Can’t Buy Me Love

Can’t Buy Me Love

There are few things more awkward than talking about money with a potential—or even an established—romantic partner. Money is never just money, nor is it as subject to rationality as some would have us believe. When you discuss money with your partner, messages (emotional, familial, and societal) about the morality of saving or spending, the value of work, power differentials, and dreams of and anxieties about the future hover around like little green-backed apparitions, often colliding into each other and causing conflict. Here are some tips for broaching, navigating, and continuing the conversation around money—while maintaining your equilibrium and boundaries. 

Whether you’ve just started dating someone or have been attached for a while, vulnerability is paramount. If you’re the one initiating the conversation, journaling about your own beliefs about money can bring patterns and assumptions to light. You can write out an imaginary dialogue with money, describe in detail an instance in which you judged someone for spending money, pen a never-to-be-sent letter to someone from your past who shaped your financial perspective, or even make a list of what you believe money is for. I know that when I’ve done this exercise, surprising resentments, cultural biases, and visions for my own financial future that I had suppressed flooded the page—and left room to reshape my relationship with money. Such emotional work can be draining, so be sure to rest and hydrate afterwards!

Take some time, then, to think about what your goals in having this discussion might be. Have you observed behavior in yourself or your partner that concerns you? Does your partner spend money in a way that makes you uncomfortable or inspires you? If you are facing a transition in your relationship—moving in together, getting married, even adopting a dog—can you surface some fears around that change that have to do with money? Which arrangement feels right to you: a joint bank account, separate accounts, a combo? Grounding yourself in your own mental economy will focus the conversation, rather than allowing your anxieties about the state of the relationship to dominate. 

Again, vulnerability is key here. If you’re nervous to have this conversation, say so. Being upfront about what you’re feeling in the moment deepens the bond between you and your partner, and gives your partner permission to join you in openness and honesty. If your partner shames or scolds you, you can say something like, “A lot is coming up for me right now. I would like to continue this conversation later when I’m feeling more grounded.” You then get to decide whether this person is right for you and the life you envision—there’s no escaping money, nor is there any way to detach it from subconscious associations and everyday behavior. Everyone deserves someone who will treat them with compassion and respect; if someone uses money to control or manipulate you, that person simply needs to be let go. 

Finally, checking in about money regularly—especially as the economy fluctuates, capitalism evolves, and the state of work begins to shift—will help keep you and your partner on the same page when it comes to finances. Maintaining the subject thread, rather than burying it or only bringing it up in a stressful situation, will lighten the emotional load and allow you to solve problems together, rather than foster resentments or lose track of each other’s values. If scheduling discussions works for you, great! It can take the pressure off of one or the other of you having to bring up the subject. 

Life would be far easier if money really was just a matter of numbers. Even the strictest budget, however, contains within it layers of emotion (both conscious and subconscious) and association. Understanding this fact is the first step toward having healthy, productive conversations about money with your partner (and, as it happens, your kids, your friends, your extended family…). Observing your own reactions and your partner’s reactions can give you valuable insight into the state of your relationship—you get to choose the life you wish to lead.