Today’s guest post is as real as it gets. James MacLean from Love and Money Matters opens up about the first moment he and his new bride had “the money talk.” It wasn’t exactly when he thought it would happen (on their honeymoon!), but it taught them both some powerful lessons.
True story. I made my wife cry on our honeymoon.
And I’m not talking about happy tears. No, those came four days earlier when we exchanged our vows. But sad tears. Scared tears. Trembling with fear, snot-pouring-out-of-her-nose tears.
I didn’t mean to. Lord knows I didn’t want to. All I ever wanted was to be a good husband. But there she was, my beautiful bride, bawling her eyes out. And it felt like my fault.
So what happened?
Without even realizing it I hit a nerve. We talked about money.
I know what you’re thinking: who talks about money on their honeymoon?! Didn’t you have anything better to do?!
Well, in our defense, we didn’t plan to talk about money. We were getting ready for dinner and as I grabbed some cash to pay for our meal I said something like “Too bad we can’t keep this up.” And just like that, it started.
We were having a great time, but we knew our honeymoon wouldn’t last There’d be bills to pay, accounts to combine, and all the things that come with knitting lives together. Sure we planned for it before we got married because we’re nerdy like that, but we wrongly assumed knowing what to do would be enough. We never really talked about how we’d do it.
Of course, our opinions about how to work through our plan differed. And with that fresh realization, we suddenly doubted everything we’d previously planned and talked about. Maybe we didn’t think everything through as well as we’d thought. Maybe we weren’t really on the same page. Maybe we weren’t really ready to be married.
I wish I kept my mouth shut and enjoyed dinner out with my wife. Instead, we talked about money and cried into a room-service meal.
There’s more to money than math.
I realized that night when we talk about money, we’re not really talking about money. Instead, we’re really talking about what money represents to us; freedom, power, security, hopes, fears, and so on. Figuring out what to do with money is just a fourth-grade level math problem. Once you learn a few key things, it isn’t all that hard. Deciding how to balance your hopes and fears, building lives that reflect your values and all the emotions that come with them, that’s hard.
When we got married I still had some student loans hanging over my head. So to me money represented freedom. Money meant having options and not being tied to a dead end job just to pay for the degree I wasn’t using.
To my wife money represented security. A big pile of cash meant we’d never be hungry or wonder where we’d sleep. So my desire to pay off the student loans as fast as possible conflicted with my wife’s desire to save as much as possible. And that made talking about money a tricky, emotional minefield.
Now I don’t know what money represents to you or your partner, but odds are you see things differently. There have been some fights, tension, and hurt feelings.
Maybe they’re so focussed on living in the moment they want to spend everything on fancy trips and shiny stuff.
Maybe they’re so worried about a rainy day that never seems to come, they just want to save every cent and never have any fun.
Or maybe they want to change the world and build schools in Swaziland, but you’re worried about how you’re going to eat this month.
You just can’t get them to see things your way and agree on what to do. So you avoid talking about money, take charge, and handle it yourself. Or maybe you “agree” with them to shut them up just to move on with life. (If none of this sounds familiar, maybe they’re “agreeing” with you just to shut you up.)
At some point, though, we have to talk about money. And if we wait until we’re upset, when the stakes are high, and the tension has reached critical mass we’re more likely to say something hurtful and make things worse.
So here’s something I’ve picked up to help with money talks and other important/difficult conversations. It can help defuse tension, allow you to express yourself without pushing your partner away and, instead, invite your partner to help find a solution.
“When X, I Y.”
Often times we beat around the bush, hoping our partners can pick up on our hints and read our minds. We see them handling money, or doing something, differently than we’d like. So we sigh, cross our arms, or make some passing comment.
“Why’d you buy the cheap toilet paper again? You know I think it feels like sandpaper!”
“You wasted so much money!”
“I wish you would just lighten up!”
That doesn’t work, though. And as they keep missing our cues, we grow even more frustrated. Over time our frustration boils over and erupts out of our mouths, blindsiding our partners.
This is where “When X, I Y” comes in.
“X” is something objective. “X” is a fact, observable and provable that can’t really be argued against.
“When we spend more money than we make…”
“When we don’t go out to eat…”
“Y” is how you feel about it. “Y” conveys your experience, your subjective response; something difficult to effectively argue against.
“When we spend more money than we make I get scared we’ll go into debt.”
“When we don’t go out to eat, I feel like we’re stuck in a routine and missing out on a lot of fun.”
Vulnerability is the key to making this script work. Be willing to share your true thoughts and feelings. Remember, they’re your partner. Theoretically, they like you and love you. They don’t want to see you stressed or burdened. And frankly, they might not even know.
Sure, this may be scary and hard, but I think you’ll be surprised. As you use this script to open up your partner will respond in kind. Vulnerability leads to vulnerability. Lowering your guard around a problem invites them to do the same and become part of the solution.
Caution and Closing
“When X, I Y” will not work if you’re just to score points in an on-going fight. “When you’re a jerk I feel like throwing a frying pan at your head” isn’t going to help matters. All that’ll do is get your partner to focus on your accusation and how to defend themselves. They’re not going to listen to your concerns or want to help.
Personally, learning this script has saved my wife and I an untold number of fights. It’s a tool I wish we had on our honeymoon. But since then, it’s helped us talk through our hopes, dreams, and fears and build an effective, easy to follow financial plan to address them. Best of all, by learning to solve these problems and overcome these challenges, we’ve grown closer as a couple.
So the next time you and your partner aren’t seeing eye to eye on your finances, try this script. It might feel a little strange at first, but it can help you express how you’re feeling, keep the focus on the issue at hand, and come up with a solution.
Let me know in the comments how it works for you or if you have any favorite tools for improving money talks and other important/difficult conversations.
Inspired by his parents’ multiple divorces, James MacLean is doing all he can to learn from their relationship mistakes and build an awesome marriage with his wife, Andrea. James can be found facilitating FPU and teaching and at Common Church in Boston, MA when he isn’t busy doing logistics work for an international trucking company. James now also shares everything he and his wife have learned, and will learn, about love and money at Love and Money Matters. Sign up for his free email program to learn how to talk about money without fighting.
Image Credit: Brett Campbell (UnSplash)