Navigating Financial Strain on a Relationship

Being in a partnership, whatever that looks like for you, has a lot of benefits. You get the balance of having a comrade as you walk through life. You have a friend and a lover and a confidant. But you also have someone with whom to share the financial burden of living. In an age where even breathing seems to cost something, that can mean a lot.

At the same time, money — and especially a lack of it — causes a huge strain on relationships. In a survey published by SunTrust Bank, 35% of respondents said money was the primary source of their relationship stress. Their partners’ annoying habits or ticks came second. Why wouldn’t it be that way? Managing your finances is tough enough as individuals, but it can be even more exhausting when there’s another party with their hands on the credit card. You lose a sense of control, your perception of trust may be threatened, and that can exacerbate your pre-existing money problems.

Money can harm relationships, but it doesn’t need to leave a scar. You just need to learn how to navigate financial strain together. While there’s no perfect formula for making your bank account bend to your will, you can find more productive ways to handle money and create new paths towards your goals.

What Money Does to Relationships

Romantic relationships have had a focus on money — maybe forever. It was and remains a way for two families to combine resources and protect their wealth. Relationships are also a way to escape poverty: sending daughters off to be married so that they’ll no longer be a financial burden is still practiced around the world — and even closer to home than you might expect. 

In one way or another, money has always played a role in relationships and it still does. If you and your partner choose to get married today, you have a long list of financial benefits and liabilities associated with that. You get extra tax breaks, but you also have new liabilities. Their debt can become your debt, especially if they acquired it during your relationship. 

Because everything around us relies on our ability to pay, we need to seek out partners who have similar financial priorities. One person’s spending becomes the other person’s problem eventually, even if that spending doesn’t amount to much. Their credit becomes your problem, and their debt is your debt.

Given that money impacts almost every aspect of your day, you need to be equipped with the tools to deal with financial strain. After all, feeling stressed about money happens to (almost) everyone. The first tool you need is to go against what society and maybe even your parents taught you: you need to learn to talk about money.

Why We Need to Learn How to Be Honest About Money

“Don’t ask him how much he makes. It’s impolite.” “It’s not nice to ask how much things cost.” These are mantras ingrained into our society. You aren’t supposed to talk about money. With this kind of attitude, it’s no wonder that one in five Americans report hiding big purchases from their spouses. Expensive purchases aren’t the only secrets people keep: 7.2 million people have either a bank account or credit card account their live-in partner doesn’t know about.

Of course, there’s a difference between keeping a secret bank account or a mountain of credit card debt and not wanting to talk about the family budget. But frankly, it can be a slippery slope.

Learning to be honest about money in an era where the total U.S. consumer debt is $15.84 trillion, including credit cards, auto loans, mortgages, and student loans. You don’t want to be judged for the choices you made or the circumstances you experienced before you met your partner. At the same time, the last thing you need is to allow unspoken truths related to money to build up resentment in your marriage. Cutting some items from your budget won’t ruin your marriage, but feeling resentment over it could.

Thankfully, there are some tools available to you to make those initial conversations easier.

How to Talk About Money With Your Partner

Talking about money often comes with a lot of emotional baggage, so it’s important to set the tone for your conversations as one that’s practical rather than judgmental. Some say it’s helpful to treat the conversation like a business meeting, and if that works for you, then that’s great.

If it seems too abstract, then you might find it helpful to stick to a few tips. First, try to set limits on the conversation. You can spend hours going over debts, budgets, and goals. Instead, try to broach one topic at a time and take the other topics off the table. You’ll accomplish more with the conversation and keep it from dragging on and becoming exhausting.

Second, try to avoid sweeping generalizations by suggesting your partner “always” or “never” does something. Often, these generalizations are untrue, even if they feel true in the moment. Instead, try to ask questions. “Why?” is a question that benefits most conversations, and it will give you a better understanding of your partner’s internal, emotional life, which often drives spending decisions.

Talking shouldn’t be a one-time thing. It’s important to keep talking and providing updates when necessary. You might find it helpful to set time aside for a conversation on each payday when your bank balance is as high as it will be that month.

Does one or both of you carry some trauma related to money? Are your conversations fraught with so much anxiety that it’s hard to be productive? Don’t be afraid to ask for outside help. There are both mental health and family counselors available to you who can help you work through your issues together. You can also visit either separately in order to take advantage of more individualized sessions and advice.

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photo of a man carrying his partner

Find Ways to Make Plans Together

As a couple, you’re a team. Your lives revolve around working together and finding balance. It’s helpful if you can tackle finances as a team, too. If you can’t talk about finances and share goals, then you’ll be pulling in separate directions and create far more friction in your relationship.

Even still, there are big questions that you need to face. What do you do if one of you entered into your relationship with a ton of debt and one of you is debt-free? Whose responsibility is it to pay down the debt, and how do you do it realistically, especially in a lower income bracket?

In one way or another, money has always played a role in relationships and it still does. If you and your partner choose to get married today, you have a long list of financial benefits and liabilities associated with that. You get extra tax breaks when you file taxes, but you also have new liabilities. Their debt can become your debt, especially if they acquired it during your relationship. 

These are questions that look different for every couple, but no matter what you decide, you need to make the decision together and then work together. Some of the ways you can accomplish this include:

  • Dividing financial obligations clearly
  • Setting short- and long-term goals together
  • Creating a budget together
  • Considering each other’s and the household’s needs

Remember that managing your finances isn’t a competition. There are no winners and losers. The only way you can successfully pool your resources and build something better is if you work together in a way that’s honest and transparent — not just about what you spend but about what you need, too.

Remember that Financial Wellness is Self-Care

Taking time to talk about and work on your finances is self-care both for you as individuals and for your relationship. It helps alleviate the stress that comes with dealing with money and paves the way for emotional and physical self-care. Although no one can solve their money problems overnight, taking time to talk about them in a constructive way can help relieve the stress of not knowing what your partner thinks and remind you that you’re in this life together.

Don’t put off the conversation another day longer. Each time you do, it’s a missed opportunity to not only improve your financial health but also strengthen your relationship.

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