Couples and cash: how to break the silence on money worries

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From rows over the rising cost of the weekly food shop and heating bills to spending on extras such as nights out, money problems caused by the cost of living crisis can put a strain on even the most loving relationship.

The website Counselling Directory says there has been an increase in the number of people using its site to find a therapist as well as reading up on topics such as “understanding relationship conflict”.

In a survey of 600 of its therapists, a third reported an increase in clients talking about relationship problems sparked by rising living costs. Many also noted that more clients were finding it difficult to leave their partner because of financial concerns.

Research issued by the property website Zoopla late last year found that a third of homeowning couples were forced to live together after they split up, for an average of more than a year. In some cases money problems will have been at the root of the split, and it is finances that force many to remain living with their ex, with almost half saying they simply couldn’t afford to move out.

If rising living costs mean you need to have a serious conversation with your partner about money, maybe for the first time, the financial and relationship experts Guardian Money spoke to highlighted the need to plan for the future and consider things such as joint savings and rights over property ownership. However, most important of all, is reaching a place where you can have a constructive conversation about what for some people is a taboo subject, even if that involves seeking outside help.

View image in fullscreenFinances can force many people to continue living with their ex. Photograph: FG Trade/Getty Images

Money problems cause anxiety

Suddenly finding you can’t pay for things you could previously afford is emblematic of a situation “where you are out of control in a very basic way” says Andrew Balfour, the chief executive of Tavistock Relationships, a charity that provides support services for families and couples. “The world is moving, you are doing what you’ve always done, and yet it’s suddenly not enough.”

Balfour adds: “Being out of control, having things taken away essentially, your capacity to meet the demands of the world, and your family’s needs, can be profoundly threatening and can evoke in any of us deep anxieties.”

He says it is vital for a couple to have resilience, which means being able to talk, think and solve problems together: “Our families and couple relationships are our most precious resource for coping with these very real external realities.”

The upside of talking about money

As well as the obvious emotional benefit of sharing concerns with those we love, there are financial ones, too.

View image in fullscreenWho makes the financial decisions in your home? Photograph: Gregory Lee/Getty Images/iStockphoto

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The investment firm Hargreaves Lansdown runs a “savings and resilience barometer” that measures how households are coping in different areas of their finances, from debt to pensions, to how much cash they have left at the end of the month. The exercise also looks at who makes the household’s financial decisions: does the highest earner in the house make the big financial decisions alone or do the couple make them together?

It recently found that overall, about half of those polled had enough cash left at the end of the month but this figure rose to almost two-thirds among couples who made joint financial decisions. Three-quarters of couples who plan together have enough emergency savings – a higher figure than for those who don’t. It also increases the chances of a comfortable retirement.

Say what you mean

But the ability to make joint financial decisions does not usually come easily. “In my experience, money is a really taboo topic, and people avoid talking about it if they don’t have to,” says Laura Duester, a psychotherapist from Oxfordshire, and a member of the Counselling Directory. As a result, misunderstanding can grow.

“What I see so often is that people think they have communicated something to their partner,” she says. “They think they have said it really clearly but their partner has not understood it. We often think we’re saying something but we’re actually hinting at it rather than saying it.”

Often the problem is not so much the spending itself as the values underlying the behaviourPsychotherapist Laura Duester

She gives the example of one partner spending money on something the other partner doesn’t think is viable – for example, alcohol.

“Often the problem is not so much the spending itself as the values underlying the behaviour. So the partner who is not happy might make snide comments about the way their partner is behaving without directly expressing their feelings. It’s usually better and more effective to sit down and talk calmly instead, saying something like: ‘You spending money on this worries me, as it feels like it’s not supporting our household and not helping to keep us stable.’”

She adds that people often have different values relating to money and how it should be spent. “For example, going out and socialising might be an absolute essential for one person, and the way they maintain their wellbeing; it might be even more important [to them] than heating. To someone else who’s more introverted, spending money on socialising might seem frivolous, and the heating would feel like the most essential thing. Neither can understand the other because they have not really understood and expressed where their values lie.”

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The psychologist Linn Heed, who is an adviser to Coupleness, an app that aims to improve relations between romantic partnerships, agrees. “I think most people have the opinion that you should talk about everything in a love relationship – about sex, about money, about family. But very often there are issues with these topics because people are afraid of being judged or being put in a corner. You keep the silence but you have a lot of thoughts and feelings that don’t go away. And when you go silent, problems will always grow.”

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She believes people need to find a constructive way to communicate. “You have to have enough courage to express yourself, to explain things to your partner without being accusatory, because when somebody feels accused, they go for defence, and then the conflict is almost harder than before – the distance between the two will be longer and deeper.”

But how do you have the money chat?

Begin with “I” statements to take the pressure off, says Peter Saddington of the counselling service Relate. “You could sy: ‘I’m worried about not putting enough money away for paying the bills when they come in this month. Can we sit down and talk about it?’”

However, his top tip is not to initiate this conversation at bedtime, when you have been thinking about it all day but your partner may have had their mind elsewhere. “Then you’ve got one in a heightened state of anxiety and all worked up – it’s coming out in that way, and the other person is really caught unaware and they don’t respond appropriately, so it very quickly escalates into a rather unpleasant argument.”

View image in fullscreenWould talking to someone else about money problems help you as a couple? Photograph: Kelly Redinger/Design Pics Inc

Plan when you are going to talk about it at a time that suits you both and, he suggests, have everything practical you may need to refer to at hand, such as bank statements and bills, so you are prepared.

Also, avoid the booze because it won’t help. “The number of times I’ve had couples who have said: ‘I just needed a drink because I was really worried about [the conversation]’ – but of course it very quickly escalates into an argument if you’ve been drinking because you become a bit more disinhibited,” Saddington says.

“When we’re anxious, our defence is to become angry. Often when couples come in, I’m helping them to understand that their anger is actually associated with the fact that they’re worried. When couples start realising it’s based on anxiety, they can start talking about it in a different way.”

Money is a subject you will need to discuss with your partner more than once. If you haven’t practised the money chat, it is going to be difficult to get started but, says Jenny Warwick, a British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy registered therapist based in East Sussex, that doesn’t mean it’s a reason to put it off.

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“This is not just a one-off that’s over in half an hour and you don’t ever have to think about it again,” she says. “You’re starting off a conversation but it’s going to be an ongoing conversation that will get easier. Being open and honest in your relationship is never going to be a bad thing to do.”

“I think there’s shame and stigma around couples counselling, that people only go when things are absolutely rock-bottom but that’s just not the case at all,” Warwick says.

View image in fullscreenMake sure you understand the financial and legal implications of buying a property together. Photograph: Alamy

“We’re here to help wherever you’re at. Things don’t have to be terrible – just being able to talk things through, say things out loud, is really helpful. Half the time that’s all you need.”

The pros and cons of joint finances

Before you take out joint financial products, or buy a property together, it is important to understand the financial and legal implications of doing so.

Joint financial products will connect your credit files. Credit reference agencies warn that a partner’s finances can affect yours – so companies may check your partner’s credit history when deciding whether to approve you for a loan because they consider that your “financial associates” may affect your ability to repay a debt.

Experian uses the example of someone whose partner has been made bankrupt. In such situations, companies may be concerned that you will need to help them repay their debts before you can repay your own.

Many couples also do not realise that cohabiting does not afford you automatic legal rights to each other’s money, possessions or even the home, depending on how you structure the agreement.

Drawing up a contract together can clarify your position and force you to discuss the granular details of who owns what, so it doesn’t come as a shock down the line. At this point you may also choose to visit a financial adviser or turn to a counsellor to structure a practical money chat.

If you are struggling to make headway with your partner, remember that you don’t have to do it alone.

Tavistock Relationships has created the Between Us app that, it says, can help you gain a better understanding of what is going wrong in your relationship and do something about it. The app includes a series of exercises, with videos, tips and information, with a specific focus on conflict around money.

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