Honey, We Need to Talk About Money

Instead of focusing on the numbers, couples might have more success discussing their goals.

Senior couple talking about finances over documents
(Image credit: Getty Images)

This month’s column is prompted by a couple of e-mails I’ve received recently from frustrated husbands. “I have been trying to get my wife involved in our financial planning for a few years,” writes Edward T. “I have tried speaking with her and going through our accounts, but she has little interest. I cited one of your columns, and she seemed more receptive. What would you suggest as a starting point?”

And from Robert J.: “I keep pushing articles my wife’s way to get her more interested in finances. I keep her posted on our financial picture, and she smiles but never asks questions. I wish I could get her to go a little deeper.”

As someone who writes a column encouraging women to take control of their finances, I’m also frustrated when I encounter this “eyes-glaze-over syndrome.” I have some suggestions for Edward and Robert, and I also consulted a half-dozen female financial advisers about how they handle this issue in their practices.

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First, it’s important to realize that men and women often approach finances differently. “Women tend to be more goal-oriented, and men are more performance-oriented,” says Christine Benz, director of personal finance for Morningstar. So instead of focusing on the numbers, you might have more success discussing your goals, whether you want to buy a house or plan for the kids’ education or your retirement (see Money Smart Women).

Research shows that women often don’t feel comfortable talking about money. “One prominent reason why women avoid discussing finances is an overall lack of confidence,” says Leslie Thompson, of Spectrum Management Group in Indianapolis. “But research also shows that women know more than they think they know.”

Anne Chernish, an investment adviser in Ithaca, N.Y., has worked with couples in which the wife has seemed disengaged until she’s forced to make decisions on her own. “Wives pick it up rapidly,” says Chernish. “And they’re very good at detail.”

Start small. In my experience, I’ve noticed that men often tend to think of finance as a hobby while women consider it a chore. So I’d recommend that Edward and Robert make the subject less off-putting by approaching it as you’d approach a major chore such as cleaning out the closets: one closet at a time. Start with a small step—perhaps reviewing just your bank account or automated bill payments—and build on that. If it works to use this column as a conversation starter, go for it.

Sometimes it’s a matter of timing. “Instead of monthly e-mails, try carving out a time once a quarter or even once a year to talk about your goals and how you’re tracking to meet them,” says Judith Ward, vice president and certified financial planner with T. Rowe Price. “Make it a date night if you’re so inclined.”

If your spouse is feeling pressured, shift gears and “focus on how stressful it is for you when your partner is reluctant to participate,” advises Erin Lowry, author of Broke Millennial Talks Money. “Explain that it makes you feel anxious to think that if something happened to you, your partner would be left trying to figure out all the family finances. Ask what you can do to make the conversation easier.”

“Don’t force the issue,” says Ward. “Your spouse doesn’t need to know all the details; she just needs to know there’s a plan.” Tell her that she and the kids will be taken care of, and show her where to find information about your accounts and financial contacts, she says. “That alone may encourage further conversations.”

Janet Bodnar

Janet Bodnar is editor-at-large of Kiplinger's Personal Finance, a position she assumed after retiring as editor of the magazine after eight years at the helm. She is a nationally recognized expert on the subjects of women and money, children's and family finances, and financial literacy. She is the author of two books, Money Smart Women and Raising Money Smart Kids. As editor-at-large, she writes two popular columns for Kiplinger, "Money Smart Women" and "Living in Retirement." Bodnar is a graduate of St. Bonaventure University and is a member of its Board of Trustees. She received her master's degree from Columbia University, where she was also a Knight-Bagehot Fellow in Business and Economics Journalism.