Talking about money: Where do I start?

Talking About Money: Where Do I Start?

For many people, talking about money can be a lot like going to the dentist. You know you need to do it — and there are clear benefits — but it’s not something you look forward to and probably try to avoid for as long as possible.

While we may not fear it as much as a root canal, many of us struggle with the idea of talking frankly about money, particularly with partners and other family members. During a recent Money Tales conversation, our guest Tina Lovejoy shared some thoughts on how to navigate this sensitive topic. Tina is director of entrusted planning at York Howell & Guymon in Salt Lake City, Utah, where she specializes in facilitating core values sessions for high-capacity families and businesses to discover and define their purpose. She draws from her background in opera, writing and consulting to facilitate sessions through a language-centric lens.

But you don’t need to be an expert in opera or language to get better at money conversations. The key is to broach this potentially tricky topic in an empowering and non-confrontational manner. Each money conversation will be different for everyone, but there are some universal approaches to lay the foundation for a productive and insightful dialogue.

Why is it so hard to talk about money?

We bring a lot of baggage to our ideas about money. Some people are raised not to talk about it, and the idea of doing something contrary to our core values feels highly uncomfortable. Or we have strong feelings about money like shame, guilt, insecurity or envy that block us from talking about it openly. Some of us may feel general unease about discussing such a private topic. And many of us have never experienced constructive money conversations firsthand, so we have no models to draw from.

It can be especially uncomfortable and challenging to initiate these conversations with a spouse or partner. Some people worry that directly bringing up money could signal that we ourselves are too focused on it, or perhaps even worse, that we’re judging the other person’s spending and savings habits. Sometimes a specific event such as inheriting a large sum of money can change the dynamics of a relationship. Regardless of the circumstances, clear and open communication is critical to making sure a happy moment doesn’t lead to unintended negative consequences.

No matter where you’re coming from, everyone is capable of having productive and cordial money conversations. The key is to inch out of your comfort zone and create an environment where the true magic can happen.

Setting the scene

The first step is to give some thought to who you’d like to have the conversation with and what you’d like to cover. If you have meaty topics to discuss, you may want to allow for multiple money conversations to gain practice, rapport and understanding that will help you tackle the more serious topics over time.

Second, we recommend creating a relaxed environment. Choose a place and time that will help you and the person or people you’re talking with feel calm and distraction-free. Maybe you want to talk on a weekend afternoon in your living room, or at the dining room table over dinner, or maybe you’d like to be outdoors. Find the location that you believe will be most conducive and comfortable.

Third, we suggest casually asking the person you’d like to have the money conversation with for permission. You want to make sure they’re open to covering the ground you’re looking to explore. Give it some thought, based on your relationship with this person and the topics you plan to discuss. Also, think about whether it’s best to ask permission days or minutes in advance of having the conversation.

Getting the conversation started

With any personal or difficult topic, getting the conversation started can be the hardest part. Don’t worry if this feels daunting. It’s human nature to feel a bit awkward as you prepare to dive in. Asking open-ended questions can be a great way to engage the other person and get them talking. Here are some ways to begin.

1. Ask questions about how your family handled money during childhood

Talking about past experiences with those we trust can help us navigate the present and the future. Our post Clean Out Your Money Scripts dives deeper into how our childhood perceptions of money can influence how we approach the topic as adults — in both productive and less helpful ways. That’s why this is such a fertile area of discussion.

Here are a few questions that can get the ball rolling:

  • “I was thinking about how money was handled in my family when I was growing up, and it made me curious about your experience. Can we share our stories?”
  • “How did your parents talk to you about money?”
  • “When you were growing up, when did you start thinking about money? What did it mean to you?
  • “Were you a saver or a spender?”
  • “Tell me about your first big purchase.”

2. Compare money metaphors

Metaphors — when you use a thing as representative as something else — can often illuminate ideas and perceptions that may otherwise be difficult to articulate directly. Asking metaphorical questions, and then requesting that people explain their reasoning, can be extremely helpful in learning about their views. Below are some questions with possible responses, but remember, there are no wrong answers.

  • “If money were a food, what food would it be for you and why?”

    If money were a food, it would be a coconut because it’s hard to get, as coconuts are located high up in trees. They’re also soft and delicious, but only if you work hard enough to get at the meat.

  • “If money were an animal, which one would it be for you and why?”

    If money were an animal, it would be an octopus because there are a lot of ways to make money and — like the arms of an octopus — they can grow back if they are lost. That’s true of money as well. But you still need to be cautious to remain safe.

3. Explore your curiosity about a money topic with another person

Discussing a subject related to money can help you broach more personal topics. Here are some potential questions to pique interest and dive into a substantive debate.

  • “I just read an article online about Elon Musk and bitcoin. I’m not sure if bitcoin is going to change the world or if it’s just a weird fad. What’s your opinion?”
  • “I just listened to a podcast about a couple who saved enough money to retire really early. What do you think about that? Would you want to keep working even if you didn’t have to?”
  • “I read a Facebook post from one of my high school friends that said she and her family just bought a vacation house in Aspen. Would you want to buy a vacation home in another state or country?”

As you can see, there’s no single best way to start a money conversation, and there’s no perfect time to start the discussion either. Sometimes, you can take advantage of a natural time of reflection to bring up the topic.

Going back to our dentist metaphor, the more effectively you brush and floss your teeth on a regular basis, the less painful the actual office visit will be. It’s the same with money — when you talk about it on a regular basis, the easier the conversations will go. And it’s good to remember that both activities will ultimately help you smile a little brighter.