Full disclosure: I can't discuss having "the financial talk" without discussing my own relationship! Although my marriage is far from perfect, a culture of open discussion about finances is one thing that I believe we got 100 percent right... and I cannot take an ounce of credit for it. My husband, who does not have one iota of training in psychology or any related mental health discipline, brought to the table firm beliefs about the importance of open discussion about financial goals and issues. In fact, it was so critical to him, that he refused to make a greater commitment toward engagement and marriage until we had "the talk". He continually cited research indicating that a top reason why marriages end in divorce is because of conflict over finances.
He's right. Since we had "the talk", I have seen many couples in therapy who describe frequent arguing, violated expectations, and profound disappointment in one another and in the relationship — often in part because of financial issues. Financial conflicts that have been described to me include significant differences in spending habits, differences in the degree of tolerance for credit card debt, instances in which one partner allowed the other to have full control over the family's finances and later learning that bad investments had been made, and even instances in which one partner had substantial debt that had not been disclosed to the other before becoming married.
Each time one of these situations was described to me, I gently asked if they had discussed financial goals and issues before deciding to get married. And in each instance, I received a resounding "Nope."
I recently wrote an article about talking to your partner about your desire to have children before you make a full commitment to the relationship. In that article, I argued that it is crucial to be on the same page regarding your desire for kids before jumping into a committed relationship. The same goes for being on the same page with finances, which involves full disclosure of one's current financial situation and discussion of short and long-term financial goals. It's hard stuff. I remember drudging over to my then-boyfriend's home, hauling my bank statements and credit card statements, dreading his reaction when he saw that I was still paying off debt from my crazy graduate school adventures that went beyond the means of a $15,000/year salary.
Obviously, it worked out in the end. He was impressed that I was taking charge of my debt. I was thrilled that he did not have additional debt to add to our financial burden. We set savings goals. We anticipated major purchases that would be made in the next five years, such as our first home. I pouted a bit when he insisted that I give up my high-end skin care products, but I eventually adapted.
My clients frequently ask me, "When do I bring this up?" Honestly, there is no right or wrong answer to this. Bringing it up early in the course of the relationship allows you to determine whether the two of you are simply incompatible when it comes to financial issues and goals, allowing you to move on from the relationship if you are, indeed incompatible — rather than investing a lot of time in a relationship that ultimately won't work. But If you bring it up later in the relationship, you will know your partner better, which will allow you to choose a communication style that you know has been successful for addressing sensitive issues.
You and your partner will likely have, by that time, established a relationship characterized by love and mutual respect, which will be assets in negotiating any differences of opinion that arise. It is up to you to weigh the advantages and disadvantages of the timing on the basis of your unique circumstances. Keep reading...
More relationship expert advice from YourTango: