Money Matters in Relationships

Bad money!

Growing up, I had no idea how much money my family had. From what I could tell, we were solidly middle-class and we lived in a fairly affluent suburb right outside of Washington, DC. For me, the only consequence I understood of spending money was that my father was going to be annoyed – particularly if my mother or sister or I spent money on something that he didn’t see as worthwhile. What I did know for sure about money was that wanting it or talking about it or being jealous of people who had more of it was bad. We were to be grateful for what we had, generous with others, and never ask for more. 


What I didn’t realize at the time was that this way of growing up had set me up for an adulthood in which money became this nebulous thing that I wasn’t supposed to want nor was I supposed to talk about, but that I needed in order to survive. I also didn’t realize that this way of looking at and thinking about money was, in itself, an incredibly privileged stance.

Meeting my partner has fundamentally changed the way that I see money. My partner, Michael, grew up living well below the poverty line, and he has been shaped by his memories of the constant struggle and crippling anxiety that he and his family faced as they navigated how they were going to eat, where they were going to live, and how they were going to survive each day. 

Open Book on Money

When we first met, I was absolutely floored by how openly he talked about money. By our third date, I knew how much he had, how much he made, and how much he was willing to spend. This level of openness was completely new for me, but looking back, I see how his incredible financial transparency allowed us to build a relationship that, from the very beginning, was built on our shared goals, values, and visions for the future. Somehow, it was these early discussions about finances that brought a level of connection and intimacy to our relationship that allowed us to grow close in a way that I had never experienced before. 

Financial Transparency Meets Privilege

Since he and I have started dating, we’ve survived his losing his job due to the pandemic, my stepping away from full-time employment in order to complete graduate school, and our moving in together and officially combining finances. Now, as we look toward getting married early next year, we are having important and transparent conversations about what we’re currently making and where we want to be in the next few years. And what has been really interesting through this process is figuring out how to merge Michael’s financial transparency with my parents’ philosophies around money. 

Generational Shifts

For example, for my whole life, subconsciously, I have always believed that my future partner and I would have similar lives to my parents – we would be able to buy a house, have children, do what we enjoy outside of work, go out with friends, travel, and be safe and healthy and comfortable. However, while I always had this picture in my head, I never actually knew what it would take to achieve that – all I knew was that my mom was a teacher and that my dad had one of those ‘dad jobs’ where he went to an office and did something on the computer and somehow that meant that we could live as we did.

Now that Michael and I are trying to figure out how we might achieve what my parents have, I realized I wanted to know about my parents’ financial lives, so I asked my mom how much they make annually – just a ballpark figure, because right now, in my head, it could be literally anything. Her response? She doesn’t know. She doesn’t know how much she makes and she doesn’t know how much my dad makes. She has never really known – she leaves that up to my dad. 

Nebulous Understanding Equals IDK

As a counselor, I work a lot with young people (16-24), and I know that this story is not unique – and I see how harmful this nebulous approach to finances can be. I’ve sat with many young clients who struggle with anxiety and depression because they have been told by their parents that in order to be happy, they need to go to a specific college or get a specific job in order to make enough money to live a stable and comfortable life. When these young people begin to realize that this path that their parents have laid out isn’t what they want, they are paralyzed by the fear that there are no other options that will allow them the financial security that they need for the life they want. 

However, when I press them on the specifics of these beliefs – how much money do your parents make? How does your family spend money? What kind of life do you want to lead? How much money would you need to live that life? – most of the time, they have absolutely no idea. For these young clients, their family could earn $50,000 or $5,000,000 annually, but for them, what continues to be indisputably true is that this path that has been laid out for them is the only way to be comfortable and safe, but going down that path is absolutely not what they want for their own life.  

Money Matters 2022

Many of my young clients feel this pressure to achieve what their parents have achieved, but when I ask them specifically what that means, they have no idea. And when you grow up with a nebulous understanding of money, it becomes even harder to talk about concretely as you begin a life together with a partner, because you have no roadmap to do so – and it can feel shameful or wrong to want to talk about. 

I have learned the importance of financial intimacy in my own relationship, as a couples’ counselor, and as a counselor to families and to young people, and I cannot overstate how impactful having open, honest conversations about money from the very beginning can be.

Conversation Starters

If you are looking for ways to get started having these conversations, here are some ideas:

  • Do you know how much your partner makes? If not, ask them! This belief that salaries are too personal or private to share can be incredibly harmful, particularly if you are early in your relationship and your partner is feeling pressure to spend above their means in order to keep up appearances. 
  • How do you make decisions about how to spend money? How does your partner make decisions about how to spend money? If one of you keeps a meticulous monthly budget and the other uses the swipe-your-card-and-pray method, it will be important to work to understand one another’s financial habits and values. 
  • How much money are you willing to spend without checking with your partner? How much money is your partner willing to spend without checking with you? If you don’t know, this is a great way to learn more about each of your perceptions of money. 
  • If you have older children or teenagers, how much money do they think you make? Do they know how you make financial decisions? Figuring out what they already know can help guide conversations in the future.    

Here are some stems from the ‘Money & Me’ dialogue, adapted by Imago Therapist, Sylvia Rosenfeld, that might be helpful in having these conversations with your partner:

Money& Me, Part One: The Past
  • What did you learn from your father about money? 
  • What did you learn from your mother about money? 
  • Who made the spending decisions in your family? How were those decisions made? Was money ever the focus of conflict between your parents? 
  • Who earned the money in your family? Where did the family money come from? 
  • Were you ever worried about money as a child? If so, what worried you? 
  • Every family has unspoken rules about what it is, and is not, okay to spend money on. What were the rules in your family?
  • How did your financial circumstances compare to those of your friends? How did you feel about that? 
  • Did you ever break the family rules about money? If so, what happened? 
  • What messages did you get about spending money on yourself? 
  • How would you summarize the overall message you received about money from your family? 
Money & Me, Part Two: Today
  • Each of us has the capacity to be both a “spendthrift” and a “penny-pincher”.
  • At my worst as a “spendthrift” I: 
  • At my worst as a “penny-pincher” I: 
  • The thing about money I feel most guilty about is:
  • The area of money management that I feel most insecure in is: 
  • The thing that scares me the most when I think about our financial situation is: 
  • What money symbolizes for me is: 
  • The aspect of the way I manage money that I feel best about is:
  •  The message(s) that I would like to transmit to my children about money is: 
  • My growing edge when it comes to money is: 

Samantha is currently accepting new clients both virtually and in person. Contact her here to make an appointment.