Updated: Dec 2, 2021
What are you not telling your partner? What debt are you hiding from them? What spending have you been lying about? What dreams are you keeping secret?
Hiding those new shoes in the back of the cupboard so he won't see them and ask how much they cost?
Hoping she won’t find out that you’ve just spent R50k on that new bike for that upcoming cycle race?
Hoping he won’t find out that you’ve taken a loan for that secret business you haven’t told him you’re starting?
Being secretive about the fact that you haven’t been earning the commission at work that you said you were, so you're not going to be able to take the family away in December?
Secret behaviours around money just erode your integrity every day and eat away at your conscience, affecting the level of intimacy and connection with your partner. The longer you let this go on, the more you’re destroying that trust between you. It’s hard to overcome broken trust, really hard. Some couples just can’t. So don’t set yourself up for failure by continuing this behaviour. If you want to create a successful, sustainable future together, there has to be transparency. You have to be honest about your net worth, debt, income, loans, investments, expenses, savings and policies. If you're committing to a long term relationship with someone, you have to let your partner know what your complete financial status looks like because it is going to impact them down the road. Of course this isn’t a first date kind of conversation, but when the relationship is getting serious, it’s the time to sit your partner down and tell them everything. What’s your story? Often, money is treated with shame, embarrassment and secrecy because we’re taught from a young age that money is private and not something you speak about to others. We grow up not knowing how to deal with real money concerns, so we avoid honest conversations about it with our partner. Our money stories start in childhood, learning about finances by observing how our parents handled money. This creates the foundation of our financial beliefs which underlie our approach to money in adulthood.
Think about your own money story. What were you taught to believe about money when you were growing up? Do you fear it? Respect it? Enjoy it? Treat it with disregard? Why? Uncovering your money story can be extremely insightful about why you treat it the way you do in your life now.
Speak to your partner about their money story and share yours with them. Understanding entrenched belief systems around money can change the way you react to each other around unworkable money behaviours and this helps you both to be more empathetic with each other instead of leaping to attack mode around irresponsible spending.
Change your behaviour around money
Practice the art of talking about money, everyday, in a very light way. Make money, a general part of your daily relationship conversations. Talk about small, normal things such as what groceries cost, petrol price increases, the interest you’re paying on your accounts, an article you read about crypto currency etc. The more you normalise money conversations in your relationship every day, the easier it will be to address the big financial conversations when you need to.
Talk about your dreams and future visions with each other
‘I want to study again next year and this is how much it will cost so can we factor that into our savings?’
‘I want to upgrade my bike for the big race in 6 month’s time, can we hold off on the kitchen renovation so I can afford this?’
‘We want to have an overseas trip next year so what small sacrifices do we both need to start making now to afford it? ‘
Be supportive of each other’s dreams and prioritise your finances in those directions. Creating a future life together requires money. Want to buy a new house? Want to study? Want to have kids? Want to start your own business? Those are wonderful dreams to have but if you’re not on the same page about saving or investing towards those things together then they’re never going to happen. Your priorities in life may be different from each other but it doesn’t mean one is better than the other. Healthy relationships are about supporting your partner where they want to go with their life visions. If they’re important to your partner, why stand in their way when you could be by their side? Prioritise making clear financial plans together so both your goals can be met.
If you live together, it's very important to have a budget in a relationship. Discuss income and expenses and come up with a plan you both agree with on how you’re going to manage finances together. Will you have a joint account or handle expenses separately? Who pays for what? Remove the guesswork or assumptions and make things clear for the relationship going forward. Do a monthly check-in with each other on how you’re faring with the expenses of living in a home together. This is a non-negotiable practice to have in any long term relationship.
Coming clean about debt
There is often embarrassment and shame around debt. Getting angry with the person who has the debt is not workable or conducive to creating a safe space for honest conversations to happen. Be constructive in these discussions, not destructive with finger pointing and attacks. Understand that debt affects almost everyone, find your compassion and choose a supportive approach when discussing how to overcome it and move towards a healthier money picture that serves you both.
Use ‘What if...’ questions to focus on the future of where you both want to be, instead of fighting about where you are right now. Once you’ve attracted the ideal picture of your future life together, you’ll approach the present problem with a more optimistic attitude and have easier conversations about how to bridge the gap between where you are to where you want to be.
‘What if we were both debt free, what would we do with our lives?’
‘What if we had an extra R1000 per month to invest? How would we do that?’
‘What if we could clear our debt in time for a December holiday?’
Get specific about the size of the problem. How much is the debt? To whom? Stay with the facts, don’t get lost in the emotions.
See how you can both be a part of the solution. What can you do more of, or less of, to correct the situation? If the one partner wants to lend the other money to clear their debt, what is the expectation around that? Must it be paid back? By when? Is it a gift? Are there other conditions attached to that loan?
Having positive financial discussions
Know what issue you want to raise with your partner and what the solution looks like for you. If you don’t come with a solution mindset then you’re going to end up in another fight.
Keep your focus on your own feelings instead of attacking your partner. You could either say “I can’t believe you spent that money! What’s the matter with you, don’t you care about the stress we’re under? You’re so selfish, you only ever think about yourself!” or, you could say “When you overspent on the card last week it made me feel panicked about how we’re going to pay the rent at the end of the month. It felt like you didn’t think about the long term consequences of that purchase. But maybe there was a reason for what you did that I don’t understand and I’d love to talk about it with you.” It’s all about how you address the issue. Anger will always bring up fear in your partner and that’s the reason they’re being secretive about money with you in the first place… because they’re afraid of your reaction. You want them to be honest? Then manage your anger and reactiveness.
Pick your time and place when you want to talk about money. Don’t send a tense WhatsApp to your partner in the middle of the day when they’re stressed at work because then you’ll definitely get a snappy response. Don’t do it when you’re busy, rushed, tired, hungry or distracted. Make sure you’re face to face, in a calm, relaxed space with lots of time to talk things through.
Bring up one issue at a time and stay with that issue until a solution is reached. Take turns and listen when the other one is speaking, with no interruptions. This conversation is not about winning or being right, it’s about learning and creating a safe, supportive environment to find a way forward together.
Know your worth
The most common money issue I see in relationships is when one partner earns more money and is the primary breadwinner and the other earns significantly less or is unemployed. How do you find a balance within that unbalanced income situation?
The most important perspective to shift with this is to know that your worth in a relationship is not determined by how much money you earn. Money is only one way of contributing value to a relationship. Partners who don't work still bring a huge amount of value and worth into the relationship by managing the home, the household shopping, the kids, the social arrangements and organising your lives.
Look at strengths and contributions. Who fulfils what role in a full day dynamic of being in a relationship? Division of duty makes both people feel they’re contributing equally to the relationship.
If you’re the breadwinner, be conscious about not being controlling or manipulative with money. Earning more money does not entitle you to be the boss in the relationship.
Appoint the family CFO
Whoever is better at handling money between the two of you, should be the CFO of your relationship. This isn’t a competition. We are all good at different things. If your partner is better at cooking than you, do you get resentful about it? No. Do you try to tell them how to cook? No. Do you enjoy what they create in the kitchen and stand in gratitude for the delicious meals they prepare? Of course. So it should be no different with the CFO managing the finances, taxes and investments. There’s no need for a resentful attitude towards the one managing the money. That behaviour just creates unnecessary friction in the relationship. And to the CFO, stop expecting your partner to manage money the same way you do. They won’t and it’s no use getting irritated because they don’t have the same mentality as you around finances. Support each other with your different strengths.
A note on this: There's a difference between controlling the money and managing the money. The CFO’s job is to manage the money, not control it by excluding their partner from decisions or becoming a dictator about it. This is also where transparency has to happen. You both need to know online passwords to access joint accounts and investments so you can both see what is going on with statements. This avoids secretive behaviour.
When it comes to money conversations, focus on the solution, don’t attack your partner or make them afraid of your reactions. Stick to the facts, don’t let the emotions drive the conversations and keep your focus on where you’re going, not where you’ve come from. Often it can be hard to have these conversations on your own, which is when you should work with a coach, a therapist or a financial specialist who can facilitate that conversation.