Pretty much every adult has already been told (no doubt multiple times) that it is important to be honest with your partner about money. Discuss your plans and priorities, we're advised. Don't keep secrets. Get it out in the open before you commit.
This is sensible advice, and yet a huge chunk of couples ignore it entirely. Instead, they opt to muddle through with short-term decisions, regular bickering, and a huge helping of blind faith. Are they crazy? No, many of them just don't want to have a giant fight.
If you suspect you and your partner might not entirely line up when it comes to your views on financial matters, it's often easier to sweep these differences under the rug than it is to open up what will no doubt be a long and quite possibly painful discussion. If couples feel they have to choose between harmony and disclosure, a decent percentage are going to choose harmony.
But this is a false choice, according to Ted Jenkin, founder of a financial advisory practice focused on younger couples. It's possible to discuss money without anyone getting defensive or screaming, he insists in a recent WSJ Experts column. His article offers useful strategies from his 25 years in the business, including these great non-confrontational conversation starters:
1. "If you won $1 million today, what would be the first three things you would do with the money?"
This question is so much fun, you may have already discussed it with your partner just for kicks. But taken seriously, it's actually much more than an entertaining way to fill a lull in conversation.
"Spouses tend to act very favorably to this question because it isn't accusatory in nature," Jenkin writes. "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."
2. "How did your parents spend their money?"
Again, this question is completely non-accusatory but also wildly insightful. "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," Jenkin explains.
By listening carefully to the answers to questions like these, you can gain insight into your partner's "hardwiring about money." For instance, Jenkin elaborates, if your partner's parents scrimped and saved but passed away before they could enjoy their nest egg, he might be understandably determined to enjoy his money now. That's a helpful data point to know the next time you're discussing whether to book a vacation or contribute to your IRA.
3. "If I charged $100 on a credit card and didn't tell you about it, would you be angry with me?"
Different people have different expectations when it comes to transparency around money. Some disclose every penny; others rely on an ignorance-is-bliss approach. Either can work as long as you have an a mutually agreed upon plan from the get go.
"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," reports Jenkin.