How to Talk About Money as a Couple (Without Arguing!)

Managing money together can be one of the most difficult parts of a romantic relationship. Get Money Confidential's best advice on how to tackle your finances together.

Brad Klontz, Farnoosh Torabi, & Beatrice Leong, money experts in front of the money confidential logo
Photo: courtesy

Money can be one of the trickiest topics for couples to handle—whether they're just beginning to date and aren't sure how to bring up topics like debt, credit scores, and income with their new love, or they're trying to manage the imbalance when one partner earns significantly more than the other.

On this week's episode of Money Confidential, host Stefanie O'Connell Rodriguez explores our very best advice from financial experts on how to talk money with your partner effectively.

To begin with, couples need to understand that differences in financial approach (and arguments about them) are all too common—thanks to different upbringing around finances, according to Brad Klontz, PsyD, CFP, a clinical psychologist and certified financial planner.

Brad Klontz, clinical psychologist and Certified Financial Planner

Money is the number one thing couples fight about, especially early on. And the reason for that is that we grew up in different families. We have been raised on our own money stories and our own money beliefs. And it's different than our partner, so conflicts are normal.

— Brad Klontz, clinical psychologist and Certified Financial Planner

He suggests that those differences could actually work in your favor, as your partner can help you "gut check" spending and avoid frivolous purchases.

For many couples, navigating the financial terrain when one partner makes significantly more than the other can be tricky. Financial expert Farnoosh Torabi, host of the So Money podcast and author of When She Makes More: 10 Rules for Breadwinning Women, says there's no perfect formula for addressing the disparity. You might decide to each put in a percentage toward shared financial goals or expenses, so each person contributes an equal portion of their income. Other couples put one person in charge of a particular type of financial expense, so that person can take charge and feel ownership in that, such as financing their child's education or paying for the mortgage.

Putting your financial terms in writing makes a lot of sense, whether you're about to get married and creating a prenuptial agreement or deciding to create a post-nuptial agreement to protect a windfall. Beatrice Leong, family law attorney and founder of the Law Office of Beatrice Leong, recommends agreements to protect family money you bring to a marriage, or protect you from owing for your partner's educational debts if your marriage dissolves.

Leong recommends looking at agreements as an insurance policy, much like your homeowner's insurance. Hopefully, you will never need to use it, but a prenuptial or post-nuptial agreement will protect you if your marriage happens to end.

Check out this week's episode of Money Confidential, "How to talk about money with your partner (without arguing)" on Apple, Spotify, Amazon, Player FM, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.



Mariah: I almost don't want to talk about money because I don't want him to feel any kind of pressure from me outside of what he's already putting on himself.

Christie: I wish I had been more vocal about reigning in our spending. I think that was part of our relationship that contributed to the divorce

Veronica: I want to make sure that I protect myself in addition to also building a strong, equitable financial future for both of us.

Stefanie O'Connell Rodriguez: This is Money Confidential, a podcast from Real Simple about our money stories, struggles and secrets. I'm your host, Stefanie O'Connell Rodriguez. And today we're looking back on some of our expert interviews to talk about one of the things we hear couples struggle with most in romantic relationships —talking about money.

Figuring out your own finances is hard enough, so when you start trying to manage your money in partnership with someone else— who grew up with totally different experiences, a different set of money role models and heard different philosophies around spending, savings, credit and debt— it can take some real work to get on the same page.

And that process can bring out a lot of feelings and fears— insecurity, judgement, even resentment. So maybe it's not surprising that we have some trouble talking about these things openly in our relationships.

So to start, we're looking back on my conversation with Dr. Brad Klontz, a clinical psychologist and Certified Financial Planner, to better understand why it's so hard to talk about money with the person we're building a life with— and how we can start to get better at it.

Brad Klontz: Money is the number one thing couples fight about, especially early on. And the reason for that is that we grew up in different families. We have been raised our own money stories and our own money beliefs. And it's different than our partner, So like conflicts are just normal.

There's a lot of power actually in having somebody else sort of eyeballing what's going on and you being somewhat accountable to that person in terms of talking about it, for example.

So, so super powerful tool that I used in my relationship with my wife too, is a spending limit. And for us, it's, it's a hundred dollars. Um, and we could change that number, but if I'm going to buy something, that's over a hundred dollars, I'm going to just chat with her about it.

And it's not paternalistic. It's not like she's going to be there saying no, you know, but what's so fascinating is that I think about that. And so I'm like, okay, so this is above that trigger point. So I'll have a discussion with her. And what's so fascinating is as I'm thinking about discussing it with her, I'm actually discussing it with myself.

You're like, 'Oh, I want that.' And this is how we're wired. Right. And a good marketer, a good advertiser knows exactly how to get you triggered to just make that impulse purchase. So anything that puts time between that impulse and that action is pure gold for your financial health. And so that is what I think quite often happens in relationships is you have an accountability partner.

You think about it, you look at it and you shift your behavior. And so I think that's one of the reasons why we do better when other people are seeing what we're doing.

What's so fascinating is that I bet you, if you're in a long-term relationship or if you're married at some date along the way, I dunno—Let's say date number 10. Um, everyone likes to argue with me around which date it is, but at some point you might say something like, Oh, so, you know, would you ever, what are your, do you want to have kids someday or, um, where do you picture yourself living? Or what career do you picture yourself pursuing?

So there's a discussion around, you know, are we matching up on some of these core issues around where we want to live? What kind of faith do we want to have a family? There's some of that sorting process. Now what's fascinating is we never do that around money.

How do you want to manage money? Do you want to have joint accounts or separate accounts?

Like, what are your financial goals? You know, what was it like for you growing up around money? How did you feel about it, your socioeconomic status and childhood, you know, like what did your mom teach you? What did your dad teach you?

What are your biggest financial fears? This is a conversation that when I work with couples in conflict around money, who've been married 20 years. I go back and I say, let's have that conversation.

There's really no right or wrong way to do it. Should you do your money separate. Should you do it together? This, this is all stuff that people can negotiate and talk about, but you have to have the conversation.

Stefanie O'Connell Rodriguez: It's funny because on the one hand you have this couple that's been married for 20 years and is having this conversation with you in your office, but then you also don't want to be the person on the first date who's saying, okay, what's your credit score and how much money do you make? And I'm wondering, how do you know when to bring up that conversation and how do you even bring it up?

Brad Klontz: It's a challenge, right? It's there's a reason why people avoid it. It's like, I'm afraid you're going to judge me.

I don't want you to think that I'm just in it for your money. It's just inundated with all these sticky things that makes it really, really challenging. But I think it's a good conversation to have. And again, maybe not the 10th date, maybe it's the 20th date.

And if you're getting married your financial life is intertwined. If you're married, like you might think you have separate accounts, you might think all this other stuff is going on, but, but the government looks at it entirely differently. You are, even if you file joint or separately, it doesn't even matter. Like you have a household, and that's the way the government looks at it. And if you don't believe me, talk to somebody who got a divorce and see what happened with their financial life, because this is, this is actually the reality. Your partner's credit score is going to have a profound impact on your life.

Stefanie O'Connell Rodriguez: And does that conversation include specific numbers? Like, is there stuff that conversations shouldn't include or must include?

Brad Klontz: I think it's obviously a case by case basis and some people are going to be really comfortable just telling you what their credit score, because they're proud of it. Right. And then some people are going to be reluctant because they're not so proud of it. So the details matter and they need to be unfolded on your own timeline. And also just talking about how do you feel about that? Like, I think that's a great conversation.

I was just reading this article the other day, and it said that couples should talk about their credit scores. I mean, how does that feel to you? I mean, they gave me all these reasons why it's important. So this is the way you might want, you could start the conversation.

We don't get inspired by abstract concepts. So the concept of like a saving account is so boring that I have trouble even saying it out loud. A budget, oh goodness. Let's not talk about budgets.

You have to attach emotion in a positive way. This is the way your brain works. So aim that emotion towards your financial goals.

And if you're really clear on that goal, like for example, if I have a college fund for my son and my son's name is Ethan and I call it Ethan's college fund and I'm putting a hundred dollars a month or $200 a month over to that fund, there is a 0% chance I'm going to rob from that fund and buy a bass boat.

Um, whereas if it was a savings account, I just might do that because I'm like, well, geez, I want the bass. I love to fish, I want that nice bass boat or whatever it is. So if you can name those accounts and, and, but to me, that's where the goals come from and just getting super passionate and super clear.'

If you start with like, What do you actually want to spend your money on? What matters most to you? And this is incredibly powerful when you do it with your partner, like what matters to us. And if you then target those and then pay those things first, then the rest of the money, you just do whatever you want with, you know, and so budget that money, but pay yourself first on the stuff that really matters to you.

Stefanie O'Connell Rodriguez: What matters to us is such a different place to start a conversation. Around money with your partner, then what do we need right now in this moment? And it's not that like what we need, doesn't matter. Of course it matters, but I love that reframe and I think to your point about emotion and power, what do I want? Could anything be more powerful?

Brad Klontz: Absolutely. And you know, there's nothing worse than like, Hey, we need a budget. So let's sit down here, and I'll look at all the joy that we need to cut out of our life. And let me start with you. All right. So where are you spending all your money? I mean, it's like, Oh, what a terrible emotional experience, and that's why people don't do it.

Stefanie O'Connell Rodriguez: Of course talking about money with your partner is just the first step. After that, the challenge is getting on the same page, and that can be hard, especially when you and your partner make really different amounts of money. In episode 5, we spoke to a listener we're calling Charlotte, who was struggling with exactly that—balancing financial roles and responsibilities with her boyfriend who earns significantly less than she does.

So to get some tips, I spoke to Farnoosh Torabi, personal finance expert, host of the So Money podcast and author of 'When She Makes More: 10 Rules for Breadwinning Women'.

Farnoosh Torabi: I always say to couples in any financial dispute or any financial difference they're having, whether it's income disparity or I'm a saver and he's a spender or whatever, it's like. Okay. You can't really change who you are really at the end of the day, you know? But let's remember why we got into this in the first place?

What were the common goals that we shared? What, what are we working towards? Because then when you have that north star and you remind yourself again of that north star, you're willing to be more patient with these differences and find the solutions as opposed to focusing on what's not working, focus on what you want to work and make it work.

Stefanie O'Connell Rodriguez: Like Farnoosh, I'm a fan of using values—that is, what we believe is important—as a strategy to shift from arguing about money, to coming to a mutual understanding around money in a relationship.

Replacing statements like 'we have to' or 'we should' with 'it's important to me' and asking 'what's important to you?' can release some of the pressure and implicit judgment that comes from trying to be 'right' about money in our relationships, without disengaging from the conversation around money goals entirely.

Farnoosh Torabi: What she and her partner are craving is a leveling of the financial playing field, which can feel impossible when somebody is making many more dollars than the other person. It's like, how can we be equals? She makes $35,000 more than me, it's over. No, because money is more than just how much of it you have. It's how you manage it. Right. So going back to our goals, um, what are the things that we want to afford in our life together? And for somebody who makes less, perhaps it's harder to pay for these immediate costs.

So it's about figuring out, as a person who makes less, let's start there, what are some of the things that are important to you in our relationship that you do want to be at the forefront of financially? Because we're going to share a lot together more than a wedding. It might be a house in the future. There might be a car in our future. There might be, uh, vacations in our future, child savings accounts for college. So what do you want to participate in that would make you feel like an equal player?

Men are conditioned in society to be providers and financial provider was like their exclusive title for centuries. It's like so hard to unravel that and untangle from that. So when that is no longer their calling in a relationship, when they're not needed to be that financial breadwinner provider, they do feel, some of them, like mission-less. Like, what's my purpose here? And they do want to provide, so it's like redefining providing, you know, and even with the lower salary that you make, you can still be a significant contributor to our lives, perhaps in the form of a longer term saver for us.

So my husband, he's fully funding 529 plans for both of our children. So guess what? He is paying for their college education. And it's not about me versus him, but like sometimes you just want that piece of ownership in your relationship to feel like it's tangible. Like I paid for that. I'm proud of that. It does, it makes you feel proud.

Stefanie O'Connell Rodriguez: I think a lot of my conversation with Charlotte came to this idea of like, 'Well, if we can't earn the same exact amount of money, then splitting everything 50/50 doesn't make sense', but it was really hard for her to figure out, 'Okay, so if we're not splitting things 50/50, because we don't earn the same then what is the formula?' As though it was going to be a formula.

But what I like about what you're kind of presenting here, especially if they are going to be moving into a marriage where the money really does become more legally shared, this idea of having really different roles. I think it gives that opportunity for ownership that you were talking about.

Farnoosh Torabi: And really it's about leveling the playing field tactically, but also emotionally, so that you both feel like equal players in the relationship.

Maybe not equal earners, but equal contributors and teammates. I think it's a little challenging for the younger generation to wrap their head around the lack of you know, 50/50, uh, because think about all that we do, we live with a roommate before we get married and everything's equal.

We Venmo each other. It's like, we pay, I'll pay this, you pay next time. And so there is this habit of, um, more financial equality within our friend circles. And so you get married and you have to kind of make your own rules. You really do. You have to make your own rules and the rules are not black and white. But most, I think, lead with where you both feel really good about how you want to contribute and what's feasible.

I like to have each person in the relationship experience a level of financial autonomy, where they don't have to feel like they're asking for permission. This is actually more important for the person who makes less, whom I've heard oftentimes, um, especially from the men, like, I don't want to feel like I'm asking my wife for permission to go buy something or I get financially, "mommy'd", they say, okay, that's a whole problem, but like women too, you know, we want to feel like it's my money. My money is my money and your money is your money. We gotta to have a little bit of that set aside for the two of us. And then we have the pot in the middle. That's going to contribute to our shared expenses.

Figure out what you're both good at and you want to do, and you can do efficiently. For some person who makes less, it could even be making, managing the money. I interviewed a lot of husbands who made less, but they took so much pride in being the ones to pay the bills and be on top of their retirement accounts and make sure that, you know, contributions were being made and all of the things.

So it doesn't mean that just because you don't make the money, as much money, that you can't be financially involved and still a leader in your financial life together.

Just because you make more doesn't mean that your time is worth more, doesn't mean that your job is more important. Maybe, you're not saying that out loud, but maybe that's like the inner dialogue in your head. You got to get rid of that BS noise because it's not true, it's just not true.

Stefanie O'Connell Rodriguez: So we talked about bringing up money conversations in our relationships—why it's important, how to get on the same page, and some practical strategies for setting shared financial goals and dividing financial responsibilities.

In episode 15, we also consider how those conversations can change when it comes to marriage.

Beatrice Leong: Marriage is nothing but money.

Stefanie O'Connell Rodriguez:That's Beatrice Leong, family law attorney and founder of the Law Office of Beatrice Leong, chatting with me about marriage—from a legal perspective.

Beatrice Leong: You can be in love. You can live with somebody.

You're going to have six of their children and you can never be married and that'll be fine. Your relationship will still be loving. The difference with marriages, it's the delineation for the court system. They say to you, okay, because you tell me that you're married, now you have a contract between husband, wife, and the state of New York or the state or whatever state you live in.

You know it literally is this contract with the state so that if you tell the state, I love my spouse so much. I'm going to be in a contract with you guys. I will give them and take care of them pursuant to the laws of your state. So marriage really is only about money. Nobody thinks of that because we watched Disney.

We watch love movies and romantic comedies, and you think, oh, we're gonna wear a white dress, walk down the aisle. And that's what it's all about, because you know, my husband is crazy about me. No it's not. Really marriage is to combine forces, you know, combine finances. So the prenup really sets the tone.

Stefanie O'Connell Rodriguez: While most of us probably don't get married because of the legal and financial implications of marriage, it's important that we know and understand those legal and financial implications before we enter into it—much like we should understand the impact of any other major contract or partnership that has the potential to affect our own well being.

Beatrice Leong: The main thing that people worry about are their emotions. But In a divorce, the court does not care about your emotions, and they only care about your money.

Stefanie O'Connell Rodriguez: Man, that's such a powerful way to think about a prenuptial agreement. because this is about protecting dollars and cents. This isn't about invalidating your feelings. But I feel like when I talk to people about it, it's really hard to get them to see it through that framework.

Beatrice Leong: You're absolutely right. When people with money approach their fiance, their fiances get very offended. They're like, 'You think I'm some kind of gold digger? How dare you? I thought you loved me.'

I like to tell people, think of it as a house insurance policy. When you buy a house, when you rent an apartment, they always say, please purchase a policy, right. Just in case your house burns down. So I tell people think of it this way.

The prenup is there, right? You sign it, you put it away in your safe deposit box. You'll never think of it again. You're married, you know, like The Notebook and you die in each other's arms? Great. That prenup will never surface again. However

There is your insurance policy that they don't walk away with all your pre earned money, your premarital money and your family money. So I think of it as—I tell people think of it as an insurance policy. You pay for car insurance every month, you know, but a prenup is a one-time thing you pay for, and then you have it for the rest of your marriage.

If you have a property, I would say automatically do a prenup, right? If you have any retirement accounts and stocks or anything of value that could be commingled in a marriage, I would say, definitely do a prenup. In New York there's a law called the co-mingling law. So let's say you had a hundred grand, Stefanie, before you meet your husband you had a hundred grand and you leave it in your account, but you separate that account. You keep depositing your paychecks in there. It will become commingled so that your separate monies, if you even had a hundred grand, it could be part of the marriage and then given to your husband or your spouse at divorce later on. So if you have any assets that you care about, if you have any property or potential inheritance I would say a prenup is a safe way to go.

Yeah. So from the date of marriage, in the state of New York, everything that you earn is considered marital.

So people need to consider what is, what they really want to be separate and what they're willing to turn into a marital fund. Right? So if you have pre-marital savings, I would recommend that you open a brand new joint account, like the day after the marriage.

I'm actually remarried a week after our wedding, I would open a joint account with my new spouse to make sure that there's a clear delineation

Between what I had before and what I'm going to have going forward. So open a joint account, and that will be the one you'd deposit your money into. The prenup you can sort of decide what you want to split. Right? So some people say, I want to put a hundred percent of my earnings and my spouse put a hundred percent of their earnings into this joint account.

And they put that in the prenup. Or they'll say, I want to put 60% to the marriage and 40% will be my separate money. I can do whatever I want with it. I can go wild with that 40%. And then it will never be touched in a divorce. And that's what a prenup is, what we'll write, spell out how the money is split and shared and used during the marriage.

And sometimes people say no money is going into the marriage. Meaning if one becomes a billionaire and the other is dead broke. They're still not gonna share that money. So, you know, everyone is different and every couple is different. It's up to the couple what they're comfortable with.

Stefanie O'Connell Rodriguez: I feel like when I talk to people, there is an assumption that if it's not in a joint account, then it's my money.

Beatrice Leong: That's really wrong. Yeah. That's a rude awakening in every divorce case. They'll say we never mixed money. I only deposited my paycheck since I was 18 years old since my first job as delivery boy.

I'm like, I'm sorry. It's all been commingled. You know you still going to have to give half of that over. Because it's been commingled, so it doesn't matter whose name it isn't.

So that's an important thing for the listeners to know. In a marriage, again, the court's going to look at you as one entity. You have a contract with the state, your spouse has a contract with the state. It doesn't matter whose name it's in. If you don't have any prenup to protect you and you keep depositing it in your, you know, your bar mitzvah money, it will be mixed in with your hedge fund money. You know, it's all mixed in. Okay? [laughs] So it doesn't matter if you had the little piggy bank since age 13. That's the big thing nobody realizes. Once you deposit earnings after the marriage, it's mixed.

Stefanie O'Connell Rodriguez: Yeah. What about debts?

Beatrice Leong: Debt is another thing that I always make people have a paragraph or a page or two in the prenup. Because anything that is collected in a marriage debt wise is also shared. So you say your vows in sickness, in health, in good times and bad. So that bad night in Vegas you share that with your spouse, so please, you have to let the other spouse know that. Listen, you got to tell me before you max out a car, you got to tell me before you loan all the money to your neighbor or before you go to the racetrack.

So I have sections in my prenups that have that talk about debt. They're like each party will have to share. If there's a gonna, they're going to go into debt over $5,000. They better share. Tell the other person in writing. If there is no notice, then that's your own separate debt.

If you have law school debt, medical school debt, you definitely put that down so that's clear that, hey, in the case of divorce, I'm not expected to pay this, this debt of yours

Stefanie O'Connell Rodriguez: I also want to briefly touch on post-nups. What is the scenario in which somebody needs a post-nup?

Beatrice Leong: So post-nups are for after marriage Post-nups are also good for people who rushed into marriage for some reason, you know, a pregnancy or something else. And he didn't have time to draft together a prenup. I don't recommend doing prenups close to your marriage date. Right? 'Cause people can say I had my family flying in from Greece and you forced me to sign a prenup.

Post-nups are good for people who are newly married and say, now that we have the contract with the state, I want to make a new contract, a post-nup between us.

Let's say your husband has a lot of debt and you want your portion of the funds protected. You can sign a post-nup for that. So, somebody's chasing after your spouse, they owe a ton of money and they want to protect you.

They sign a post-nup saying, I met my wife, this certain amount. I'm going to transfer it to her now. And that's her separate funds. Then they do it that way because they want to stay together and they don't want somebody else grabbing that money.

Stefanie O'Connell Rodriguez: I feel like every one of your stories reinforces this mantra of marriage is about money.

Beatrice Leong: Correct. Back in the day marriages were really a business transaction. Your wealthy landowner daughter is going to marry the next town over, landowner's son. And it was to merge family wealth over the years in America

We think of marriage as love. But traditionally, you know, a thousand years ago it was all about money. And I think maybe we'll coming to a full circle back to marriage is about money. Because I think people are now realizing, oh my God, I've seen my mom and dad, divorce for the last three years. And they're still fighting over whatever. People are realizing, wait a minute, I can be in love and just live with him. I don't have to marry him.

Or I want to marry somebody because I want to build wealth. Right. I want my successes and his successes to be mixed in because it will be easier just to become wealthy as a couple versus if you're just a single person.

Stefanie O'Connell Rodriguez: It's really interesting to think about it as a wealth building vehicle.

Although, you know, you could really squander that if you don't have a prenup in place and you get divorced.

Beatrice Leong: Right, or you have a spouse that squanders away the money for you, I have a case where the couple is a little older, over 60 and the wife took a chance and gave her entire retirement account, her life savings, retirement account to the husband to like put into a stock and it went to zero. So she's over 60, no retirement savings because the husband's squandered away everything.

So that is a perfect example. Definitely get a prenup, just say no one's touching that no matter what, I'll have that at the end, but you know, again, people don't think about this when they're in love.

Stefanie O'Connell Rodriguez: Whether it's your first date or your 20th wedding anniversary, when it comes to managing money—the golden rule of relationships still stands—talk about it.

So many of us avoid money talk until it's already become a point of conflict in our relationships, but you and your partner can set yourselves up for success by laying out rules, expectations, and goals around your shared money—like a mutually agreed upon spending limit, division of expenses or shared savings strategy.

Like all personal choices, there's no one right way to do it. The only "right way" is the one that works for you and your partner —and what's right for you now may not be right for you one, two or ten years from now—so it's important to revisit these conversations regularly, using your shared priorities, values and goals as motivation.

Asking, "What do we want our money to do for us?", can be a powerful and exciting way to get and stay on the same page.

This has been Money Confidential from Real Simple. If you have a money story or question you'd like to share, you can send me an email at money dot confidential at real simple dot com. You can also leave us a voicemail at ‪(929) 352-4106.

Come back next week when we will be talking with a 28 year old in New York who is struggling to find a way to build fun into her budget without going broke.

Be sure to follow Money Confidential on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you listen so you don't miss an episode. And we'd love your feedback. If you're enjoying the show leave us a review, we'd really appreciate it. You can also find us online at

CREDITS: Real Simple is based in New York City. Money Confidential is produced by Mickey O'Connor, Heather Morgan Shott and me, Stefanie O'Connell Rodriguez O'Connell Rodriguez. Thanks to our production team at Pod People: Rachael King, Matt Sav, Danielle Roth, Chris Browning and Trae Budde.

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