This week, I continue my conversation with Megan McCoy and Ed Coambs, two leading marriage therapists who specialize in financial therapy and conflict, to discuss how money matters get more complex after marriage…and what spouses can do about it to preserve and strengthen their relationship.
- The most common reasons and triggers why couples fight about money
- Whether keeping separate money accounts is a good idea
- How to fight about money productively, with empathy, to keep your relationship healthy and even strengthen it
- Where spouses should learn to compromise when it comes to money and finances
- Intentional money rituals that spouses can do to keep their relationship healthy
- How to get your spouse on board with early retirement (and the financial sacrifices required to do it)
What is the most important thing young married couples should know about handling money issues together? Do you think keeping separate money accounts is a good idea? What’s your best advice for fighting about money with your spouse, with empathy? Let me know by leaving a comment.
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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 01:22
In the last episode, I had Megan McCoy and Ed Coambs on the show, who are both licensed marriage and family therapists, who also have a background in financial planning, to talk about some of the money-related problems that can arise in a relationship…
…and how couples can ask thoughtful questions and observe behaviors about their partner when it comes to money, to learn more about their partner’s financial values and financial philosophy, and how to begin to have some of those difficult conversations about money early on in a productive way.
This week, we shift gears to talk about some of the money-related conflicts and fights that can occur after a couple gets married, how to recognize when those things are happening, what some of the common triggers and some of the common causes are. And we talk a lot about how to have those conflicts in an effective and productive way that also strengthens the relationship at the same time. So, let’s hear what both have to say.
That’s a bunch of really good tips around the relationship as it develops before marriage. I would love to shift gears to some of the challenges that arise after you get married. Things are more complicated in at least some regards after you get married.
Because before you get married, if you find that your partner’s values about money are just fundamentally incompatible with your own, while it can be painful, it’s not catastrophic to break up, call it quits, go your separate ways. It’s certainly easier than after you’re married, and immensely easier if you don’t have kids yet.
I was just curious, in your experience, after a couple gets married, what are the most common reasons couples fight about money, and what tend to be the common triggers?
Megan McCoy 03:07
The biggest one is definitely approach to money: where you spend your money and how much you spend of your money. Also, there’s a study by Sonya Lutter right here at K-State. She lists some other things, like couples actually fight about charitable giving a lot.
People fight about what we call perceived financial stress. Some people just get more stressed with less debt than others. So when your partner is not worried and you’re stressed, it feels really isolating.
In my practice, which is going to be a little bit more severe cases, what I see a lot is financial infidelity.
Andrew Chen 03:49
What is that?
Megan McCoy 03:50
Financial infidelity is so fascinating. It’s any kind of lie to your partner about money. But if you ask someone, “Have you ever committed financial infidelity?” everyone says, “No, I’ve never done that.
Then if you ask people, “Have you ever lied by omission? Have you ever rounded down how much you spend on an item? Have you ever just not mentioned you went shopping?”
Then all of a sudden, rates go high. Of course, those aren’t terrible things, but what I think it’s a sign of is an inability for people to ask for what they want, that you are shameful about your purchases.
Either (a) you’re spending money you shouldn’t be, and that’s a problem; or (b) you don’t feel like you can ask your partner to meet your needs: “I want this. I need this.”
And you somehow feel like you can’t ask that from your partner, which I think is horrible because lying, if that is true in other areas of your relationship, that’s going to leave you getting your needs unmet in your partner, which is what you hope for them.
So, that was a tangent about financial infidelity. That’s really common, and I wish people would ask for what they want.
And then another huge thing is blended families: having children from a previous marriage and then fighting about how much you spend on children, having different views on how much you spend on children. And I think right now, due to COVID, we have an incredible stress around how much to financially support our adult children, whether in a blended family or in a nuclear family setting.
How do we support them financially? Do we support them? Are we enabling them?
Those are issues that come up a lot.
Ed Coambs 05:29
Yeah, I think the most obvious is spending, how to allocate the funds between the two, because now you have mine, yours, and ours. And a lot of newlyweds have a hard time navigating this prioritization of how to spend the money, how much to spend of certain categories. That’s where those questions, before getting married, can be really critical in the practice of blending money.
Now, most couples don’t want to fully blend their financial lives until after they get married, which is understandable.
But if you can have those proactive conversations before getting married about “How are we going to blend our money? What are our financial priorities?” sketching out a rough budget of what life is going to look like together is really critical.
I think one of the biggest things where I have to do a lot of relational rehab is when partners have had a lot of conflict around money and have been judgmental, critical, contemptuous about what the partner is doing with money.
John Gottman is a great marriage researcher, and he says there’s the four horsemen of the apocalypse for relationships, and contempt is one of them. I’m sorry I’m not getting them on the back of my head, but your listeners can look him up.
If you’re using any of those behavioral patterns around money, you’re going to destroy a lot of trust, and it’s going to take a lot of time to come back around to that. That’s where blending that emotional regulation, knowing “How am I coming across to my partner?” being able to manage your own frustrations, the relational security patterns, are really important.
Andrew Chen 07:19
You mentioned spending is an obvious one. Does that problem dissipate as the couple becomes wealthier, the more money they make? Does that problem go away, or is it always there fundamentally at some level when that issue is in the picture?
Ed Coambs 07:35
It only intensifies. And that’s one of those cognitive errors that I think a lot of us have in society. We have this simple equation in our head that more money will mean fewer problems.
I’m not thinking what the great rap song is: “Mo’ money, mo’ problems.” I’m embarrassed I can’t remember it.
Anyhow, what’s happening beneath that phrase “mo’ money, mo’ problems” is a psychological misalignment between the partners. And just making more money does not improve the psychological connection between the two partners, if we have two insecurely attached individuals from that attachment theory.
We have four categories: Secure, which means I’m generally comfortable with myself and generally comfortable with trusting my partner. Anxious means I’m not really secure in myself, but I’m always looking to the other person for validation, never really sure whether they give me validation that they actually do love me and care about me.
Avoidant basically says, “I’m going to do me, and you do you. And when you’re in emotional distress, you got to go figure that out.” And then disorganized is that mix of avoidant and anxious.
So, when we look at those attachment styles and then we bring it to the money table, and then we’re talking about spending, you can see where two securely attached individuals could sit down and work through their differences and accept the fact that they are going to be different on some spending priorities.
But if you’re anxious or avoidant on attachments, your ability to have the relational trust and skills necessary to navigate spending differences and to bring things into control and perspective is going to be more likely impaired. So just adding more money to the mix is going to be very problematic.
This is where I’ve seen issues around financial infidelity come up, especially around the anxious partners. They don’t want to disclose that they’ve made mistakes because they’re already afraid of being rejected around spending it. And they also want to often be very pleasing to their partner, so they’ll just keep the checkbook open and the spending open, and they’ll get in that cycle of making more money to try to keep their partner happy.
A slight shift in this pattern is the upwardly mobile professional with the partner that gets off the career track to stay home and raise the kids, and they start to split inevitably. If that person is upwardly mobile and working more and away from the home more, there’s less time for emotional relational connection. Money becomes the stand-in for that.
But money can never fulfill the need for emotional relational connection fully. So you get the 20- to 30-year marriage with the kids that are late high school, and they’re going apart. They didn’t really resolve their intimacy needs.
Andrew Chen 10:36
It sounds like that’s a pretty common occurrence. And that is also, for good or for bad, a common family arrangement, especially if there are multiple kids. It’s just so difficult to balance a demanding family life and also a demanding career.
What can couples do? Are there strategies or tips that couples can do intentionally and continuously to mitigate that drift?
Ed Coambs 11:14
If we think about we’re moving along the life span of the intimate relationship, and I love your questions because you’re starting out like “How do we start from the right place from the beginning? What are those right questions to start with? What do we do in the early days of marriage?”
Most couples don’t have kids together. If you have kids right out of the gate and you’re married, that’s somewhat of a different situation than you get married, you work professionally for 3-5 years, and then you have kids, which is not an uncommon pattern for professionals.
The amount of time you have to sit down and talk about your finances and your life together is significantly more in this period of time than once Kid 1 enters. Once Kid 2 and 3 enter, the amount of time goes down significantly.
What I like to encourage couples, and I’ve seen this in my own life, my wife and I don’t have as many money dates where we sit down and review our spending, our investments.
“Where are we headed? What does your professional life need? What does my professional life need?”
“Okay, here’s how we’re going to go forward.”
Ideally, you want to meet on that once a month, once a quarter. But then there’s all the money decisions that happen in between that, and those are the “ad hoc” or “as needed” money talks. And I think being able to have that expectation that that’s going to be needed and need to happen is pretty important.
So, you want to have that balance of being able to have ad hoc money conversations. And this depends on the temperament of the couple, but they know that they’re going to need to gather once a month or once a quarter, something that’s on some regular rhythm.
I think it can also be very helpful, as the relationship is maturing, to identify a fee-only financial planner that can act as the third in the relationship, because a really good financial planner is going to be able to ask both parties about their values, what they want, and how they’re doing and getting them.
And it takes pretty mature individuals to be able to do that in the relationship just for themselves. We’re all biased towards knowing what we want more than the other person, and including the other person’s needs in mind can be challenging for some of us. That’s where I think getting a financial planner to help you start critically thinking through your financial life becomes even more important.
Andrew Chen 13:56
Besides potential spending conflicts, are there other common reasons married couples fight about money, in your experience, or common triggers that cause it?
Ed Coambs 14:16
How money is spent is the high-level piece, but when we drill down into that, what are we talking about? There’s the food, the housing, the cars, vacations. But then there’s this other area that a lot of couples end up in, which is family support and money.
Andrew Chen 14:36
Say more about that.
Ed Coambs 14:39
Do I have a mother or mother-in-law that needs financial support, or a brother or sister that needs ongoing financial support? Some extended family member that may become financially dependent on you and your spouse.
What’s the right or appropriate level of financial provision for that family member? How do we have that conversation with each other, find that balance of support? Or do we support, and what are our limits there?
That can get into some tricky water pretty quickly.
Andrew Chen 15:17
That’s hard. How do you do that?
Ed Coambs 15:26
Good question. Ideally, what you’re doing is you’re starting from a place of financial empathy and empathy for your partner or your spouse, and the likely mixed feelings they have about providing support for that family member.
We’d like to think that we’re all very altruistic individuals and that, of course, we’d want to talk care of our family members. But that’s just not reality. I think we all have mixed feelings.
So, I think part of how you do it is normalizing that they probably are having mixed feelings about it and giving them space to talk about the mix of feelings that they have about it. It’s incredible how being engaged in that type of process, solutions will emerge.
That’s where, for me, especially when I’m working with couples as a therapist, they’re coming to me wanting a solution to the problem, but more often, what I do is engage them in a process of talking with each other about what they’re experiencing, what their expectations are, how things that they’ve seen in the past may be shaping what they’re thinking how things should be going now.
And as they hear each other, they start to recognize and see their shared humanity and the challenge of it, and it positions them into often a more collaborative stance of saying, “Now, in light of this, what are we going to do? What makes the most sense?”
And sometimes the needs are chronic in that the elderly parent is not going to get meaningful work, is not going to have a substantial change in their financial life.
So you do have to come to some difficult conversations about “Do they come and move in with us? Do we provide a certain amount of money on a reoccurring basis?”
“Or do we just say, ‘I’m sorry, there’s nothing that we can do. We’re going to put our own financial life in jeopardy’?”
Those aren’t easy conversations, but they do come up more than I think we’re able to talk about with our friends.
Andrew Chen 17:34
Yeah, I imagine those are especially tricky as well because they’re also just hard to talk about. I’m just curious, are there ways to bring those kinds of issues up before you even get married, so that you at least can be more intentional about going into that kind of situation?
Ed Coambs 18:07
I think it’s one of those great questions. One of the money conversations we have is having that conversation.
“Tell me a little bit about your parents. What does their financial life look like? Do you imagine ever being financially responsible for your parents in the future?”
“If so, what are your thoughts and feelings about it at this time? How do you think we’ll cross that bridge?”
Life is full of so many uncertainties that you can’t always fully predict or be prepared for all these things, but I think you can have some proactive conversations on the front end around what are the thoughts and what are the expectations.
And again, you’re going to get a sense for their values and their sense of clarity when they answer that question. Answer those questions for yourself: “What is my parents’ financial reality?”
And the reality is that, within the couple, at least one set of parents is divorced, which adds complexity, if not both. So, you’ve got family members can be all over the place, and being able to think about “What are my family’s expectations of me?”
If you don’t know, this is also a great time, depending on the quality of relationship you have, to go have that conversation with mom and dad, and say, “What are your expectations of me as an adult financially?”
Again, this depends on the overall family culture, how open they’re going to be to having these types of conversations. What I understand to be a healthy family culture, you can have these types of conversations with pretty good responses.
But sometimes you’re going to feel really uncomfortable about that. They’re not going to want those kinds of conversations to come up. And if that’s the reality, then that’s just something to know and to be aware of that you’re going to be working with.
Andrew Chen 20:16
In scenarios where one spouse’s side of the family needs this kind of reoccurring financial support, and yet the spouses, at some base level, disagree about whether to provide that support or how much support to provide, are those situations, in your experience, tenable, or do they more often than not end up in a bad place?
Ed Coambs 20:56
I’ve seen it go both ways, for sure. And not to overly harp on any one concept, but I think it is, to some degree, [inaudible] resentment and anger. In a healthy relational process, you can talk about and acknowledge that these are maybe perpetual differences between the two of us, but that we still are committed to each other in our long-term relationship.
And the reality is that that financial reality external to the couple will likely also be shaping the couple’s financial expectations of what they want to create for themselves in the future. A number of couples I’ve worked with had the financially dependent parent, and they don’t want that for themselves, so they can become hypervigilant to want to create wealth or financial security for themselves.
And it can create an unbalance there if the other person is not the same or doesn’t understand that that’s part of the drive is that fear of “I don’t want to end up like Mom or Dad.”
Andrew Chen 22:11
Really insightful. I was curious, do you generally support this notion of separate “no questions asked” individual accounts in marriages?
Megan McCoy 22:24
I don’t because I just wish everybody talked too much. And for me, having your resources pooled will net you more money. Having your money together because “money makes money” is better on paper financially.
Of course, I would never tell a client, “You have to combine accounts,” because it is so individually based. But when I see couples as separate accounts, maybe you’ve just not gotten around to it, but it signals to me, maybe someone doesn’t feel like they can ask for what they want. And that’s really, at the end of the day, what I want people to do.
If you feel like you have to have a separate account because you don’t trust your partner to be aligned with your financial goals, that stinks. If you need a separate account because you don’t want to tell your partner what you’re spending because you’re ashamed, that stinks. And if you need a separate account because you’re afraid to ask for what you need from your partner, that stinks.
So, I think a lot of the reason that joint accounts exist are negative, not necessarily the joint account itself.
Andrew Chen 23:30
A twist on that, because some couples, even counselors would advise not necessarily having totally separate accounts. You still have mostly joint accounts, but you each have a small discretionary account, like play money, maybe a couple hundred dollars a month, whatever it is, just so that there’s the “no questions asked” on small discretionary purchases.
Do you recommend this approach?
Megan McCoy 23:57
I don’t recommend it because I just feel like you should be able to do that if you make enough and you could eventually afford it. You should be able to say, “I’m buying this because I want to.”
But if it works for couples, I don’t like to fix what’s not broken. If you feel like you have the ability to say that you just don’t want to, then it’s fine to have joint accounts.
What I’d rather a couple do is have all these accounts named after different things that they want in the future. One person really wants to go to Europe; one person really wants to get a boat. You guys can have separate accounts where you just throw your extra surplus money in there in the goals you want, and then you guys have a goal competition.
I think that would be better.
Andrew Chen 24:36
Ed Coambs 24:38
I think more often than not, it can be coming from a place of good intentions, just to make things run smoother. But I think beneath the surface, for many couples, there can be some real fear and anxiety.
There can also be some direct family messages about “Honey, you need to keep your own money.” I think a lot of women get that message, especially when their parents went through a contentious divorce, and money and alimony were not provided correctly. That can leave a lot of emotional residue and the need for some sense of self-protection and self-preservation.
I think it can be a short-term solution, but probably it’s not a long-term great option. This is why I’m very careful in these types of places because it’s really dependent on the level of relational security and trust.
If there’s high degrees of relational security and trust, and each person just wants to have a little money to go and do whatever they want to do with it, fine. But I think if that’s going to be the case, there also needs to be a place for their financial transparency.
You do need to ask. Or don’t think you can just spend without your partner ever checking in on you.
If the intention is “I just want to be able to spend money without you being critical of the fact that I like mountain bikes, or I like videogames, or I like musical equipment, or I like pumps/shoes,” okay, so be it. But I think the deeper question you have to ask yourself is: If your partner is showing up with you around your money that way, maybe there’s a deeper issue that needs to be addressed.
Why are you being critical of your partner in the way that they spend money? Part of the way we spend money is an expression of who we are as a person. So if you’re being critical of your partner in the way that they spend money, there’s probably something else there that needs to be really addressed at a deeper level.
Andrew Chen 26:45
So, you talked a little bit about some of the common reasons and triggers that married folks fight about money. What are some of the best practices that you’ve observed for how spouses can fight productively and effectively in a way that keeps the relationship healthy and even strengthens it?
I think earlier you called this a good fight. What are the characteristics of that? And how do you make sure the fight is good rather than bad?
Megan McCoy 27:16
I love this article that some friends of mine wrote: Sarah Acevedo and Emily Pradhan. It was called “Conflict Resolution in Financial Planning.” But they used an analogy that I would love to plagiarize from them now.
Sorry for being longwinded, but what the analogy is, is that two little boys come in the kitchen, screaming and fighting about an orange. They both wanted the last orange in the house. And the dad goes, “Stop fighting or I’m going to throw the orange out.”
The mom goes, “I’ll cut it in half for you guys to both have half.” And then the grandmother, who was a conflict resolution mediator, said, “No. Why do you guys want the orange?”
“Tell me what your end goal is. What do you want out of the orange?”
One kid wanted the orange to make these muffins, where he needed to scrape the orange peel. And the other kid wanted to juice and to squeeze it and make orange juice.
So, the grandmother said, “Okay. Here’s the rind. Here’s the orange juice.”
And what’s cool about this is it demonstrates different ways we can do conflict resolution. The dad was a no win/no win. No one wins; everybody gets punished.
The mom was what’s called compromise, which usually we would say, “That’s the greatest thing ever. Let’s compromise and give up a little bit for our partners.”
But when you compromise, you’re actually giving up something. And that’s what I don’t want for anybody.
The grandmother did it so well by saying, “Let’s define what you need at the end of this conflict. Let’s start with that in mind.”
And I think that’s a beautiful thing if you could say, “What need do you need to be met? What is missing, or what can I help you with at the end of this conflict that we know we walked away successfully?”
And that would be such a shift for all of us to start that way, wouldn’t it?
Andrew Chen 29:01
Yeah. In negotiation, this is often referred to as focusing on interests rather than positions.
Megan McCoy 29:07
Andrew Chen 29:08
So it definitely makes sense and resonates.
Ed Coambs 29:12
Yeah. I think that that’s a really important question to answer, because there will be some couples that fall on the conflict avoidant side of the continuum, where they feel frustration and anger about financial topics, but they won’t bring it up. That can be just as destructive as having the loud “knock-down, drag out fights, because ultimately, nothing is getting resolved in either of those contexts.
So, what you want to be able to do is to be able to use empathy, but when you have that financial disagreement, being willing to be vulnerable and go into the conversation and be curious about what’s going on for their partner, what needs are they wanting to get fulfilled in this disagreement.
And then being able to say, “This is what I’m needing,” and having that relational expectation that your partner will want to meet and understand that as well.
This all comes out of secure attachment and secure patterns of relating in the relationship. We’re applying it to money dynamics, but secure relationship patterns are important for parenting kids, for sexual intimacy, for dealing with the in-laws, for negotiating work patterns, navigating spirituality.
Our attachment pattern is such a huge predictor of the way that we experience our intimate relationship. So, we’re just using attachment to help us know: what are the right ways to talk about money in this conversation?
There’s a lot of research, and this is where a lot of couples therapy work is focused, on helping couples identify their attachment patterns and move to what’s called a learned secure attachment. What we want to remember about attachment is it’s a relationally learned process. It’s the quality of the way the interactions between our primary caregivers was between us.
They don’t just change on a dime. They’re deeply embedded within our neural networks. But as we experience new relational patterns and more relational security, we can move towards more of that secure functioning.
The secure functioning has that internal expectation that my needs will be met, that I’ll be understood, and that I’ll be accepted for who I am. And then I’m going to offer that to the other person.
That’s where empathy is a key skill in forming secure attachment, because empathy is that ability to imagine the other person’s state and what it means to them, and accurately reflect it back to them.
Two books I would recommend are: “Love Sense” by Dr. Sue Johnson. She does a phenomenal job of helping people understand what an attachment style is, what it means, and what you can do about it in the intimate relationship.
If you know that you grew up in this environment that was not relationally secure or stable and was very threatening to you, Diane Poole Heller has this phenomenal book called “Healing Your Attachment Wounds,” and that’s going to get into much deeper levels of the way that our attachment system can become injured.
For couples, though, if you’re not going into therapy, you need to find those self-help books on attachment. Practically one of the best things to do is to just be able to see: Can we even look at each other in the eye and do that safely? And just practicing being able to sit with each other and looking into each other’s eyes will start to build connection between the couple.
Take the money; take everything off the table. If you’re finding that you’re having trouble getting on the same page, see if you can do some experiments with each other about looking into each other’s eyes and feeling comfortable with that. That is being held psychologically safe.
We’re looking into each other’s eyes as we’re having this conversation right now, and it creates a sense of “Andrew is here with me. He’s interested in what I’m saying.” It allows me to continue to want to engage with you.
That’s what we get when we get eye contact. That’s a big part of building attachment.
Andrew Chen 33:34
While there might be creative ways, definitely I agree to reach the outcome like in the orange analogy, where one person gets the rind and the other person gets the orange itself. Basically, each person got the entirety of what they wanted.
When it comes to money, often there are compromises because there’s just finite resources. And I was just curious, are there areas you’ve observed where it is especially helpful for couples and spouses to learn how to compromise when it comes to money and finances?
Megan McCoy 34:10
Yeah. I think creating a budget together and really having both partners recognize the finite resources they have. And then again, making sure that both partners are bought into the goal you have for saving those finite resources.
Maybe it’s simply just not creating the credit card debt. But if one partner is like, “Credit card debt is fine,” then they’re not going to work as hard as the other partner.
I think it all starts with a very simple tracking spending and budgeting so that you can be intentionally spending and recognizing how much of the finite resource you actually have before you start.
Andrew Chen 34:49
So, budgeting and tracking spend. Are there any other areas where you have found it particularly good return on investment to have a compromising mindset or orientation?
Megan McCoy 35:08
Yeah. Again, making sure that you guys are both in the right place, and making sure you don’t do that whole actor-observer bias, where you’re not immediately jumping to conclusions about their personality, really truly believing that your partner is your teammate and you’re going in this together.
And then again, I think a huge mistake couples make is that they don’t define what they’re working for. “We’re working for a house.” And then you name your savings account “House.”
And then when you make sacrifices at Starbucks or you make sacrifices at Target, you can open your account and look at that: “House ’22.”
Saying these kinds of things: “This is what my dream is. This is what I want, and this is more important than whatever purchase I’m going to.”
The problem is, a lot of times, in couples, only one partner has a dream. And then you have to shift the dream and say, “What is our actual shared dream? What do we actually want together?”
Maybe it’s short-term and long-term goals, and one person is working more for the long-term goal, and one person is working more for the short-term goal.
Andrew Chen 36:11
How do you address those scenarios where the dream that one partner has is not the dream that the other person has, who has a different dream of their own?
Megan McCoy 36:23
I think talking about it and explaining why that dream is important. What does it symbolize?
Who cares about a house? It doesn’t really matter. But what we really care about is that sign and symbol of reaching adulthood, the sign and symbol of ownership and success.
If you say, “I want a house. Don’t you want a house? It would make sense to buy a house…”
The partner might be like, “I don’t want a house. I don’t care.”
But if you say, “I dream of feeling grown up. I dream of feeling like I have succeeded,” then your partner is like, “I want that for you too.”
“I want to make you feel like you’ve succeeded in life. I want to work towards that goal too.”
I think oftentimes we tend to say the same thing over and over again, just louder and louder. And taking a step back and saying, “Maybe we had this issue three times so far, and it hasn’t made a difference.”
“How can I approach it differently? How can I explain my needs or my wants to my partner in a way that they’ll be more receptive?”
Andrew Chen 37:21
I’d love to run a hypothetical by you, just to really flesh this out. Let’s say you have a married couple, and one of them, exactly like you said, they want to buy a house.
And when asked why, they say, “I always envisioned myself moving into a dream home and just living there forever. And I want to build up memories. I’d like to have memories both for us and our kids.”
The other person doesn’t particularly require a house. A house is fine, but doesn’t particularly require a house, doesn’t value or agree that necessarily buying a house in the place that they’re living makes sense for any number of factors.
It’s a lot of work to maintain a house and doing the yard work. It’s cheaper to rent perhaps where they’re living. They can live in a more convenient location if they’re renting, maybe more in the city center, whatever the reasons are.
But they think that a house is a big financial investment, will not be in service of their own goals. What would you say to a couple like this?
Megan McCoy 38:31
I would just encourage to keep on having conversations. Because one thing that struck me about the first person who said, “I always dreamt about the house” is it was something like “I just always had dreamt about it.”
A lot of times, we get sold on a belief or something that we think we should do, and it might not even be what you care about. Maybe you don’t actually care about the house. You just want stability, and maybe renting can give you the same stability.
So, what I’m trying to say is: (1) Recognizing what we really care about, and really be able to explain, “These are the reasons why I care about it.”
(2) Being open that both partners may be partially right. Maybe you guys need to buy a condo, something in between where you bought it, so it’s yours, and you have stability, but you get to live in the city for the other partner.
So, going back to the conflict resolution skills of being open to hearing your partner, prioritizing more understanding your partner than getting what you want, I think that’s the key. Once you understand your partner, then you can figure out how you can adjust what you want to meet your partner’s needs.
Andrew Chen 39:48
Yeah, that’s good advice. Are there any practices or rituals that you have observed that couples or spouses do intentionally to keep their relationships healthy when it comes to money matters?
Megan McCoy 40:03
Yeah. I can tell you, I did a study with my friend Ken White, and he found out that 90% of people in our sample had not talked to anyone about money in a year.
Can you imagine going a whole year without talking about money, whether it be “These are my financial goals” or “This is how I’m saving money”? How you do not talk to your partner or your kids or your parents about money an entire year blows my mind.
And of course, there’s some methodological reasons, like the sample was skewed and that’s why the number was so high. But the point of the matter is that we need to talk about money. And again, thinking about that Gottman ratio of 1:5, we need to get those positive financial conversations going.
I love the analogy of the house CEO meeting where you guys, as a team, come together once a month, put it in your Google Calendar or your Outlook Calendar, pre-schedule it for once a month on a Friday, get the music on you like, get the favorite food, and just talk about “How are we doing on our financial goals?”
“What do we want to do better in? Are we saving for our future the way we want to be?”
I think having something set up on the calendar to automatically do every month will be the most beautiful gift for your partner.
Andrew Chen 41:18
You’re talking about a planned conversation around money monthly. Is that right?
Megan McCoy 41:24
Yeah, absolutely. I would love for it to be about your spending plan.
Are you on track for your spending plan? What categories should we make bigger or smaller?
I don’t even care if you get that much detail. Just talking about “What are our financial goals? Are we on track, and are we focused on the right goals?” is really what I want for everybody.
Andrew Chen 41:44
Are there any activity-based rituals or even spending type of rituals that you have found to be effective to do together to actually keep the relationship healthy on money matters?
Megan McCoy 41:58
One of the big ones, I think Brad Klontz is who I copied this from, but having more than one savings account and naming them your goals. But don’t just call it, like I said earlier, “House 2022.” Call it “Dream Home 2022.”
Have the goal in some evocative term that makes you think of how much joy you’ll get when you reach that goal, and the year that you want to reach that goal by in the title of the savings account.
It could be as simple as the first Friday of every month, we just open up our goals, see where we are, think about how long it will take us to reach those goals, think of which one we want to focus on most this month. That would be a huge win for every couple if they just did that.
Andrew Chen 42:44
Incidentally, the naming of accounts, I haven’t personally done that, so it’s an interesting suggestion.
I was curious, is the theory behind it just that it keeps reinforcing to you every time you open the account, like the way that you described, the anticipation of planning for a vacation, etc.?
Megan McCoy 43:01
Yeah. The anticipation for everything is better than the actual. Have you heard of the hedonistic treadmill?
We have this level of happiness that we actually like to be in. Each of ours is different. And no matter how good something is, like winning the lottery, what we find is just a few months later, we go right back into that average.
So, what’s actually better than these huge wins is lots of little micro-wins. Opening up your account for Italy and saying, let’s say, “Wine Country 2022,” and seeing that go from 5 to 200 or 400, or whatever it is, will give you more pleasure than actually going to Italy. Anticipating that trip will give you more pleasure than actually going.
So, naming multiple accounts and having the years that you’re being pressed to (“I have to reach this goal in that time”) and having evocative, emotionally driven terms rather than something simple, are really the keys to that.
Andrew Chen 44:04
My audience tends to skew toward people who are interested in the FIRE movement, which is an acronym that stands for Financial Independence Retire Early. In some cases, that means saving and investing enough early on to retire extremely early, like maybe in your 40s or even 30s.
For folks who have a serious goal to retire decades early, do you have any advice for how to get your spouse on board with the idea of early retirement and the financial choices and likely sacrifices that might be required to make that happen?
Obviously, if you marry someone who happens to already want the same thing is probably going to be easier. But FIRE is a niche community and a niche financial philosophy, and most people probably haven’t even heard of it, let alone want to commit to pursuing it.
I’m just curious if you have any advice for someone who has already decided that’s what they want to do, that’s their dream, and trying to convince their spouse to the same idea.
Megan McCoy 45:00
Yeah. I think the more you share with your partner what life will look like for you after retirement, why you’re working so hard, the more you’re able to share that passion without any kind of strings attached, the more bought in they will be.
The clearer you can be for yourself why you care about it, the clearer you can be with your partner. And then your partner will be like, “I want you to reach that goal too. It matters so much to you.”
A little funny side note is that I teach an intro to financial planning course, and every year, I send my students to the FIRE Reddit page because they have the best tips on how to spend money intentionally, how to spend money in ways that actually make you happy. A lot of the FIRE Reddit is actually purchase decisions and how saving up three months for that TV felt so good to not have to do any credit with it and so on.
And that idea of you can spend money as long as you have a plan, as long as you know where that money is going, as long as you’re being mindful, I wish every American had, whether FIRE or not FIRE.
Andrew Chen 46:10
You mentioned try to share that dream of yours in a “no strings attached” way. First, what does that mean, “no strings attached,” just for clarity?
And then, at some point, perhaps the strings need to attach. You need to get the person on board. So I was curious, any advice for how to actually do that effectively, without making the other person feel like they’re being dragged along?
Megan McCoy 46:39
Hopefully, the more clear you are about what life will look like after retiring, the more they’ll be bought in.
It was so interesting when I did one of my early first sessions with financial planners, where me and the financial planner met with clients together, we had this client who, every week, was like, “I can’t wait to retire so I can fish.” And he would say that every week.
And then one week he said it, and I was like, “How much do you get to fish now?” And he’s like, “Oh, I never go fishing.” And I’m like, “How are you planning 20-60 years of your life on an activity you don’t even do nowadays?”
So, I think a lot of us dream about retirement without seeing what that retirement is actually going to look like. How long can you sit and look in the sunset?
Instead of having conversations of “I can’t wait to retire,” it’s “I can’t wait to be free of this job that doesn’t make me happy. “Instead of being stressed, I’ll be doing my passion.”
Or “I can’t wait to just travel the world and see all these places.”
So, spinning it from getting away for retirement into what does this new life look like for you and your partner, and how it will benefit you and your partner, is what I was talking about with the “no strings attached.”
It’s not about changing behaviors. It’s about getting there by it, and how will their life be better once you guys retire? I think that’s the first.
And once you get strings attached, it has to be how both people are making sacrifices and both people are getting what they want. Maybe looking at your line-by-line tracking spending and talking to them.
“What of these purchases are you proud of, that you know brought you great joy, that are worth it? And which of these purchases were just because you were late or you were rushing or you weren’t thinking about things when you bought it? And how can we remove those purchases and keep the ones that you actually care about in our budget so that we can reach our goals?”
Andrew Chen 48:34
Like Marie Kondo style?
Megan McCoy 48:36
Yeah. Really, if you have less, if you do less, but they all bring you joy, you’ll be happier.
Andrew Chen 48:43
All right. Megan, this has been such a treat. That’s all I got.
Where can listeners find out more about you, your work, and what you’re up to?
Megan McCoy 48:50
I’m on LinkedIn, but also visit our K-State page. If any of you guys are financial planners, I am so proud of the Financial Therapy Certificate at K-State, where we teach courses on money and relationships, and how financial professionals can help couples talk about money.
We teach courses on how to deal with resisting clients and how to just ask the best questions you can to your clients. If they were interested in that, they could check out our K-State Financial Therapy page as well.
Andrew Chen 49:17
Awesome. We’ll definitely link to that in the show notes.
I’ll probably reach out to you as well for some of the article links that you referenced, and we’ll link to those as well.
Thanks so much for taking the time to chat with me, and best of luck to you. Stay safe out there.
Megan McCoy 49:29
Thank you. You too.
Ed Coambs 49:31
Great. You’re welcome, Andrew. It was a pleasure to be with you.
You asked some phenomenal questions. And I love that you’re thinking about the whole arc of the relationship. And building a healthy relationship from the beginning is a great measure to take.