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Written by: Dr. Bruce Ross

Discussing money is often seen as taboo (Atwood, 2012). When we think about personal finance, we can often fall into the trap of thinking that means keeping it personal instead of sharing or communicating, especially with our significant others.

Talking About Money

Of surveyed Americans, 70% reported that money conversations should be kept private (Empower, 2023). The Harris Poll (2021) found that 35% of respondents reported having negative feelings such as being worried, stressed, ashamed, anxious, or overwhelmed when discussing personal finances with their spouse/partner. Unsurprisingly, over 62% of Americans report they do not talk about money with their spouse/partner, despite 61% thinking often about finances and 66% believing that open money conversations would facilitate financial freedom and build generational wealth (Empower, 2023).

This disconnect between believing it is beneficial to discuss money with a partner/spouse and not actually having money conversations may be due, in part, to there being very little formal education regarding money management and money communication (Shapiro, 2007, Stanley & Einhorn, 2007). The majority of Americans (61%) report never learning about personal finance in formal schooling (Empower, 2023). The combined effects of not discussing money and a lack of financial literacy may lead to increased conflict about money within relationships.

For example, almost a third (31%) of Americans report having money arguments with their significant other (APA, 2014). Even when financial challenges are not the most frequent topic of conflict for a couple, conflicts over money within the relationship are found to still be more pervasive, problematic, and recurrent, as well as remain unresolved, than other non-financial issues (Papp, Cummings, & Goeke-Morey, 2009). Consequently, practitioners, educators, and financial advocates working with service members should work with the couple system on open communication about money.

Starting the Conversation

For the first money conversations in working with couples, avoid discussing “money.” As discussed, having open communication directly about money can be stress-inducing. The Financial Therapy Association provides resources on techniques and modalities to help delve into the cognitive, behavioral, emotional, and relational issues associated with money.

For instance, service providers can approach these financial issues by discussing non-direct financial goals through the lens of life goals. All life goals are financial goals, as they require means, planning, resources, and finances to achieve. However, approaching a difficult conversation through the lens of “What, as a couple, do you want out of life?” and “What, as a couple, life goals do you envision for yourselves?” provides a safer outlet to discuss plans and management opportunities, as you work backward to see how those life goals can come to fruition.

No matter the age or the stage of the relationship, discussions with a significant other about the next steps in life are encouraging and intimate. They provide:

  • Context for priorities,
  • Understanding of what makes each partner happy,
  • And identification of the lifestyle choices that are needed and wanted.

Thus, service providers may find greater success by starting with broader conversations about life goals, dreams, and hopes. Avoiding initial conversations of budgets, credit, and debt. Topics, where there is potential for anxiety, stress, and/or argument, warrant a strong foundation of trust, honesty, and intimacy first.

Life Goals

As these initial conversations progress, couples can move into their family financial histories – i.e., how they learned about money, what lessons their family taught about money, and how they came to possess their meaning and outlooks of money. Only once couples have a greater understanding of each other’s guiding principles and goals, can the conversation evolve into a greater examination of their current financial situation and financial management behaviors.

Through all of these conversations, it is important to remind couples to give grace to each other and to themselves, as discussing past, present, and future life goals/plans and money experiences can be vulnerable. There should be an acknowledgment that all parties are doing the best they can, with the information they have. In order to achieve financial well-being, work with service members needs to expand the knowledge and understanding of not just financial literacy, but of one’s significant other as a whole.

Guiding Questions

Learn more about using money conversations as a gateway to couple and family well-being by watching our on-demand webinar with Dr. Ross, Mind and Money: Connecting Mental Health and Financial Well-Being.


Dr. Bruce Ross is an Assistant Professor in the Family Sciences Department for the College of Agriculture, Food and Environment and the School of Human and Environmental Sciences at the University of Kentucky. He also serves as the Program Director for the Consumer Economics and Family Financial Counseling undergraduate major program. Dr. Ross’ interests primarily focus on personal and family financial well-being, and center around the systemic practice of financial therapy to better serve families from a holistic perspective. 

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