With Valentine’s Day falling on a Monday this year, chances are many couples will celebrate this weekend. What will your Valentine’s Day look like? Will you exchange cards and stay in for a nice home-cooked dinner and a bottle of wine? Maybe you’ll take off on a weekend getaway, opt for a fancy dinner out, and exchange gifts. Both could be fun options. But what if you and your partner have different ideas about money and how to spend it?

If a lack of financial compatibility exists in your relationship, you’re not alone. A 2021 study by the American Institute of CPAs (AICPA) found that nearly three-quarters of American couples say financial decisions cause tension in their relationship. The AICPA’s research showed that seven in 10 Americans married or living with a partner have had a disagreement over money in the past year. According to the data, those disagreements most often focus on:

  • Needs vs. wants (36%);
  • Spending priorities (28%);
  • Making purchases without discussing them first (22%);
  • Paying off debt (21%); and
  • Saving for larger purchases (19%).

Making purchases without discussing them first is an example of “financial infidelity,” which occurs when couples with combined finances lie to each other about their money, and which some experts say could lead to divorce.

Avoiding Money Conversations

The need to make money decisions in a relationship – particularly in a marriage or cohabitation situation – occurs on a daily basis. Things like buying groceries, making a car payment, or paying the babysitter are often routine. But bigger money decisions that go beyond the basics may go undiscussed. Why? The reasons can include fear, disinterest, a lack of trust, or guilt. Author Caitlin Zaloom told The Atlantic in 2020 that the ban on talking about money can stem from financial precarity. In her interviews with dozens of middle-class families, she said she learned that “being middle-class meant not being financially reliant on family, friends, or the government,” so staying silent protects the idea that middle-class families are independent and will stay that way.

Fostering Financial Intimacy

Not every couple finds it difficult to talk about money, and research shows that married couples who work on their finances together are more likely to say they are in a happy relationship. Money is an intimate topic, according to financial therapist Amanda Clayman, and money issues often aren’t about money at all.

When is the best time to start working money into the conversation? In an interview with NPR, Clayman acknowledged the topic can be daunting if the talk is perceived as special, or outside the natural kinds of conversations people usually have. She suggests using some general questions a jumping-off point, because those can lead to deeper discussions that enable couples to talk about their experiences.

Financial intimacy, says Clayman, involves five necessary elements:

Equality: Each person in the relationship should have equal say (and power) when it comes to making financial decisions. A lack of equality can lead to hurt feelings or resentment.

Inclusivity: Though one partner may handle the money on behalf of the other, Clayman says both partners should be actively involved in financial decision-making. Sharing the decision-making process also spreads the risk, reducing the likelihood that one spouse will blame the other if a problem occurs.

Transparency: Clayman believes both parties in a relationship should share financial information openly, but that there can still be areas of “negotiated privacy.” She calls transparency a safety measure that enables everyone to understand the decisions being made.

Sustainability: When couples agree to manage their finances together, the plan they agree to must be something each person can stick to over the long term. Austerity may sound good in theory, but may cause a strain on the relationship in practice.

Flexibility: In the course of a relationship, a major milestone – like a new baby, new job, or new home – may put stress on your financial plan. Clayman suggests that couples be prepared to update or change their plans when life throws a curveball.

Money: A Romantic Topic for Valentine’s Day?

Picture a romantic dinner for two this Valentine’s Day. In the soft light of the candle glow, should you bring up your finances?

You do you! But if you and your significant other haven’t talked about money in a while (or at all), start thinking about how (and when) to have the conversation about money topics that need to be addressed in your relationship. Keep the conversation casual, and start with broad questions that will spark a deeper conversation. Financial intimacy can help ensure you’re compatible long-term. A romantic thought, indeed.

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