Cold Cash and Values

Money talks in relationships


Relationships experts often tell young couples that as things get “serious” it’s important to have some conversations about money. But what exactly should you talk about during that conversation? Are you going to lay down your W-2s and 1099s to compare numbers? Are you going to have amorphous discussions about money that are really more about who’s the power broker in the relationship? Fights about money are rarely about the dollars and cents themselves and typically more reflective of some other disconnect in your relationship. So I’d like to offer a new spin on this “money talk” advice: Before you start talking numbers, take a moment to look inward and figure out your values.

Saving money isn’t cool or fun, but looking inward and figuring out your values — and then spending in accordance with your beliefs and goals — well, that’s a bit more interesting. Some of the best financial guidebooks, including Suze Orman’s The 9 Steps to Financial Freedom, David Bach’s The Finish Rich Workbook begin this way, allowing for an individualized experience. David Bach asks readers to create a Values Circle and then build financial goals around living out those values. “When you understand what’s important to you, it becomes much easier to focus on who you want to be, then on what you want to do, and, finally, on what ‘stuff’ you really want to have,” Bach writes.

Before you dive into the Excel spreadsheets or start criticizing each other for individual purchases, take a step back and start from a more introspective place. What are your values as individuals and as a couple? And how does your spending and saving fit in as you live out those values today and in the future?

STEP #1: Figure out your values

In the Value Circle exercise, Bach asks readers to list the five core values by which they live (or want to live) their lives. Remember that values are different than goals. Values are who you want to be, while goals are what you want to do. Security, health, strong marriage, family and fun might pop up on a Value Circle. Or perhaps freedom, happiness, peace of mind, spirituality and balance.

Once you have your list, ask your boyfriend or girlfriend to do the same. This isn’t an exercise that can be done well on the fly. Give it some thought, pray for discernment and then pick five or six core values and write them down.

STEP #2: Discuss your values

Once each of you has a list of core values, begin a discussion about why each is important. If he values freedom and she values security, it’s time to flesh out what these words mean. You’ll also want to talk about whether you are actually living out these values on a day-to-day basis. Often we can create a great list of values, but then when we are honest with ourselves, we can see how our actions contradict those stated ideals.

STEP #3: How does your spending match your values?

When you buy yet another little black dress, what value is that living out? When he spends his bonus on a blowout trip with his buddies, is that in keeping with his values? Each might actually be part of the plan, but discussing what is important to each of you is a healthy way to begin. Don’t be afraid to honestly concede that you could do a better job spending in line with your values. This is a great place to begin a discussion about financial compromise.

STEP #4: Create a joint list of financial values

If you are engaged or thinking about marriage in the near future, you’ll want to make sure that you, as a couple, have a joint list of values to guide spending and saving decisions. Take each of your lists and see where the commonalities are. Note any big differences as well. Once you come up with your list, make sure it’s front and center for both of you. Each of you might clip the list to your credit card, so you’ll be reminded to check in with these values before making a purchase. You might make the list of values the wallpaper on your phone for a few weeks to keep reminding you of the commitment. Then, set a time — quarterly or monthly — to revisit this discussion, and talk hard numbers, too.

There’s a wonderful, old-fashioned word — thrift. It means more than just pinching pennies and saving. Thrift is about the intersection of values and money. It’s about the right use of money for yourself, for your community and for your loved ones. When you discuss your values as they relate to money, think about whether those values are all inward-focused or whether some of them reflect a desire to live your faith, to work toward social justice or to get involved in charities and organizations of particular importance to you, as individuals and as a couple.

Yes, you’ll have plenty of tense financial moments. No, conversations about money are never easy. But if you can agree on some core values from the start, thrift becomes less about what you can’t have and more about what you as a couple, as a team, choose to do with your money to benefit yourself and the world around you.