Advice from a financial ‘therapist’

After 25 years of working as a financial professional, I’ve learned that my job is part financial adviser part therapist. And in my experience, money is often one the biggest topics that separates couples. So here are four exercises that I recommend doing to help get the conversation started right.

Start with the lottery question. I often tell spouses to ask each other the following: “If you won $1 million today, what would be the first three things you would do with the money?”

This is a nonintrusive way to get some insight into the other person’s view of money and their priorities. Would they pay off the mortgage? Would they donate to a charity? Is there a new car or a luxury item that they would want to buy? Is there a fancy vacation they would want to take?

Spouses tend to act very favorably to this question because it isn’t accusatory in nature. This allows you, as a spouse or partner, to have a better frame of reference on how you enter a serious money conversation because your spouse will be giving you a gateway to see what material purchases or savings goals are top of mind. This helps you create a foundation to discuss money-related issues.

Ask how their parents spent their money. Spouses and partners are typically open with each other about family traditions and how they want to replicate — or not — their own parents’ parenting style. But thoughts usually don’t come up around what they saw as children when it comes to money.

You can ask questions to explore this part of your spouse’s family history — and what it reveals about his or her attitude toward money today. Did you know how much your parents earned when you were a child? Did your family have a budget? Did you get an allowance as a child? Did you take fancy vacations or did your parents say you couldn’t afford it? Did your parents fight about money?

The reason to ask these questions is that your spouse or partner will typically act right in line with the way he or she was brought up. Or, her or she will do the complete opposite of what the parents did. The way a person answers the questions, and the positive or negative light in which the answers are presented, will give you some real insight into his or her hardwiring about money.

You could learn, for example, that your partner values having amazing experiences today (concerts, vacations) vs. saving for retirement tomorrow because his parents died before they enjoyed their money. Such answers allow you to see saving and spending preferences from the other person’s perspective, giving you a way to start a dialogue about how you both view money.

Gauge the desire to be transparent. Being totally transparent about money can be really hard for spouses or partners who want to keep some financial independence. But stashing money that the other spouse may not know about can really break the trust in a relationship.

One of good way to open up the transparency conversation is by asking a hypothetical question such as, “If I charged $100 on a credit card and didn’t tell you about it, would you be angry with me? How about 1,000?” Or, you could ask, “If I lost $100 betting on a football game and didn’t tell you, would you be upset with me?” How about $1,000?”

The answers can spearhead a conversation about understanding why it’s important to be honest about spending and why it’s equally important to give each spouse some spending freedom — as long as it falls within the scope of the family budget.

I have seen what money secrets and the resulting resentments can do to a couple. On many occasions, I have had one spouse come to me when he or she learned that the other spouse had racked up a ton of debt without any discussion. Other times, I have seen one spouse set up a “special” side account or have cash stashed away without telling the other spouse that money exists.

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