“It’s so important for people to develop skills around money—I find it really concerning when I hear people say, ‘I’ve never bothered to open the electric bill’, or ‘my partner or accountant sort everything out for me’, or ‘I’ve got no interest in money’.”—Sophia Bilbrough, Project Lead for WIRE’s Respectful Financial Relationship Conversations.
- With money arguments a major stress point in relationships, understanding your financial compatibility with your partner is key to your overall financial wellbeing.
- Discussing shared goals and setting a plan for spending and saving is a good way to initiate conversations about money.
- Talking to someone—a financial adviser or counsellor—can help couples to get on the same page financially.
Financial compatibility and shared values around money are traditionally a fair way down the list of important attributes when we think about getting into a relationship with someone. Serious discussions about finances usually take a long time to come up, and are often not as in-depth as they should be.
But the reality is this: money influences many areas of a relationship—and neglecting “money talk” can have a negative effect on both the relationship and our personal wellbeing, regardless of how harmonious every other aspect of the relationship may be.
“Money is the leading cause of stress in relationships,” says Jodie Howes, Senior Financial Adviser at Australian Unity. “Some people are spenders, others are savers. But financial compatibility is integral to a successful relationship—it impacts decisions big and small, from buying a house, having children and retirement to day-to-day living.
Jodie goes on to say that financial compatibility is about sharing the same values and goals and spending habits. “If you can’t agree on how you spend money, it will lead to problems, or even separation or divorce.”
Much like religious beliefs, political leanings, hobbies or even taste in music, it stands to reason people from different backgrounds will have varying attitudes towards money. Unlike a few questionable CDs, however, conflicting financial principles can’t be stashed away in the back of a cupboard.
“It may be that you get together with somebody who is a spender, who gains a lot of enjoyment from buying expensive items, and you’re not somebody who does that,” says Dr Sophia Bilbrough, the Project Lead for WIRE’s Respectful Financial Relationship Conversations initiative. An Australian Unity community partner, WIRE provides free information and referral services for Victorian women, non-binary and gender-diverse people.
“If you’re not on the same page financially, it’s likely there will be points in a long-term relationship where you’re spending on things you don’t want to be spending on, or you have different aims around money. Inevitably, that will cause serious issues,” continues Sophia.
Earlier the better, better late than never
Ideally, broaching the topic of finances will happen before a relationship gets to a serious juncture, such as moving in together.
That’s often not the case—but the “finance talk” something that needs to be addressed. The longer money goes undiscussed, the more damage it may do to a relationship.
“Talking about money is a real basic, but it’s something people are generally not good at,” explains Sophia. “We’re not taught to have those conversations early on. There’s often the attitude that if you love your partner, you have the same political and ethical values, then surely the financial side of things will be fine too.”
However daunting it may be to break the financial ice, Jodie implores couples to rip off the bandaid. The longer-term consequences of avoiding the issue are likely to be worse than any short-term discomfort.
“Money is a bit like death; it’s a bit taboo and no-one really wants to discuss it,” says Jodie. “It’s also like getting naked with each other for the first time, baring it all – the good, the bad and the ugly. It can be awkward. But starting the conversation could be as simple as sharing your own dreams and goals.”
How to approach the money conversation
If you want to bring up money with your partner, the key is to approach things in a non-confrontational way, steering away from judgement and showing respect and compassion. This greases the wheels for a productive discussion about money—and, ultimately, the relationship’s financial wellbeing.
Sophia suggests you start by discussing both your experiences with money, your current situation, your attitudes towards finances, and how you can best work together.
“Talking about shared goals and things you want to do together can be a great way to strengthen your relationship—it doesn’t have to be combative. Whether it’s holidays, buying a house together, having children—these things are a good way to look at spending habits. How are you going to fund these things you want to do together?”
Having an agreed-upon, transparent budget is another essential according to Sophia. “Talk about shared discretionary spending. You need total clarity about what you’re bringing to the relationship—debts and liabilities, property and assets, credit cards. Look at how those things going to impact on your relationship and financial responsibilities.”
Avoiding inequity and other pitfalls
There are myriad complications tied in with the financial dynamics of a relationship: comparative income and savings, pre-existing debts, childcare responsibilities and traditional gender biases are all part of the money minefield. Again, communication, honesty, cooperation and preparedness are the best ways to navigate those potential obstacles.
“Income inequality in relationships is common, but being honest about how you feel and having regular discussions is the best way to avoid friction around that,” says Jodie.
While it may require a shift in mindset, couples need to make joint decisions around finances. In a serious relationship, you are merging your life and therefore your money. You need to look at your money as “our” money.
“Financial decisions shouldn’t be left to—or insisted on by—the person who is earning more,” says Jodie. “That can lead to more problems and inequality. The person who is earning less can feel less valued.”
Sophia agrees, highlighting that some of the common financial problems confronting couples predominantly disadvantage women in a traditional heterosexual relationship.
“Women especially are more vulnerable to being financially exploited—despite usually earning less than their partner—because they are more likely to shoulder a partner’s debts, financial problems or issues around substance abuse, gambling addiction and that sort of thing.”
She suggests having a conversation about the following as early as possible:
- What happens if one person earns more? Is there going to be a conversation about one person paying less on household items?
- What happens if one person is bringing lots of debt to the relationship?
- If someone has a long history of debt or financial problems, should you move in with them?
Help is at hand
The fundamental foundation blocks of any happy and balanced relationship can help couples to maintain their financial wellbeing, but professional assistance—from a financial adviser, for example—could be a helpful option if the fiscal terrain is too difficult to traverse alone.
“It comes down to regular communication, being honest and being united in your decision-making—when it’s a joint decision, regardless of the outcome, you’re jointly responsible,” summarises Jodie.
“Sometimes couples just can’t see the end of that road, and working it out together with an expert makes it easier—it’s like having a referee on the sidelines.”
“It’s so important for people to develop skills around money—I find it really concerning when I hear people say, ‘I’ve never bothered to open the electric bill’, or ‘my partner or accountant sort everything out for me’, or ‘I’ve got no interest in money’,” says Sophia.
“We all have a responsibility to ourselves and our relationships to develop an interest in money, or a knowledge of how to handle finances.”
Disclaimer: Information provided in this article is of a general nature. Australian Unity accepts no responsibility for the accuracy of any of the opinions, advice, representations or information contained in this publication. Readers should rely on their own advice and enquiries in making decisions affecting their own health, wellbeing or interest.