For Love & Money is our weekly series exploring how we navigate one of the most intimate and rarely talked about aspects of our relationships: our finances.
When Carrie and her husband started dating, money was never really an issue. It wasn’t until they’d been married for years and were raising their first child that she began to privately struggle with their family’s finances. After taking a pay cut to work a more flexible job so she could get her son to and from school, she couldn’t keep up with grocery bills and began to descend further and further into credit card debt, a secret she kept from her husband for three months.
Then, on the day she couldn’t make her car payment, she just blurted it all out. Even though she was trying not to stress her husband out, her good intentions backfired. He wasn’t as mad about the money as he was about the three months of deception that led up to their shared financial problems. “He got really upset that I’d waited so long to tell him and had let things pile up for so long,” she tells me.
Many people, of course, will hide their financial problems from their partners for much longer than Carrie did, and others will amass debts more significant than a few grocery bills and car payments. To that end, Oliver David, a financial writer and attorney who specializes in financial loss, has seen way worse. “I witnessed a man lose a $300,000 business over gambling debts,” he says. Not only was this man’s partner left in the dark about his two-year struggle, but his significant other only found out when he tried to remortgage their home to cover his debts. “He needed his partner’s signature to do so,” David explains. “The relationship failed.”
This, too, is pretty common — i.e., trying to desperately solve, or at least contain, financial issues before they’re forced out in the open. Whether such Hail Marys work or not, money coach Audrey Washington is sure to warn, “The non-disclosure about your financial picture could make your partner feel like they can’t trust you, and you may have to work to earn back their trust.”
The most effective way to avoid this, David and Washington agree, is by making uncomfortable money conversations a regular part of your routine as a couple. Even if it’s not the most exciting topic. Washington recommends that couples set aside one day a month to discuss financial issues, whether they want to or not. If either party has something they’ve been struggling with money-wise, “it should be a time for both of you to share your feelings around the financial issue,” she explains.
As always, it’s also helpful to bring a few solutions to the table — like cutting back on expenses, finding ways to increase income or negotiating a lower interest rate on a loan or credit card. The more complex the struggle, the more Washington stresses a need for consulting with a reputable financial professional. This might sound extra expensive — and it’s important to be wary of high-cost services that promise to help alleviate debt — but “in most states there are HUD-certified counseling organizations” that can assist you with low-cost or free financial counseling, depending on how broke you are, Washington says. (If gambling, substance abuse or the sudden loss of employment is at play as well, be willing to seek out professional help, too, Washington advises.)
Beyond addressing the actual money problems, Washington notes “you should be prepared for your partner to be upset.” In anticipation of this, give them time, space and “allow them to voice their feelings. If the situation is due to a poor choice on your part, own that and apologize for it.” As much as conversations about money can get heated and emotional, if both parties have agreed to stay in the relationship and work through it, then it’s important to keep other issues out of the problem-solving discussion. In other words, save your complaints about sex, child-rearing or who does the dishes for another time.
In the end, the key is to keep moving in a positive direction. “You can’t drive a car forward and in reverse at the same time,” Washington notes. The same thing with poor financial choices. Couples should focus their energy on making a plan to resolve the financial issue and sticking to it. “If you only focus on the poor choice, then you won’t be in the mindset to take action,” Washington says.
For Carrie, even after several years of marriage, it took a significant financial struggle for her to learn that although she technically paid the bills in the house, no one was really in charge of their finances. Both her and her husband were making it up as they went along.
And while spending time together to discuss financial issues and creating manageable budgets will go a long way, Carrie found another simple trick to be really helpful. “It’s easier to stay motivated if you allow yourself a little fun once in a while,” she says.
Fun, obviously, that they can afford, but fun nonetheless.