How do you have difficult conversations about money when you’re dating? What words should you use? What do you do if the conversations go south?
This week, I invited Megan McCoy and Ed Coambs, two leading couples therapists who specialize in financial therapy and conflict, to share insights about how to talk about money matters when you’re dating.
- Questions to ask (and behaviors to observe) early in a relationship to learn your partner’s financial values
- Tips for asking sensitive money-related questions that don’t rub your partner the wrong way
- How to handle it if your partner does get defensive or reacts the wrong way
- Tips for attracting a partner who shares your financial values
- What to do if you’ve met “the one” but have totally different mindsets and behaviors about money
How have you approached talking about money when dating? What tips and best practices have worked for you? What advice do you have for other couples? Let me know by leaving a comment.
Don’t miss an episode, hit that subscribe button…
If you liked this episode, be sure to subscribe so you don’t miss any upcoming episodes!
I need your help, please leave a listener review 🙂
If you liked this episode, would you please leave a quick review on Apple Podcasts? It’d mean the world to me and your review also helps others find my podcast, too!
Links mentioned in this episode:
- Ed Coambs’ Healthy Love & Money
- Ed Coambs’ Charlotte Couples Counseling
- Megan McCoy, Ph.D., LMFT
- Money Scripts article; Klontz Money Script Inventory
- Brad Klontz’s How Clients’ Money Scripts Predict Their Financial Behaviors
- Prepare Enrich workbook for couples
- Dew, J., & Dakin, J. (2011). Financial Disagreements and Marital Conflict Tactics. Journal of Financial Therapy, 2 (1) 7
- Love Sense: The Revolutionary New Science of Romantic Relationships
- Healing Your Attachment Wounds: How to Create Deep and Lasting Intimate Relationships
- HYW private Facebook community
Read this episode as a post:
Andrew Chen 01:23
For today’s episode and the next one, since it’s around Valentine’s Day, I decided to do something different. I invited two expert guests to share their insights about relationships and money, and how we can get better at having money-related conversations with our significant other or spouse.
I asked each guest a similar set of questions, and then combined both interviews into a single Q&A format. So you’ll hear their joint insights together to each question, and that will give you a couple of different perspectives for how to develop better skills and how to have better money-related conversations with your partner.
So with that, my guests today are Megan McCoy and Ed Coambs. First, a bit of background on Megan.
Megan is a Professor of Practice and the Director of the Personal Financial Planning Master’s Program at Kansas State University.
Her work focuses on the intersection between financial health and wellbeing, and her research has been published in The Journal of Financial Therapy, The Journal of Financial Planning, and The Journal of Family Economic Issues, among others. She is a board member of the Financial Therapy Association.
She is also a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, and a Certified Financial Therapist, and she holds a PhD in Human Development and Family Science from the University of Georgia.
Megan, thanks so much for joining us today to share insights and wisdom about relationships and money!
Megan McCoy 02:32
I’m so excited to be here. Thanks for having me.
Andrew Chen 02:35
And now, a bit of background about Ed Coambs.
Ed is the founder of “Healthy Love and Money,” an educational website that helps couples develop stronger relationships by working through their money problems.
He is also a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, and has a couples counseling practice, where he helps couples strengthen their communication and relationship skills on money-related matters.
He started as a financial planner with a CFP and an MBA in finance before moving into marriage and family therapy, where he specializes in financial therapy.
Ed, thanks so much for joining us today to share your insights on relationships and money!
Ed Coambs 03:08
Thanks, Andrew. I’m excited to meet with you and to talk about this important intersection of couples and money.
Andrew Chen 03:13
I’d love to just first start up by learning a little bit more about your background. How did you get into your field of work that intersects financial planning and couples and marriage counseling?
I didn’t know that this was a joint hybrid field of study. I would love to just learn how you found your way into this field.
Megan McCoy 03:28
It was definitely luck, honestly. I finished my Master’s in Family Therapy from Drexel University back in 2008, and was seeing clients, and I was like, “Gosh, I wish I had more tools. I wish I was a better therapist.”
So I went back to school for a PhD. Just as a side note, PhD programs are not to create better clinicians, but they’re created to teach you how to do research.
So I was floundering around in my first year of my PhD program, like “What am I doing? I shouldn’t have signed up for this.”
And the financial therapy conference came to town, and this wonderful practitioner named [04:03] did a live demonstration of financial therapy, and I was like, “Oh my gosh, my clients need this, but I need this.”
And so, I went on a personal journey of getting used to money. I took financial planning courses. I just put my hand to the fire for the first time in my entire life.
Because there’s actually been studies that show that mental health professionals are very money-avoidant, and I was definitely that person. So now I have a career working in a financial planning program where I really just steal what we know from the family therapy and introduce it in how we can adapt it to be within the scope of competence for financial planners, and stealing what already works.
Ed Coambs 04:44
I think it’s been an unfolding journey. I certainly had no idea that this existed 10-15 years ago as I was setting out on a career path. It really was born out of an interest of figuring out personal finance for myself, starting with a career in firefighting.
I started out as a professional firefighter and sat around listening to guys talk about two things: their wives and money. And you can imagine how some of those conversations went. Let’s just say they weren’t always the most favorable conversations.
Not all of them were tragic, but I saw a lot. You’re living with the guys. So it set me on this course of wanting to figure it out for myself, not wanting to have those same problems.
I was aware that my folks had had some frustrations around money and with each other, so I just realized this is a bigger issue. So the natural solution to that, at that point in my life, was learn how money works. And I thought, “If you just learn how money works and you make enough money, then you shouldn’t have any problems.”
I now realize that’s not an uncommon starting point for a lot of people, and it’s intuitive and natural. I took things to a little bit of an extreme by getting an MBA in Finance and a CFP. Most people won’t do that, but I wanted to turn this into my career of helping people, leaving firefighting and becoming a financial planner.
And what I discovered in that process is I also ended up meeting my wife who was finishing up dental school, and we had to have more money conversations as we were going to get married. And I started realizing, “This is more complicated than just knowing how to put together a budget and an investment plan and paying off debt.”
All that knowledge is important, but being able to talk about it and have the same goals and ideas—that’s where we were getting off-kilter.
I had the good fortune of working at Vanguard Mutual Funds for almost four years, and talked to a lot of clients and certainly heard some of their concerns and frustrations as well. So I said, “What else is there besides just if I’m giving the right ‘investment advice/financial planning advice’ but it’s not settling the arguments or it’s not helping couples? What’s going on?”
By this time, I now figured out I really liked going to school, so I went back to school to get my Master’s in Marriage and Family Therapy, again, a bit naively: “Surely, they know something about how to help people.” Boy, did I not understand how deep the field of psychology is.
I had come up in the business world and didn’t do a lot of reading in psychology, so I really got my eyes opened. And it’s been quite a whirlwind since that point.
It’s been 10 years since I entered the field of psychology and counseling, and I’ve been practicing for seven years, and have grown a lot in understanding how it is that couples work, what’s happening for them when they’re interacting around money, and bringing me to today where I have a really good understanding of likely what’s going on.
I use some major psychological frameworks, like attachment theory, which is the study of how babies grow and develop a sense of security in the world in relationships. And that gets carried into the adult intimate relationship, and that’s often driving a lot of the money dynamics.
Andrew Chen 08:18
Lovely. Thanks so much for sharing that.
I have a bunch of questions I’d love to dive into. There’s a bunch that are about the issues and questions that come up before marriage, which is the big milestone in people’s lives, and then a bunch I’d love to ask you about, post-marriage, how some of those issues may shift and how to handle them in a productive way.
If we just first start on the pre-marriage bucket, I’d love to get your thoughts on when you first meet and start dating somebody new, what are the questions that you should be asking, or the behaviors that you should be observing, early on in a relationship, to understand your partner’s financial values, their financial philosophy, etc.?
Megan McCoy 09:02
Honestly, it’s so hard to know people’s financial behaviors because so many of it are (not secretive, but) behind the scenes, so you might not know how much they make or how much they’re spending or if they’re living within their income, where they should be. So I think the idea of slowly introducing it into conversations can be really powerful, especially early on.
People always talk about opposites attract, and that’s not true. Research has shown over and over again that we actually marry someone very similar to us in our religious views, our political views, those big identity parts of us.
We pick someone similar, except for when it comes to money. Then we’re all of a sudden attracted to our opposite.
I don’t think that’s necessarily bad, but just being aware that you might not be seeing their whole money behaviors. You might not be aware of them all.
Andrew Chen 10:01
What are some questions that would be good to ask early on?
Megan McCoy 10:07
I think things like “What are your financial goals?” So often, when we talk about money, they feel like stressful conversations. And I wish people had more positive financial conversations.
“What are you saving for? What are the tricks that you’ve learned that made you save better? What have you bought that brings you joy?”
“What are your short-term and your long-term financial goals?”
Because what’s cool is there’s research that shows that creating goals together increases intimacy automatically, because, all of a sudden, your dream of going to Italy one day is not just a dream of going to Italy. It’s a dream of going to Italy with your partner.
So, the more you have these positive conversations, it gets the taboo-ness around money to go down, and then you talk about the harder conversations like student loan debt or credit card debt after you guys already have this great track record of talking about money in a positive light.
Ed Coambs 11:00
It is a really important part of that developing relationship stage. It’s screening. You want to partner well
So, what is it that you’re on the lookout for? I think one would just be: Can you have a conversation about money?
Can you ask them about “What is your view of money? Who is responsible for paying for what?”
Those simple questions, on the surface, may elicit an answer, but what you want to look for beneath the surface is: Are they comfortable answering those questions that I have about money? And if they’re uncomfortable answering the questions about money, then that tells you that they likely have some anxiety or fear around discussing money.
Now, that’s not inherently bad, or you should stop and put the brakes on it immediately. But what you really want to judge is how comfortable are they to engage in financial conversations?
Because what we know is, over the arc of your whole intimate life, there are going to be hundreds, if not thousands, of money decisions to be made. So what you want to assess is: Are we going to be able to partner equally together?
If one person is wanting to control and they think they’re always right about money, and the other person is always acquiescing or giving in, that’s not a particularly stable financial arrangement.
Certainly, these are probably not the conversations you have on your first date, but if you’re three to six months into the relationship and it feels like it’s starting to stabilize and it’s going to go forward, then you may want to give some situational questions, like “How do you manage your budget? How do you view investing and saving for the future?”
And you’re just asking open-ended, non-threatening questions. We’re not looking for a right or wrong answer. We’re just trying to draw out their understandings.
If you want to get a little more risky with those questions, you might ask them, “What’s a money mistake that you’ve made in the past, and what have you learned from it?”
In that type of question, what you’re wanting to hear from the partner is: are they able to engage in some degree of vulnerability about having made a money mistake? Because the reality is, at the point that you’re in an intimate relationship, you’ve made at least one money mistake somewhere along the way. There’s something that you think that you’ve not done well.
And what we want to know as the pursuing partner is: can you own that and acknowledge it, and then show that you’ve learned something from it and talk about how you’ve changed from that experience?
I can remember long before I ever met my wife, one of the money mistakes I made early on was co-signing for an ex-girlfriend on a cellphone plan. And I didn’t know better because I didn’t know what co-signing really meant. I just had a crude idea, and I wanted to be nice and helpful.
Six months later, she had stopped paying the phone bill, and I’m getting a call from the cellphone company, saying, “You owe us whatever amount of money.”
So, a lot of times, we can also be wanting to know: are people making financial mistakes out of just a lack of knowledge and experience? Because we learn about money progressively as we age. So that’s really what we want to get at in that stage of the relationship.
Andrew Chen 14:35
One thing I’m struck by is, for folks, especially earlier on in their careers (maybe they’re recently out of school), they may not have reflected on some of these big questions around “What am I saving for, my financial goals?” It might just not be on their radar.
It does take some self-reflection to do that. And if there’s not something acute that you need right now, it’s not like the most urgent thing necessarily.
So if you ask these questions to somebody early on in a relationship, and they don’t know, or they’re just like, “Hmm,” or “I haven’t thought about it, how should one interpret that? Or is that, in itself, an answer? How should one face that?
Megan McCoy 15:23
I think you’re right that that, in itself, is an answer, that maybe they haven’t been intentional about thinking about their future. But I think even then, it’s a blessing.
You might actually improve their financial health by having these conversations about “What are your dreams? What do you want to save up for?”
We often equate being able to buy stuff as something that will make us happy. But we know from research, buying things does not make us happy. It is the anticipation of buying things that make us happy.
So, if we’re able to shift gears (even something simple like a new PlayStation) and say, “My short-term goal is I’m saving up for a PlayStation,” it brings some joy to us because you start thinking of something you’re anticipating will bring you joy, which actually brings you more joy than actually having it, which is cool.
Andrew Chen 16:16
If the other person doesn’t have an answer to some of these threshold questions that you ask, are there particular behaviors that you would recommend that folks pay attention to? Because, often, actions speak louder than words.
Megan McCoy 16:30
Yeah. I think if they mention debt and then you see a lot of credit card use, you might want to be a little red-flaggy. But the cool thing about money is that you can shift gears and make tremendous changes at any point.
Maybe your partner isn’t great with money. Maybe they have been wasting money. But as you guys become more and more committed to one another, you can have conversations that actually shift their relationship with money.
Even though I don’t condone every piece of advice that Dave Ramsey gives, Dave Ramsey has changed so many people’s lives who were in massive amounts of debt, and they have managed to clear it up very quickly.
So, I want your listeners to understand: even if your partner is a hot mess around finances right now, you could help them. You as a team can work towards goals and make progress.
No one is stuck in their relationship with money. We can evolve and change.
Ed Coambs 17:30
One of those things is time and the types of activities/dates you want to go on. A very classic one is restaurant choice. Is there a parity in the level of restaurant quality and price point that you want to dine at?
If one person is wanting to go out for a really high-end meal and you want to go for ramen noodles, maybe there’s going to be a financial mismatch there. If one person is thinking, “We should be going on really fancy dates,” and the other one is saying, “Let’s do something more practical and free,” those are big differences to have to cross.
So, that’s one behavioral example. Another, it can be just looking at what are those material goods and objects that they have, and are they in alignment with your own standards of material goods and objects?
You can just be looking at: How do they furnish their apartment or their condo or their house? What type of car are they driving?
Those are all going to be cues or signals to where their money mindset is at that time.
Andrew Chen 18:38
So, money-related questions are sensitive. It can be an emotionally fraught subject.
What are some tips or advice for the mechanics that you might have when it comes to asking sensitive money-related questions in a way that doesn’t provoke a negative reaction by the other person?
Megan McCoy 19:00
I think my two big pieces of advice are: First, focusing more on goals rather than problems, because then you can shift the problems into new goals.
It’s no longer you have a problem with student loan debt. It’s a goal to pay off student loan debt. And that makes it a lot easier to talk about.
I think also modeling through your own self-reflection could be really a great way of introducing these conversations, like:
“Here are my financial goals. Here’s what I’m struggling around finances with. Can you share with me as well?”
That way, you’re starting out and saying, “I am able to share, so I’m hoping you’ll be able to share it too.”
Ed Coambs 19:40
Yeah. I think it takes some degree of relational trust. And assuming that you’re able to evaluate there’s enough relational trust, how do you enter into these conversations?
And I think what you’re saying is “How do I not blindside the other person?”
So, anytime you’re getting into a sensitive conversation in an intimate relationship, prefacing and saying, “I’d like to talk to you about something that’s really important to me. Is now a good time that we can talk about it?”
“I’m just going to say it: Sally, it’s really been great dating you. Money is something that’s important to me. You probably picked up on that a little bit along the way.”
“I’d really like to talk with you more intentionally about your views of money in your experiences as we’re getting to know each other.” Something along those lines.
And then Sally feels like she has a chance to either say, “Yeah, I’m ready to have that conversation,” or “No, not right now. Maybe later.”
And that even becomes a little bit of an evaluative tool, because if Sally says, “Oh my god, why do you want to ask that?” that defensive response is telling you a lot of information about her openness and willingness to talk about money.
Andrew Chen 20:51
Do you have any tips for how to handle it if the other person does get defensive or reacts negatively to questions you’re asking? I’m sure you must have seen this before.
Megan McCoy 21:03
Yeah. What we talk a lot about is this thing called emotional flooding. Sometimes, when you do create a defensive response in a partner, what’s actually going on is that their hormones have caused their brain to switch to the more evolutionarily younger part of the brain, the more reactive part of the brain, so there’s no point in continuing.
It’s not one of those times where you say, “They’re getting defensive [21:30].”
It is “Let’s take a break. Let’s stop. Let’s shift gears.”
“Let’s calm down. And then we can circle back in a couple of days or a couple of hours, when you’re feeling more calm.”
I think oftentimes people mistakenly believe in the saying, “You shouldn’t go to sleep angry.” If you’re tired, you’re not going to be able to resolve things. Go to sleep.
The next day, when you’re fed and well-rested, you’ll be able to communicate in a more efficient way than when you’re flustered or angry or tired or hungry.
Andrew Chen 22:08
So, feed people and make sure they’re well-rested.
Megan McCoy 22:13
That’s one of the secrets to my husband’s happiness. He needs to be rested.
Ed Coambs 22:18
That’s a really great question. I think we want to come in from managing our own emotions about it, because we have our own feelings and our needs that we’re trying to get met through these conversations.
If we find that we’re getting reactive or wanting to shut down in response to their reactions, then we probably need to say, “Okay, I’m just going to pick on Sally today. All right, Sally, this is getting to be a lot for both of us. Maybe we need to hit the pause button and look at coming back to this later.”
If you’re able to stay relatively calm and emotionally regulated, then you say, “Hey, Sally, why is this such a big deal for you? What’s coming up?”
Let me slow it down. I’m saying it very much like a therapist, and I’m wanting to come back into more like a real everyday person.
“Sally, I’m sorry. I’m not trying to provoke you in this conversation. I can see you’re getting upset.”
“Do you want to keep talking about this right now, or do we need to take a break?”
Again, it’s always with that mindset of allowing the partner some freedom and autonomy to back out of the conversation while letting them know that the conversation is still important to you. That’s really always the end goal. In secure relationships, people don’t get backed into a corner.
If you keep pushing them and say, “Why won’t you talk to me about this? I want to know more…”
“Why won’t you tell me? What are you scared of?” That kind of energy is just going to further amplify them.
“What are you trying to hide?” That’s where you really have to know: how am I coming across to the other person as well? Because that might be part of their reaction.
One of the ideas that I use a lot in my couples counseling comes from affect regulation theory, which is a fancy name for how do we manage our emotions. They say we have this window of tolerance, and we have a top limit and a lower limit.
If we’re between the upper and lower limit, then we’re probably okay. If we go through the top, then we’re going to probably be that more aggressive, pushy, anxious presence that’s going to provoke the other person into a similar type of response.
The other side of it is if you go through the bottom on emotional (that’s the sadness, withdrawal, flight), this is all autonomic nervous system information. But building your own self-awareness. That’s probably a little more of an advanced skill, but couples can start to use even that.
“Where are we in our window of tolerance? Are we feeling overwhelmed?”
Because if we’re feeling overwhelmed, we’re not going to have productive conversations. So, you’re having to build self-awareness.
That’s where you’re going to ask the other person, “How are you perceiving me right now?” Because there can be a gap between our own self-perception and our partner’s perception of us.
That opens up some vulnerability for the other person to say, “I’m experiencing it as really angry or really judgy or really harsh or really critical.” Or they might say, “No, you seem pretty calm, safe, comfortable.”
That’s what you want to know. How are they experiencing you? Because there can sometimes be a mismatch.
In the most ideal world, I think it’s face to face, being able to look into each other’s eyes, because that’s where we can base so much information.
I know for some people that they prefer challenging conversations shoulder to shoulder. They’re both looking forward, like on the walk or in the car ride, at dinner.
You’re face to face more often than not. Sitting on the couch, you can turn towards each other.
Ideally, I like to use this language of financial intimacy. What we’re wanting to build towards is financial intimacy where we can safely look at each other to see each other’s emotional responses.
Part of what we know in intimate relationships is that, despite cultural values of being [26:24] individual and responsible for our own responses, [26:28] says we’re actually co-responsible for each other.
We don’t give up responsibility for our own emotional regulation, but we are entrusting our emotional regulation to the other person, and conversely, they’re entrusting us. So we’re under this co-regulatory environment.
Or another word is “interdependent.” We’re not fully dependent on the other person to manage our emotions, but we’re not fully independent of just doing it all on our own. We want to find that middle zone.
Andrew Chen 26:58
Do you have advice for folks who chronically run into this problem? Because some people are just not great at engaging conversationally in some of these hard questions, and they can become emotional. Maybe it takes a little bit longer if they’re well-fed and rested, but it can still happen.
Any advice for folks like this?
Megan McCoy 27:18
Yeah. If there’s a lot of conflict around talking about money, oftentimes, I think it has something to do with the way we see money.
If you were to go to an intra level conflict resolution class as a major in some schools, what they would always say is the first step to conflict resolution is to make sure there’s goal consensus and problem consensus. Because oftentimes, we’re actually fighting about two different things. We’re trying to get to two different end points.
So, oftentimes, money is symbolically meaning something different. Jeffrey Dew calls it the hidden secrets of money.
For some of us, money is power; for some of us, money is security; for some of us, money is safety; for some of us, money is fun.
So, figuring out what your partner is actually thinking around money is making you guys be more on the same page about what are you actually talking about.
Andrew Chen 28:12
So if I’m just synthesizing our discussion just now, then it sounds like a good set of skills to bring to the table: framing issues more in terms of goals rather than problems, making sure folks are well-fed and rested, and making sure you have consensus on problem statements and goal statements. Is that an accurate summary?
Megan McCoy 28:39
I love that. I think those three would make my job nonexistent.
The fourth thing I didn’t highlight enough is that we really do come with these different lenses around money. I call them Jeffrey Dew’s language about the hidden issues about money, but there’s another group of researchers named Brad and Ted Klontz and Rick Kahler that created this thing called “money scripts.”
They said some people are money avoidant; some people are money status; some people are money worshippers; and some people are money vigilant. And we learn those scripts so young that we’re unable to recognize that other people see money differently.
When we’re talking about money, let’s take the whole spender/saver thing. The spender is talking to their partner and say, “I want freedom; I want power in our relationship; I want to be able to make decisions about my money.”
And the saver is saying, “I’m scared of the future; I’m scared where the money is going; I’m scared that we’re not going to have enough.”
These two people are never recognizing that when they say, “I don’t want you to buy that purse,” they’re actually saying, “I’m afraid of our future,” or “I need power in our relationship.”
If you could say those underlying meanings, a lot of our problems would go away.
Andrew Chen 29:50
That’s really interesting. How do you bring those to the surface?
Megan McCoy 29:54
The one I wish everybody would do is actually take a money script inventory. The money script inventory is also called a Klontz money script inventory. You can Google it and find ways to take it online.
It simply outlines these beliefs that are partially true but maybe guiding your behavior accidentally. I had something in my money script that was like “Money is not important. There’s bigger things in the world that you should care about.”
Which is fine, except for when you push down any focus on money, because you need to have a safe, healthy financial setting to do anything else. So my belief that money was somehow bad prevented me from tracking my spending or being intentional or saving.
Once you recognize, “I do 100% buy into that script,” then you could start to say, “That’s not always true. That doesn’t necessarily have to be true.”
And it’s freeing, so definitely just being aware of these money beliefs can be really powerful.
Andrew Chen 30:59
Just to make sure I understand because I’m outside of this world: Is this like a questionnaire that somebody fills out and then it spits out like a result?
Megan McCoy 31:07
Right. Yes, it’s very much like Buzzfeed where you could take all the little surveys.
I think I’ve seen it on several websites. A lot of wonderful practitioners have it on their websites as a way of recruiting clients. You could take it there.
Or I think Brad Klontz has it available online. Your listeners are welcome to email me as well. I’m sure you’ll have the contact information somewhere, and I could send it to them.
Andrew Chen 31:30
Perfect. When you were describing this money script exercise, I was thinking back to a prior career that I had where I was working in product design and there’s this type of structure, design, brainstorming/thinking process that product designers will often go through to try to keep negative reactions or emotions or judgments at bay.
It might look something like everybody quietly brainstorming first, and then putting ideas on the board, and then ranking them, individually voting. So you’re trying to get ideas out before you move to the judgment phase, and that helps separate out ideation, where people can freely come up with as many ideas, even the bad ones (because there’s often some good ones in there), before they move to the evaluation phase.
And I was just curious, when it comes to money conversations with people, are there these similar types of exercises that you find to be particularly effective that you will sometimes walk clients through? Maybe it’s this money script inventory.
I was curious if there are other things that even folks can do on their own, knowing that without a mediator or a moderator, then either the exercise may have to be very structured or they may have to be very mindful about how it’s done.
Megan McCoy 33:03
There is this great worksheet that was developed by PREPARE. It’s a premarital program that sounds exactly like what you were just describing.
And people listening can do this with their partner without a mediator. But on a piece of paper, you have to first write down: what are you guys actually fighting about? And both people have to agree with that.
The next step is to just start off by saying, “I contribute to the problem by…” And just name one thing that, even if it’s 90% your partner’s fault, what’s the 10% that maybe you’re playing a part in the conflict?
That way, both people start out lovingly and say, “I know I could do better in this one area. So let’s work together. We’ll figure it out.”
And then what you do is you brainstorm 10 solutions. You just write down all these ideas.
And like you said, so many of them are going to be garbage ideas that you would never use, but there might be some piece of a couple that you can put together for the real solution. And then you decide the pros and cons of all of those.
I did this once with a couple, speaking of garbage, and they were fighting a lot about who took out the garbage. And really, what they were fighting about is household tasks, who’s doing more. But during their solutions, they actually came up with one that he had, one of those flying things called a drone, and they were going to have the drone take out the trash, which would have been a massive mess.
But it also made them laugh and made them take a step back and calm down. And I think that’s the beauty of using paper or using something else that decreases that physiological arousal that I was talking about earlier.
Andrew Chen 34:41
Megan McCoy 34:43
One other thing I do recommend is having a conversation, when you get serious with your partner, about your parents’ relationship around money. What did you love about it? What did you wish were different?
What was the greatest thing they taught you about money? What are things that they taught you about money you wish you didn’t do? And then you can take the best of both your families and move forward with something beautiful.
Andrew Chen 35:07
This worksheet that you have, is there a link that maybe you can send me? I’ll link to it in the show notes.
Megan McCoy 35:15
I’ll make a version of it. It’s actually through an organization called PREPARE/ENRICH. I don’t know if I’m allowed to share it, but I can give the talking points and then people can create their own worksheet.
And again, the real goal is to have the goal consensus, how do we both contribute, and then 10 possible solutions.
Andrew Chen 35:34
So, given that money can be so sensitive and emotional and crazy-making and difficult to talk about, any advice on how to even attract a partner in the first place who shares similar financial values as you?
Megan McCoy 35:52
I don’t know if it’s good to have the same values. There might be some beauty in the fact that we select our opposite, as long as you guys can move closer together and respect each other’s perspective.
I think the problem with couples when we’re opposites is we tend to “other-ise” each other, like “She’s the spender; I’m the saver.” And what happens is this thing that people call polarization where we push each other to extremes.
Another example outside of money is that I’m a talker, I like to talk, but my husband is too. But whenever people ask him if he’s extroverted or introverted, he sometimes says he’s introverted because he’s comparing himself to me. Whereas, if he had married someone who wasn’t as loud as me, he probably would see himself as an extrovert.
So, when you think about your relationship with your partner and you say, “We’re slightly different about money,” don’t polarize and say, “They’re so different than me” because they’re probably not.
Respect that you guys are balancing each other rather than that you guys are extremely different. But of course, if you are really respectful of money, it’s a lot easier to marry someone who is very respectful about money too. I wish that on everybody too.
Ed Coambs 37:10
When you look at the [37:11] research, a lot has changed certainly with technology and many of the dating and connecting apps and websites, so that has put a whole another spin on things where you can do a lot more filtering. You’re also having to trust their honesty and integrity on those types of sites, which can be a funny thing to navigate.
I’m a little still old school. I was in the dating pool before all that stuff got really hot. And I think there are still a number of people that partner through affinity experiences: if it’s a workplace environment or a professional organization, a social commitment, a religious spiritual community.
Basically, you want a place where you like being is a simple way to say it. And the reality is, in every intimate relationship, you are going to attract someone that shares some similarities likely in financial outlook, and sometimes difference. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing either.
I think we hear a lot of times about “I’m a saver, and they’re a spender.” When seen as those are both good things, when held in balance, the spender can help the saver open up and enjoy life a little bit more. The saver can help the spender see the value of having some money set aside for security in the future.
That’s where sometimes these polarities can actually be complementary if the couples will be open to seeing it that way, and knowing that they’re in it together and that each attribute has strengths and some limitations to it.
Andrew Chen 38:54
On that note, I’m just curious. Suppose you meet someone you really like, they’re a great companion, you think they’re the one, but you have very different mindsets and behaviors when it comes to money to the point where it actually creates conflict (not the balance, but actually creates conflict).
How realistic is it to change these things about a person? How do you do it? And if you can’t, what advice would you have for folks in this situation?
Megan McCoy 39:26
Like I said earlier, I think money is one of those beautiful things that is changeable. It’s not like detail-oriented versus messy. It’s not something that is intrinsically personality.
Of course, a spender is not going to become a saver overnight, but I think you can create rules for each other that you both agree in, especially if the person creates their own rules that is overt for the couple, so you’re accountability partners. I think there can be a lot of strength in a relationship when people are different.
When it’s causing conflict, the important thing is to keep on talking about it. Because a lot of us think that fights are bad and it’s a sign that the relationship is ending, and that’s absolutely not true at all. In fact, a good fight gives you new insights on how to take care of your partner, what your partner needs, that you would never get if you didn’t fight.
There’s this amazing researcher named John Gottman who has a “love lab” in Seattle, and he studies thousands of couples. He studies so many couples he can predict rates of divorce from two minutes of conversation. Isn’t it mind-boggling?
But he said there’s something called a golden ratio with couples where fights are fine, but for every one fight, one negative interaction, you have to have five positive interactions. So you could fight 10 times a day, and it’s fine if you’d have 50 wonderful, positive experiences. You can only have one fight a day and be in a terrible shape if you’re only having four positive experiences.
So, finding ways to talk about money maybe over wine, maybe with music on, maybe with goals in mind, something that makes it less heavy, less argumentative, so that you guys can gain skills in talking about money where it’s not immediately associated with conflict, is really the goal rather than getting rid of the conflict.
Andrew Chen 41:21
And is this using some of the same techniques and tools that we talked about earlier, or are there additional ones for folks in the particularly difficult situation of a partner who is recalcitrant and unlikely to change?
Because I agree that you can change. At some level, though, people cannot. There’s probably a line over which they just cannot go.
Whether it’s innate or they became that way, it can be hard to change folks when you’re in this scenario. But you really like the person or love the person. Are there any additional tools that folks should keep in mind for how to handle these situations?
Megan McCoy 42:06
Going back to John Gottman, if you’re in a relationship where there’s a lot of conflict, John Gottman’s website has a lot of great resources on communication skills. It’s not really money per se that is the problem, most likely. It is the communication around money.
If you can do things like say “I” statements where you say, “I feel hurt that you’re spending so much money” rather than “Why do you waste so much money?” that’s a very big, powerful change.
Another huge basic skill to improve your ability to communicate about these issues is that you have to focus on making complaints that are about a specific action or behavior they’re doing rather than criticizing who they are. It is not that “You’re wasteful and not paying attention to money.” It’s that “You spent $30 on a purse, and we are so tight on money right now.”
You see how one is an action and one is a personality. You can change behaviors. You can’t change personalities.
So, I think those are two great communication skills. And then seeking to understand, asking questions rather than mind reading.
There’s a really common cognitive bias called actor-observer bias. Actor-observer bias means when we do something, we recognize all the environmental factors that led to the behavior. But when someone else does that, then we just say, “That’s because of their personality.”
If I’m tailgating, which happens occasionally, it’s because I’m running late, and I hope people recognize I’m worried about my kids being left alone in pickup, and I think about all the things leading to my need to tailgate. But as soon as someone tailgates on me, I’m like, “Why did your mother raise you so poorly?”
Immediately, they’re a bad person. Not that they could running late for their kids. That can never be the fact.
And we do this with our partners. We really do this thing where we’re like, “That is their personality,” instead of saying, “What were the factors that led them to act this way?”
Andrew Chen 44:02
Yeah, that’s really good advice. I think focusing on observable actions rather than identity characteristics is super powerful in changing the tone and how productive the conversation is. I definitely agree with that.
Ed Coambs 44:17
Yeah, that’s a great question. And it’s a difficult spot to get to that place where you’ve invested a lot of time, emotional and psychological energy into partnering and feeling connected, and you’re seeing that future relationship together, but you’ve identified a money behavior or a thought pattern that is deeply incongruent with your own. I think that that really is a deal breaker for you.
One of the ones that comes up, especially in this relational stage, is prenuptials. Prenuptials are that financial arrangement between a couple before they get married that says, “If the relationship doesn’t work out, here’s what’s going to happen with our own money prior to us going into the relationship.”
That creates a lot of relational mistrust, and it communicates a lot of relational mistrust about the longevity of the relationship. But I have seen and worked with some people that are deeply committed to having a prenuptial. Sometimes that’s because their own family of origin that they come from have set this requirement of them, especially in very affluent families.
That becomes a very tricky road for that individual to have to navigate because they’re having to navigate the loyalty to the family that they come from and the family money, and their desire to have a committed, open “We’re going to be together forever” mindset. So that’s something that you may have to say is a deal breaker, unless they’re willing to deal with that loyalty bind.
Financial secrets. There’s a lot of anecdotal research and a little bit of empirical research that financial secret keeping is pervasive in our society and within the family and intimate relationships.
This is where you can also see collusion between the parents and the kids where mom tells daughter, “Don’t tell Dad that we just spent $300 shopping for clothes because Dad will get upset,” or “Dad is stealing money from the kids’ piggy bank or from Mom to support their addiction.”
This is where we start to get into the deeper complexity and reality of life that many of us live in.
The research on relational attachment, which I referenced earlier, and I use that as a proxy for healthy families versus less healthy families. It’s not perfect, but it’s a close proxy.
About 50% of the population grows up in a securely attached environment. What that means is that the parents are emotionally connected to the kids. They’re able to balance meeting the needs of kids with managing their own needs.
The other 50% fall between anxious and avoidant attachment, which are miscuing in the emotional and relational needs of the relationship between parent and child.
It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to think, “If that’s the context, what’s going to happen around money?” It’s going to create some problems for feeling connected and attuned.