finances, financial discussion, household finances,

How to Have Tough, Productive Conversations About Money at Home

Guest Column by Mary Kelly, PhD

THIS is the year you are going to lose the weight, exercise 3 times a week, and get your finances in order.  You are going to create a budget, fully fund both your Roth IRA and your 401 (k) plans,  save 10% for your current asset fund (which is also your emergency fund), and get rid of that credit card debt.

There’s only one problem:  When you try to talk about household finances, the conflict starts before the conversation begins.  Sound familiar?

If so, you’re not alone.  Money is the #1 topic of arguments among couples in the United States. What’s the best way to have productive conversations about money with your spouse, an adult child, or a sibling sharing household expenses?

One evening after work I was going through the bills and found a credit card charge for $231.16.  No problem, except that the time and place of the charge wasn’t in our usual spending pattern, and it was something I thought was unnecessary.  My natural instinct was to ask my husband about that charge the second he walked through the door.

In a productive communication exchange, we’d have to approach the issue from the receiver’s perspective (in this case, my husband).  If I started by pointing out the “faults” of his purchase, his default would be to get defensive.  So I tried a different approach…

After we both decompressed from the day, I asked, “ Can we spend 90 seconds on a question I have about one of these bills?”  We were both calm as I passed him the highlighted charge.  “Is this a valid charge?”

He glanced at the date and the location.  “Yes, . . . remember? That was the work dinner.  It goes on my expense report. Thanks, I need a copy of this for reimbursement.”

Settled. No argument.  But it easily could have gone a different way had I began with an accusatory tone and statement rather than a straightforward, objective question.


3 Tactics for Tough, Productive Conversations About Money at Home


List and Rank the Overall Household Financial Goals

Common financial goals include:

  • Get out of credit card debt
  • Save for a down payment or renovations on the house
  • Save for retirement
  • Create an emergency fund
  • Plan a vacation fund
  • Contribute to a child’s college fund
  • Contribute to a charity


Be Proactive, Not Reactive

Schedule a time to discuss finances in a proactive, not reactive way, when both people are able to focus on the issue. If both people are exhausted, if either is sick or feeling defeated, when in the midst of a heavy work project at the office—these are not the best choices for the “big discussion.”


Think Benefit, Not Blame

Reaffirm that the conversation is not intended to be about blame, but rather a joint effort to create a plan that benefits the household.


After listing and agreeing on the importance of your shared financial goals, then you can focus on the tactics to achieve them. Success, of course, requires follow-through actions, decisions, and accountability.

But no less important, financial success in a household requires a commitment to understanding the emotions tied to money matters, along with practicing good communication habits.


Learn more about how to manage your finances in Dr. Kelly’s Money Smart: How Not To Buy Cat Food When You Don’t Have a Cat.



Mary Kelly is the author of Money Smart: How Not To Buy Cat Food When You Don’t Have a Cat and Master Your World – 10 Dog-Inspired Leadership Lessons to Improve Productivity, Profits, and Communication.  A former military intelligence officer, Mary spends free time hiking with her dogs, being a Big Sister, or drinking wine.