Are You 'Open' With Your Spouse About Money?

Secrets rarely stay that way

Do you routinely hide information about your spending and debts from your spouse?

If so, you’re not alone. Nearly a quarter of all married couples have a spouse who admits to not revealing excessive spending or financial difficulties they might be having, according to a poll by the National Foundation for Credit Counseling.

Survey respondents gave a variety of reasons for withholding information. These included the fear that it would worry the spouse (9%), the belief that the spouse is unaware of the debt and it is best to keep it that way (8%) and concern that the information might damage the relationship (7%).

No matter how well-intentioned such reasons may seem, they are fraught with risk, experts say. “Regardless of motive, withholding financial information from one’s spouse is not a sign of a healthy relationship, either emotionally or financially,” says Gail Cunningham, NFCC spokesperson.

You need to discuss money issues early and often — ideally, before you marry. If the two of you rarely discuss money, it can be difficult to raise the subject at times when the need becomes more urgent.

Consider these tips to have a positive conversation with your spouse about financial issues:

Don’t commit financial infidelity by hiding income or debt. Instead, show all your financial documents — including your most recent credit report, pay statements, bank records, insurance policies, debts and investments — to your spouse, especially if you have never done so before.

Don’t discuss the subject while angry or arguing. Instead, agree to discuss the subject at a specific time in the near future that is convenient and nonthreatening for both of you.

Keep the conversation casual, even though the subject is serious. Respect the fact that each of you has valid opinions and concerns. Allow your spouse to express his/her points of view without interrupting.

Don’t cast blame. That merely causes conversations to end abruptly.

Be honest about your current financial situation. If you have accumulated substantial debt through unwise spending, make your spouse fully aware of it. Don’t omit aspects of your situation or attempt to dismiss them as unimportant.

Be willing to adjust your spending habits and lifestyle as necessary — even if you feel the problems are your spouse’s fault. Remember, marriage is a team sport.

Talk extensively about your own and your spouse’s longheld financial attitudes. Most of the feelings we have about money were developed during our childhoods.

If one of you is a saver and the other a spender, understand that there are benefits to both mindsets. Agree to learn from each other.

Use the conversation to make decisions about how you’ll handle your finances jointly in the future. An independent, objective, fee-based financial advisor can help you:

  • deal with “surprises” uncovered from your discussion;
  • create an emergency fund;
  • decide which of you will pay the monthly expenses and handle record-keeping chores;
  • maintain independence by setting aside discretionary money each month;
  • set short- and long-term goals;
  • agree on a policy regarding lending money to family and friends; and
  • decide how to care for aging parents.

This conversation is an ongoing dialogue. As time passes, your situation — and attitudes — will change. A quick discussion will easily resolve some questions, while other matters may involve more effort and lengthier chats. Regardless, you’ll find that open communication is the best approach, and a good advisor can help you.

Originally published in Inside Personal Finance April 2012

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