Let me tell you a little story, and I want you guys to chime in on it in the comments. I’m going to change the names and leave out the specifics, and I just want to know if it sounds familiar to you. I’m guessing most of you have been either Linda* or Layla* in this story at least once in your life, and some of you might still be one of these people. Let’s see:
Linda is very self-motivated, and takes it upon herself to track her finances without “needing” to. She gets her bills paid on time, almost without thinking about it, because she has a system that lets her do so.
Her partner, Layla, on the other hand, is significantly less motivated when it comes to money, and she’s racked up a little bit of debt because of it. She makes enough money to pay her bills, but she struggles with making smart money choices.
As a result, she’s able to pay her share of the bills, but usually at the last minute (or late), and she can’t seem to save anything – no matter how much money she’s made that month. It seems like the list of things she needs to pay for expands to fill exactly how much money she has coming in.
Layla is embarrassed about her money habits, so she doesn’t tell Linda about them – and, in fact, she sometimes lies about them! She refuses to ask Linda for help, even though she knows Linda has more than enough money in savings, because she’s afraid to admit that she has a problem. She keeps telling herself that “this is the month I try harder with my money”, but because she’s completely alone in her fight, she fails.
Meanwhile, Linda gets more and more frustrated, because she feels that she’s paying more of the bills and handling more of the shopping, and – since she doesn’t know that Layla is struggling – she thinks that Layla is being totally unfair and expecting too much from them.
What should Linda and Layla do in this situation?
While the specifics of money problems are bound to vary from person to person, they most often come from bad habits set into place. Sometimes, the “bad habit” is nothing more than what I like to call “shiny-itis” (or the compulsion to buy the next new thing, whether the item is actually practical or not). Other times, the “bad habit” is that your bills are too high for your income. There are a number of other possibilities, too, but the process of getting past them is still largely the same.
Let her know you’re on the same team.
Often when there is a severe difference in money management skills within a couple, the partner who’s not so good with money will be embarrassed. Maybe past partners have shamed her or judged her for her money, or maybe she’s her own worst critic. Either way, it’s important that you let her know that you’re on the same team, and you have a better chance of fixing things together.
The simplest first step is to sit down and write out some goals. I’m not going to go into the specifics of why you need to write them down, but trust me – this list should be on paper. Don’t talk numbers yet – we’re just trying to get a picture of what you want your finances to look like.
Most importantly, you need to let her know that she has nothing to hide, and that you just want to help her improve herself. Your girlfriend is an adult – so treat her like one. Avoid being patronizing, or making her decisions for her. In order to make lasting change, it has to be a willing effort on her part.
Get to the root of the problem (or as close as you possibly can).
The vast majority of the time, money problems aren’t exactly a problem by themselves – they’re a symptom of a bigger problem. These bigger problems, if left untreated, can actually start to affect the other areas of your relationship, too, so it’s best to resolve them as early on as possible. In order to help her get past her problems, you have to understand them. You can’t give advice if you don’t know the question.
Examine where in her finances the issues lie. For example, does she spend outside of her means? This is usually a sign of insecurity. Does she have a lot of debt from credit and store cards? This could be a sign that she doesn’t take responsibility for her actions. Likewise, emotional spending can be a sign that she’s impulsive, or that she suffers from depression. (Shopping is known to give the same euphoria that drugs and sex produce, so “retail therapy” can easily become an addiction.)
No matter what the specific causes are, talking about them will help you discover what other areas of her life she might need help with – even if you’re not the right person to help with them. While it’s normal to want to help her figure everything out, it’s actually pretty important that you let her find her own answers, too. She is her own person, and there is no guarantee that you guys will agree on every step of the process.
Get started as quickly as you can.
One of my favorite quotes is by Maya Angelou: “Do the best you can until you know better. And then, when you know better, do better.” This quote works great for almost every aspect of your life, because the people who take a slow start are already doing better than everyone who hasn’t started trying yet. As soon as you understand enough of the problem to take action, take action.
That’s not to say that you shouldn’t think things through. I’m definitely not recommending that you go in on a joint bank account when your partner doesn’t even know how to look at prices yet. The important part of understanding the problem is deciding what the appropriate measures are for you to take.
Sit down together and have an honest discussion about your budget. You should both disclose your income, your spending, your saving, and your bills, as well as which of those things are “needs” and which are “wants”. No one needs to give up everything that brings them joy, but you’ll have to find a balance that doesn’t make you want to rip your hair out.
Act like she’s your partner.
Now that you have gone over the budget, you can start working things out to make the budget easier for her. Explain to her that money problems don’t usually come from a lack of funds – they come from a lack of priorities. Walk her through the tips and tools that you use, and give her a chance to ask questions if she needs.
If you have any hope of actually helping, you have to make sure she actually learns. While it might seem easier to just take over for her, I promise you – you’ll get frustrated very fast if you do it that way. The conversation is going to be uncomfortable, especially if she’s been hiding the truth for a while, but it’s essential that you give her some input on things, too.
By the time you’ve finished this step, you should have a fairly specific list of your average income (separately, and together); your average essential shopping; your average savings deposits; and, of course, your recurring bills. You should also have goals set for income, spending, and savings, which are revised from your Step One goals. Take a deep breath, and remember that there’s nothing to fight or judge over.
Get help from someone smarter than you.
I’d be willing to bet money that you’re not perfect with your money, either. There is always more to learn, so it’s worth it to invest (time) with an expert who can teach you something new. Subscribe to podcasts, read books, and take workshops together in order to reinforce the idea that this is a joint effort.
Finances require major teamwork, and many people simply haven’t had that experience in their lives yet. Bad habits can be really hard to break, especially in the case of impulse shopping and emotional spending. The more someone stresses about the situation, the more likely they are to repeat the bad behavior.
Unless your financial security is drastically better than your partner’s (for example, if you were born wealthy, or your income is more than 2x what hers is), it’s important not to spend much money on these expert tools. There is a lot more free information out there than most people realize. If you must spend money on the things you’re learning, make sure that it fits comfortably within your partner’s personal budget – she might not feel comfortable about you spending money to bail her out (even if that’s not exactly what’s really happening).
Make time to work on it.
Lastly, it’s important that you schedule a regular check-in time to go over your progress, your goals, and your expectations. This doesn’t have to be some big ordeal, but it should be carved out on your planners at least once a month, and maybe more often to start.
Remember that your budget is a no-judgment zone, and that her habits may have been forming for decades before you even came into the picture. Change doesn’t happen overnight, and she’s going to make some mistakes – quite possibly a lot of them. If you want long-term results, you have to learn to expect a few bumps in the road.
Your partner has the power to be the strongest member on your team – but only if you let her. You need to consistently work together, to handle the symptoms as well as the causes for the problems in your relationship. It gets easier in time, and as long as you’re both making a grown-up effort, the lessons you learn together are going to stick.
Do you have any other advice for couples struggling with their finances? Let us know in the comments – we’d love to hear about them!