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Financial planning tips

June 03, 2015

How to agree with your spouse about money

Arguing with your spouse about money is like death and taxes — inevitable and unenjoyable. Here are five ways you can reach agreement.

We all hope to have a partner with whom we are in perfect financial harmony — in total agreement about savings goals, vacation plans and investment choices. But the reality is, from time to time, most of us end up arguing with our spouses about money. And, while it may not always be possible to be completely in sync when it comes to money, there are strategies that can help you and your spouse reach agreement on financial matters:

1. Don’t fight, solve

You could treat your disagreement over money as a confrontation to be won, using tactics such as “I’ll decide because I’m in charge,” or “I know more about money than you do.” But those are just adult versions of “I’m going to hold my breath until I turn blue.” It isn’t making someone understand; it’s overruling them.

To come to an agreement with someone, you need a conversation. You need gentle persuasion over stone-cold confrontation. Focus on mutual goals for the future, rather than past mistakes. To put it another way, a discussion that starts, “I think we should talk about how we want to spend our money,” is more likely to bear fruit than one that starts, “If you didn’t buy that stupid boat, we could afford a vacation this winter.”

Alan, a 45-year-old systems manager in Calgary, entered his relationship with Diane with more than $25,000 in credit card debt, the result of over-spending and a period of unemployment. He resisted her initial efforts to move that debt to a lower-cost line of credit.

Personal finance expert and author Kelley Keehn says people are usually reluctant to face up to their past financial errors. “By talking about it, people have to admit their mistakes, and that involves shame,” she said.

Diane had more success after she shared stories about some of her own past financial mistakes. Once Alan knew that she, too, had made some mistakes, he was able to stop being defensive about his problems, and instead work on a debt-reduction plan that would eventually allow them to buy a house together.

2. Speak your partner’s language

Everyone has different attitudes and priorities about money, and different ways of making decisions. So, if you want to talk to your spouse about money, think about how he or she makes other decisions. If they’re usually logical and methodical, use logic and figures. If they’re emotional, express your view in terms of how it will make you feel.

3. Try a “Freaky Friday” approach

In the movies, people sometimes exchange bodies and learn to appreciate each other’s problems. Try the financial equivalent. Jenna, a Toronto mother of two, didn’t understand where her family’s money went. Her husband paid the monthly bills online, but thought she routinely overspent on groceries. They decided to swap places for a month. “I learned a lot about our finances, and where our money goes, so we could make changes to our budget together,” she says. “And buying groceries helped him understand what it costs to feed our family.”

4. Use a mediator

Sometimes the message gets caught up in the messenger, and people need to hear wisdom from a different voice. If you have a financial advisor, consider using his or her input to help resolve a difference.

Keehn also suggests finding an article that’s related to your problem and using that as a low-risk conversation-starter. “It gives you permission to talk about it.”

5. Grab a pencil and do some math

You want to buy a car and your partner wants to lease? Talk won’t help much. The answer lies in some number crunching. Working through an acceptable monthly budget is an excellent way for partners to learn to agree on household financial fundamentals.

Hillary, a 48-year-old from Pickering, Ontario, realized the importance of paying off a mortgage quickly in her 20s after her husband bought her a pocket-sized book of amortization tables to help with mortgage choices. “Rates were higher then, and today you’d use an online mortgage calculator, but I was completely blown away by that book,” she says. “I was originally okay with a 25-year amortization, but then I saw that over 25 years, we were going to end up paying almost three times the purchase price of the house.

“Paying off the mortgage became my highest priority. We made bonus payments and shortened the amortization every time we could. We paid it off in 11 years and it’s the smartest financial decision we ever made. I wouldn’t have done it if he hadn’t shown me that little book.”

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