When Talking About Money, Many People Could Use a Do-Over

Money rarely brings out the best in us.

It triggers us. When we are triggered, we react in ways that we wish we could take back. Here’s to second chances.

When you said, “You spend too much,” what you meant to say could have been:

“I am worried about our financial situation.” Whether you are worried because your situation is dire or because your investments have fallen or because you are uncomfortable with money, you are worried. By accusing your partner of spending too much, you get to take the focus off your own discomfort and thrust it upon them.

Or, “I wish I felt more successful.” You don’t think your partner is frivolously spending, but you might feel like you don’t earn enough. Their spending triggers a sense of discomfort in your own choices. If they earn more than you do, then their spending reflects on feelings about your unequal, and possibly uncomfortable, financial contribution to your lifestyle.

Or, “I feel like your spending is in response to frustrations with me.” Rather than talk about what is going on in your relationship, you act out in ways where your money can be the focus. You can point out your partner’s spending rather than look at how distracted you have been or how unsupportive you are at this stage in your life. It feels to you like spending is in reaction to you rather than in support of both of you.

Some people overspend, but the conversations that focus simply on the spending are probably not getting to meaningful partnership issues.

When you said no to something your partner wanted to do, what you meant to say was:

“You are moving faster than I am comfortable moving and I want to talk more about this with you.” Whether it’s a home improvement, helping the kids or taking a trip, rarely are couples operating at the same pace. The person who moves more slowly needs a little bit of time to catch up.

Or, “This feels like something different than we had previously agreed.” Heck, maybe you say no because you are blindsided by something that feels out of the blue. But it may be that you had agreement but not consent. Sometimes it is easier to agree just to end the discussion, but consent occurs when you have decided whether or not to take action.

If you know you are going to get to yes, get there sooner. Sometimes saying no is a temporary power play to prove that you are in control of the situation. If you know that you are going to say yes anyway, why would you dilute the shared excitement by unnecessarily putting your foot down? Use your veto when it’s necessary, not as a way to show you are not a pushover.

Estate planning is another potential hornet’s nest. When you said to your adult children, “Don’t ask me about your inheritance,” what you meant to say was:

“Of course having an understanding of what you may or may not get in the future eases the burden of some of your choices today, but we are too young to make any promises about what may come in the future, so I don’t want you to count on it.” Most families are uncomfortable talking about specific inheritance amounts because things can change, but it is helpful to let your adult children know that you are or are not accounting for them.

Or, “I don’t want to talk with you directly about this now because I want to first see that you are able to handle what may come your way.” Well, if you got hit by a bus, they are going to have to handle it (unless you have established trusts). A better discussion could be around your money values and how your various personal decisions about money have affected you positively and negatively.

Or, “Even though we are planning on leaving something to you, and we may even make gifts while we are alive, we want you to be able to have set your course primarily on your own because of the sense of personal fulfillment we believe it will create.”

This allows for a discussion about choices — do you value your kids going into a career in private equity more than social work? Are you comfortable with their financial literacy level? Are kids treated equally or equitably? It is messy to have unstated expectations.

When money triggers a bad response in you, use a second chance to restart the conversation.

Related: What Your Financial Planner Should Be Asking You