • Bring in a third party. If you can't get yourself to start a financial conversation, sit down with a counselor and ask him or her to help you sort out your issues. That person could be a money therapist, but also a compassionate financial planner or member of the clergy. Many churches and synagogues now offer financial planning courses as part of their preparation for marriage.

Opening Lines

Sometimes you just need something to say to get the ball rolling. Try:

  • "Growing up, I don't remember my parents ever talking about money. How was it in your house?"
  • "I got a raise today -- and I want to make sure I don't spend every last dime. Let's talk about some ways I/we can be sure to save it."
  • "My friend Joan just inherited $40,000. I think my Aunt Margaret may leave me some money someday."
  • "These student loans are driving me nuts. Do you have them, too?"
  • "Do you have renters insurance?"
  • "That vacation we want to take is pretty expensive. Let's talk about how we can put together the money."

Copyright 2001 by Jean Sherman Chatzky. All rights reserved. Excerpt posted with permission from