3 Steps to Improve Financial Intimacy – Couples and Money

A few years ago, before my husband and I were married, we were planning our first vacation together. So there we are, planning to be on the beach in Costa Rica, our first vacation together, and I was nervous about the spending and how to bring it up.

So I hemmed and hawed and practiced the conversation in my mind and finally, just a few weeks before the trip I mustered up my courage and said, “Hey can we talk about the money? How would you like to split the costs?”

And he said, after thinking about it for a few minutes,

“You just pay what you want and I’ll pay the rest.”

I know that sounds really generous, but let’s back up and get all of what’s going on behind the scenes there.

First, I’m nervous about what the trip is going to cost and he’s already planning it and making reservations and I don’t have any input, so I have no idea what the tab is.

And I’m of course worried that I don’t have enough saved to pay for it.

And I want to contribute because I have a belief that contributing money and having money makes me valuable (that’s one of my money scripts, which I call Money Operating Systems™).

But for him the money doesn’t really bother him and in fact he’d really rather not talk about it, and would prefer to just pay and suck it up. So his response is basically his way of saying, “Let’s just have this be no problem.” His guiding belief about money—his Money OS™—is “Money is no problem.”

This left me feeling deflated, frustrated and unimportant. And that small miscommunication was really just the beginning of all the mental gymnastics he and I had to do to get on the same page about money.

Even though we’re both financial services professionals!

See, Money Operating Systems™ are very simple, very basic, very controlling beliefs about money that influence all financial behavior.

Money itself doesn’t actually exist in reality except for in our conversations. Money is simply a promise, delivered in measurable units, that can be exchanged later for something you want, value or need. And that really is the ONLY thing that is fundamentally true about money.

Money isn’t any of the things we make it up to be.

It’s not gold or your bank account balance or the pieces of paper in your wallet or your credit cards—it’s this conceptual thing that symbolizes agreement and replaces the problems of barter.

But we don’t live like that, do we?

Instead, to grapple with money’s conceptual nature, we all make things up about money and believe them and live like they are true.

Once belief is operating it acts like a kind of programming language upon which all your money behaviors are built.

I call this your Money Operating System™, and you can’t do anything about it until you understand that it is now installed and in charge.

Your Money Operating System™ has been installed as the ruler over your entire financial landscape.

The amount you save, the amount you spend, whether you invest, how you invest, how you negotiate for a salary, and how you feel about all of that is informed and controlled by that overarching belief that you, unwittingly, installed.

Your Money Operating System™ came from your past and it got created in one of your first formative experiences with money. It probably came from your parents or the environment you were raised in.

Think about your early memories of money. It’s quite obvious when you see it, and, simultaneously, it’s not easily discovered.

When you go looking for your Money OS™, it’s like the air that you breathe or the water that you swim in about money. It determines how financial things always go for you.

You might even think about it like a language. Until you hear a foreign language or meet someone who doesn’t speak your own, you don’t really know that people use different words for love, money, and time.

You don’t actually get that the things that are conceptual exist only in language, nor do you truly understand that people use different words that are culturally nuanced to convey meaning.

Observing this pattern with money was the subject of my TEDx talk, and it definitely applies to the topic of couples and money. I only developed the insights to give this talk by recognizing my own money language and how it kept me locked in cycles of overspending and feelings of worthlessness.

I’ve since totally transformed my experiences with money, and my honey and I now know the money language the other speaks.

Over time in our relationship, my husband and I have created our own money language. We know how to talk with one another, so we can do what we want and get what we want and be happy about our financial decisions together.

Here are five of the Money Operating Systems™ I see most frequently:

  • “There will always be enough money.”

People with this belief can be high earners, but sometimes they’re average earners who just live a simple lifestyle. If you have this belief about money, you need to be careful to make sure you understand how much money you’ll need for your financial future—don’t let naiveté cause you to under save.

  • “If I am good, the universe will give me what I need.”

While this looks like a positive world outlook, it doesn’t lead to productive financial behavior. Saving and investing rarely happen, because these folks believe that their financial health is a function of virtuousness.

  • “Money makes me valuable.”

These people have money very intertwined with their self-worth. They are often the people who drive the big flashy cars, and they work to have other people perceive them as successful. If they are successful, their ego and confidence grow with their bank account. If they are unsuccessful at producing results, their confidence suffers and can often spiral down.

  • “There will never be enough money.”

This one is pretty self-explanatory, and very common. People with this money language will either be over-spenders or under-earners, and will keep creating the circumstances to prove this outlook true. They may justify holding on to poorly paid positions or overspending their high income.

  • “Money is bad, the root of all evil.”

People with this money script believe that business and capitalism are responsible for social ills. They often righteously live without a lot of material possessions. Their negative opinion of money usually leads to destructive financial behavior.

These are only some of what the money languages that work like operating systems do to determine what is possible in your financial life.

So where are you beginning to see yourself here? What about your honey?

Hint: you should probably ask… it’s nearly impossible to diagnose someone else!

Part of your work as a couple committed to staying together is to determine what each person’s Money OS™ is and the related systems of thoughts, conversations and actions that keep it in place.

A 3-Step Plan to Improve the Financial Intimacy in Your Relationship

  1. Examine Your Money HistoriesHere’s where I’m going to ask you to be really honest and humble. I want you to look into your money past and now that you are beginning to understand your Money OS™, I want you to determine if it’s something you want to perpetuate.Personally, as I’ve shared with you, my money history is spotty at best and destructive at worst, so for a while I had to get really unattached to following my own natural instincts when it comes to money. I was re-wiring my money mind.Here’s the thing: Part of your own Money OS™ might be a story about money that you are living out.For example, lots of mothers have a Money Operating System™  that interacts with a story about sacrifice and needing to give up a lot of their own pleasure so their kids can have more than they did.Until you see it as a story, you don’t have any freedom to do anything else.

    So what is your story about money? Have you sentenced yourself to a life of hardship and scarcity? What’s the money pain you don’t want to let go of? The thing you don’t want to leave in the past?

    When you look at your history with money, look for the results you produced, and ask yourself these questions:

    • How did you handle money when you first earned or received it?
    • Were you responsible?
    • Were you an over-spender?
    • Did you save?
    • What obligations do you have around money?
    • What emotions does money often cause you to feel?

    The point of this is to determine whether your Money OS™ produces the results you want to produce or not. When it comes to couples and money, can you see the futility of being a person whose Money OS™ leads you to produce bad results, and yet arguing with your spouse or partner that you want to do it your way?!?

    Your Money OS™ has you want to do the things that will manifest it over and over again, just like me always overspending my high income so I could prove that there was never enough money.

  2. Make Room for Your Partner’s Money WisdomI can tell you about this best if I tell you a story about couples and money. Here goes: My husband likes to play the credit card points and bonuses game. I don’t know how much credit card management you do, but there is almost always a credit card company offering HUGE points bonuses if you sign up and charge X thousand dollars within the first 90 days. Sometimes the cards offer higher cash back at grocery stores and gas stations, and other times you get air miles for charging.I have a visceral aversion to credit cards after my experience with them. I love and advocate taking advantage of points programs, but I only want a couple of cards at any one time. But Robert loves them. He has 12-15 credit cards open at any given time, but he has a FICO score of near 800 and pays them all off every single month.When I first figured out how many credit cards he has, I totally freaked.I was floored and honestly frightened and I wanted him to stop.But I decided to look at it rationally. Because of my money history relative to his, I really just decided to trust him. I stopped complaining and let it be—because the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior.We paid for most of our wedding on those cards, and then we paid off the cards… and you know what?

    We went to Hawaii for two weeks FOR FREE because of his credit card points program management.

    It was incredible. So that’s a perfect example of me being aware of both of our money histories and making a conscious choice that would not have been possible before my awareness of the Money Operating System™.

  3. Understand Your Partner’s Money Language
Take the time to map out your money systems—understand how your money scripts interact with, and even maybe contradict, your partner’s.You really have to have compassion for your partner in this stage—all of their actions in the past have been a function of programming. This isn’t to excuse people of responsibility, it’s simply to acknowledge the power of the programming.You wouldn’t want to be saying, “I told you so!”I shared with you how my unique blend of two Money Operating Systems™ —“there’s never enough money” and “money makes me valuable”—team up and give me the experience of spending too much money and then suffering as it disappears.So now that I’m aware of all of that nonsense programming, I can see through the filters, which allows me to do the things I need to do to grow wealth with my husband.And for Robert, he was managing his finances on his own for 46 years before I met him, and he isn’t necessarily naturally inclined to do things like ask me before applying for another credit card, or making large-ish purchases.So when these kinds of things come up, we take each other’s money languages in stride. I no longer accuse him of trying to keep me in the dark, and he tries to be more forthcoming.

    It takes something for me to be that analytical about my own money, but it brings us to the table together and it creates partnership.

    I believe that if more people understood the Money OS™ and its impacts, financial strife in relationships could become a non-issue.

    I mean, your money doesn’t care what your viewpoint of it is. No matter what you think about it, it still buys the same amount of gas and rent and movie tickets, and it’s still your job to grow it over time so that it can pay you back in the future.

    Most healthy financial decisions are universal. Couples who understand and adjust for their Money Operating Systems™, who make the effort to align on objective truths, truly have the ability to come together and create financial security and peace of mind together.