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How to Have Hard Financial Conversations With Those Close to You

Jan. 12, 2015
Managing Money, Personal Finance
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Money conversations are some of the most difficult. But with research indicating financial conflicts are the largest predictor of divorce, there’s little doubt that money talks must be had.

Close to half of all Americans (44%) say money is the most difficult thing to talk about—more difficult even than death (38%), politics (35%) or religion (32%), according to a survey from Wells Fargo.

You make plans to have dinner with friends, but the restaurant they suggest is out of your price range. Your extended family plans a reunion getaway, but a vacation isn’t in your budget. You hire a family friend to care for your child, but will soon have to consider a cheaper option.

These situations create tension that could largely be resolved with a conversation. Instead, many zip their lips and plow ahead without having the necessary talks.

A ‘financial makeover’ spurs tricky conversations

For Sarah and James, a couple living in New York and taking dramatic steps to get their finances in line, conversations like this have become a new way of life. The couple were winners of a “Financial Makeover” contest from NerdWallet and the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors (NAPFA). They were on the brink of financial disaster when financial advisor Andy Tilp stepped in to help them make some important decisions about money.

Among those decisions: cutting spending that wasn’t absolutely necessary and being transparent about it with the people around them.

“We started with a family who we’re very close to who helps care for our son,” said Sarah of their new venture into financial transparency. The couple was paying more than $1,000 each month for childcare and came to the conclusion that this expense wouldn’t be necessary for much longer.

“We were very open with them that when our son turns 4, we’re going to enroll him in the public preschool” rather than the family’s private preschool program, Sarah said.

In business and pleasure, transparency is best

These difficult conversations are made even harder, Tilp says, when personal and business relationships are combined.

“To start, an ‘ounce of prevention’ is much better,” says Tilp. “That is, if someone is considering getting into such a relationship, there needs to be a conversation beforehand about ‘what if.’”

As changes arise, the people involved need to feel free to share openly and without fear of judgment.

Regarding the childcare arrangement, “the longer heads-up I can give them, the better it is for them,” says Sarah, who knew the family would need to plan for the loss of income.

But not all personal finance conversations have a business angle. If your friend wants to exchange holiday gifts, or suggests meeting at a high-end restaurant, honesty and transparency are still the best policy.

“As in the case of Sarah and James, there are hard choices that sometimes need to be made,” says Tilp. Talking about these choices and maintaining boundaries when your finances demand it requires courage.

Start from common ground

Everyone has money problems. Even people with plenty of money experience financial conflict. A study last year from Kansas State University revealed that money arguments had potentially disastrous effects on marriages regardless of net worth, income or debt.

“It’s important to understand the other person in the conversation likely has money issues too, despite outside appearances,” says Tilp. “Every client I work with has a unique situation, but there are around financial security and priorities.”

“Entering a conversation knowing the other person is not perfect in their own financial life is a good place to start.”

Suggest alternatives

If it’s an outing that’s just out of your league, suggest alternatives. Maybe you can cook with friends rather than eating out, or have the family reunion at someone’s home. Perhaps you should simply and politely decline the invitation, or reschedule for a later date when money won’t be so tight.

If it’s a situation like Sarah and James’, where someone like a childcare provider may suffer a loss due to your budgeting, helping them find a new willing partner could soften the blow—spreading the word to other parents who might be looking for care, for instance, or posting flyers at your church or library.

Calm your fears

Broaching the topic of money with friends and family can feel overwhelming; you may feel embarrassed or worried they won’t understand. But one study in the Journal of Applied Communications Research indicates your nervousness is for naught.

Researchers found that although participants feared negative consequences when having difficult conversations, most reported positive results. So breathe easy.

When it comes down to it, the people in your life aren’t likely to abandon you for your money decisions, particularly when you are acting with your financial health in mind.

“If you’re divulging your financial struggles to people that you love, it doesn’t have to be a scary situation,” says Sarah, reflecting on her own money conversations. “Generally, if they care about you, they’ll be willing to get behind you.”

Image via iStock.