Let’s set the scene: you’ve just started dating someone new, and you’re really excited about them. You’ve got a big date night planned, and you’re ready to get intimate. You light some candles, and you both….open up a spreadsheet.
We’re talking about financial intimacy, baby.
“We don’t think of intimacy as on the table […] when we’re talking about money,” says Amanda Clayman, a financial therapist. And that’s a mistake, she says, because money can bring us closer together.
Clayman has counseled individuals and couples about their issues involving money for more than 16 years. She says it’s crucial for partners to talk about money because money issues are never just about money.
“Money shows up in our lives every step of the way as something that appears, on the surface, like a problem to be solved,” she says. “But usually it reveals something deeper about something in our life that needs to change, grow or shift.”
So. We need to talk more about money. But it’s such a taboo topic that it can be daunting to get started.
“I find that money comes up pretty naturally if we let it, that it gets harder the more we think of it as a very special talk about money,” says Clayman.
As early as the first date, we navigate money when we decide whether to split the check or peek to see if the other person is a good tipper.
“I think the more we just invite these more mundane conversations about money into our lives, the more we just find that communication flows,” Clayman says.
To take some of the pressure off of having The Big Money Talk, Clayman says, start slow. Open the conversation with a question like, “how comfortable do you feel being open about money?”
This allows a couple to talk about their experiences with money and their values around it. This can lead to heavier questions. Clayman says that as your relationship grows, strive to mirror that growth in your financial intimacy.
Here are a few questions to think about:
- How much do both of you make?
- Do you have student loan debt?
- Are you comfortable carrying credit card debt?
- How should you, as a couple, handle money?
In creating a financial life together, Clayman says there are five necessary elements for financial intimacy.
You and your partner should have equal say (and equal power) in financial decisions. Clayman says couples often seek therapy when there is an imbalance in the relationship — sometimes a partner who makes more money believes they should have more say in decisions. Other times, she says, the person who is more anxious or frugal about money gets more say.
If this imbalance isn’t equalized, both couples can end up with hurt feelings, Clayman says.
“It can bring up a lot of feelings, sometimes inadequacy, sometimes resentment, sometimes a lot of feelings about dependence,” she says. “If we treat these feelings as, you know, they’re all welcome, they’re all valid. They’re all something that we can acknowledge and process.”
This, she says, is how talking about money can help us grow closer emotionally.
The old “my partner handles the money because they’re better at math” won’t work here. Both partners should be active participants in financial decisions. No one has sole control. No one gets to opt out.
“Neither of those works in the long term, because what it does is it kind of sticks the one partner — in some ways, even if they’re asking for it — with all of the risk if something goes wrong,” says Clayman.
Money mistakes happen, and if one person is solely in charge, there’s too much room for blame and resentment instead of connection.
Information around finances should be shared openly. This doesn’t mean you have to merge all your assets or pore over each other’s credit card statements.
“We can still have areas of negotiated privacy,” Clayman says. “We can still say, you know, we both agree to put this much money into the joint account. We agree that these are the joint expenses. And then this is the amount that we have left over for making our personal decisions.”
She says access to information serves as a safety measure, so everyone knows what financial decisions are being made.
The financial plan that you and your partner come up with must be something you both can stick to long term.
“I had a client, for example, who had that high need for control and safety with money, and the couple had some debts, and they really wanted to just put every resource that they could toward paying down the debt,” Clayman says. “That made sense when it came to the math, but [then] the other partner felt like this plan had taken all of the joy out of their life.”
That’s not sustainable because it builds resentment. In a worst-case scenario, she says, an unsustainable plan will cause one partner to act out.
“They will do things in secret,” Clayman says, often running up debts. “This kind of activity, as you can imagine, is really destructive in relationships.”
Both partners need to compromise to come up with a sustainable plan.
Whether you’ve been promoted or lost your job or are starting a family or a business — life changes, and so do our financial situations. If the financial plan isn’t working or your situation changes, be open to change.
Clayman says she often sees clients struggling to find their financial footing after a big life event.
“I literally sat with a couple that was eight months pregnant, and they had kept everything separate,” she says. For them, it was a point of pride and independence. “But now they were running into a situation where that arrangement just wasn’t sufficient. And the way that I asked about it was to literally say, like, ‘who does the baby belong to, financially?'”
She says the absurdity of that question helped the couple see that their financial plan needed to be altered to accommodate their needs as a growing family.
Finance as a form of romance
Whether you’re in a brand new shiny relationship or you’ve been committed for a while, take some time to sit down with your partner and talk through your feelings about money.
“That vulnerability is a really important part of intimacy,” Clayman says. “The messiness, the part that we’re still figuring out, like when we can share that with another person? That’s really where that magic connection happens.”
And really, what could be more romantic than planning for your future together?
The podcast portion of this story was produced by Clare Marie Schneider, with engineering support from Marcia Caldwell.
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This episode was produced in collaboration with WNYC’s Death, Sex & Money. They did a series on financial therapy where Amanda Clayman counsels a couple struggling with financial issues.