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The Short Version: Of all the reasons a couple fights, arguments about money are usually the most stressful. Values around money, individual spending habits, and financial baggage are often anxiety-inducing topics for couples to discuss, yet are essential for maintaining a long-term, healthy partnership. Relationship and life coach Leah Sefor said money conversations don’t always have to end in conflict. Leah, who has 30 years of experience helping clients become better communicators, talked to us about why financial conversations are often so sensitive for couples and what people in relationships can do to navigate money discussions with more curiosity, openness, and understanding.
The latest CNBC Your Money Survey, published in September 2023, polled over 4,000 working adults in the United States to learn about their attitudes toward personal finances. The survey found that 74% of respondents said they are regularly stressed about money, and more than half of respondents said they are living paycheck to paycheck.
Handling money is stressful, and it’s a sensitive topic for many people. Money habits are often taught and learned early in life, and financial hardships of any magnitude can be incredibly difficult to recover from. It’s stressful enough managing your own personal finances. Throw another person in the mix, and things can get messy.
Conflicts related to money and finances are among the most stressful hardships couples experience in their relationships, and unresolved issues can have devastating, even relationship-ending, consequences. Leah Sefor, a relationship and life coach based in Boston, shed some light on why money issues are so stressful and what couples can do to navigate them with more kindness and understanding.
Couples who find themselves consistently arguing about finances may feel there’s no way out of the tiresome cycle. When couples take the time to learn about why their partner has the money habits they do, they’re better equipped to have constructive conversations that actually address the pertinent issues.
“Talking about money in an excited, rather than heavy, way can transform how these conversations usually look,” Leah said. “I think a lot of couples tend to get competitive around money and think about whose need is greater. You want to take the competitiveness out of the conversation so that both of your dreams are held as important.”
Leah is known for being a no-nonsense life and relationship coach who helps her clients make real, tangible improvements to their lives. “I’ve been in the industry for nearly 30 years now, so I’ve witnessed a massive shift in terms of how people relate and communicate,” she said. “My philosophy, for communication in all kinds of different relationships, is questioning how clients get real about what they’re really saying.”
Leah’s coaching strongly focuses on communication. “We explore communication techniques and what’s driving them,” she said. “In relationships, it’s about understanding the subconscious programming and patterning that drives a person’s behavior. It’s about looking at what drives the way people show up in the world and in relationships.”
When it comes to money, nearly everybody is operating off that subconscious programming. “The important thing to realize is both you and your partner are coming into this relationship with your own money stories,” Leah said. “And money stories are set from childhood.”
Leah said showing up with curiosity, rather than judgment, is key to learning about your partner’s money story. “Show curiosity about how they were raised. Ask questions about what kind of conversations about money happened around the dinner table, what the adults in their life always said and believed about money. Understanding is really important.”
The aspects that influence the ways people see and treat money go way deeper than the surface. Any aspect of a person’s background, whether it be the place they’re from or the language they grew up speaking, can have a profound influence on the way they view money.
“For example, if you look at a heterosexual relationship where the man grew up in a household where men were always in control of the money and made all the financial decisions, he’s going to bring those behaviors, consciously or subconsciously, into his own relationship,” Leah said. “It’s about learning your partner’s story.”
Leah continued, “When you understand why your partner makes the money decision they do, there’s less accusatory pointing and anger. You’re operating with curiosity rather than blame, which is necessary.” When couples approach money discussions with curiosity, it opens the door to a world where conversations about finances aren’t always so emotional.
“Another big tip I have is trying to integrate regular, light conversations about money in your everyday conversations,” Leah told us. “When you can normalize money being a part of daily interactions in your relationship, it makes it easier to address the bigger issues as they arise.”
Couples in the early stages of dating have the opportunity to set their relationship up for long-term financial success. “If you’re dating, I think it’s really important to talk about expectations of who pays for what. This is a big one. Everybody has different beliefs about who should pay, and there’s no standard rule. I suggest just clarifying it from the start.”
Addressing who pays on initial dates not only eases some nerves but also gives new couples a glimpse into how their partners view the role of money in the relationship. Leah said relationships reach a new level of financial seriousness when couples decide to move in together.
“If you’re moving in together, the relationship is stepping up into something much more serious,” she said. “Number one earliest conversation has to be budget– it’s critically important to set that down. This is where people have to keep in mind their partner’s money story. Some people completely shut down when money is brought up.”
Leah said leaning on an inviting and non-judgmental approach is best for people with partners who are sensitive about money. “You need to look at your vocabulary and evaluate how inviting you’re making the conversation,” she told us. “It’s a collaboration, and both people need to feel invited and heard and valued.”
While both people in a relationship should be involved with finances, Leah said she was in favor of one person taking charge. “I’m a big fan of allocating a CFO in a relationship. In most relationships I see, one person is better with money, and that’s really ok. That person just needs to really make sure they don’t become the controller in the relationship but rather take care of finances because it’s their personal strength.”
Income disparity can be another challenge for couples, as conflicts often arise about how money should be allocated according to how much each person is bringing in. “Your worth in a relationship is never determined by your income,” Leah said. “The more couples see money as a ‘we’ dynamic, and not a ‘me’ dynamic, the more empowered their relationship will be.”
Debt can be hard to talk about, but Leah urged people in relationships to be open with their partners about their financial baggage. “A lot of people are in bad debt, whether it’s credit card debt or a student loan,” Leah said. “The key here is instead of blaming your partner or being angry at them, try to see how you can be part of the solution. Ask how you can support them while they correct the situation.”
Shame or guilt around past spending habits can make conversations about money overwhelming for people with debt. Leah said the fear of judgment from a partner can lead a person with debt to keep secrets, and secrets can damage relationships deeply.
“It’s probably going to be one of the hardest conversations you’ll have, but it’s so important. If you’re starting out with secrecy, your relationship is just going to go downhill from there,” Leah said. “It’s not about shame, it’s not about embarrassment, it’s about a series of collective decisions, being honest about it, and making a plan to deal with it.”
The more you talk about money with your partner, the easier it will get. “People really struggle when they’re dating to get real,” Leah said. “It’s hard for some people to be honest about their thoughts and feelings. So it’s important to sit down and talk about the things that are upsetting you. Share those things with your partner.”
While it’s super important for people in committed relationships to be forthright about their finances, people are more than their money stories. “Money is a really small part of a story of a person,” Leah said. “Be very careful to not make it the entire story of who a person is As a couple, you are free to write a new money story for your relationship that isn’t determined by the patterns of your past.”