How to fight about money and stay madly in love

“Ask Brianna” is a column from NerdWallet for 20-somethings or anyone else starting out. I’m here to help you manage your money, find a job and pay off student loans — all the real-world stuff no one taught us how to do in college. Send your questions about postgrad life to askbrianna@nerdwallet.com.

The way couples talk about money — and fight about it, inevitably — doesn’t depend on whether they’re married or not. There are good and bad ways to discuss topics as emotional as money, no matter where you are in your relationship.

If you think this could be a serious long-term thing, you would be smart to start having hard money conversations now. Don’t avoid friction that could end up helping you learn valuable information about your partner — and your partnership.

“You want to be able to see that you can move through conflicts before you get married. It’s like your training ground,” says Carin Catalano, a Seattle-based marriage and family therapist with a specialty in financial therapy.

Even if you don’t plan to marry, the same rules apply: Start talking money early, get into the details and make it a goal that you’ll both walk away from an argument feeling respected and understood, Catalano says. Get the basics down now, and by the time you’ve made the decision to commit to each other, you’ll be light-years ahead of your peers who’ve been avoiding the subject.

MAKE MONEY BORING

Money is a huge source of conflict for couples. But talking about it as frequently as you would a more mundane topic takes away some of its power to intimidate. Make “How big is your emergency fund?” the new “What should we watch on Netflix?” Getting to know how your partner approaches money will take some of the fire out of the fight.

Start by laying out your full financial picture as soon as you get serious about each other. Share how much debt you have , what your credit scores are, whether you’ve had bankruptcies or foreclosures, and how much you earn and have saved. It’s a good idea to explain your families’ approaches to money, which can help you both understand where your good and bad habits, emotions and beliefs about money are coming from.

Then you’re ready to face the stickier, ongoing issues that can come up — such as how you each manage money on a day-to-day basis. Many couples argue about how much is too much to spend on a purchase, for example, or what amount of debt is palatable. Get into the practice of bringing up your concerns, not pushing them down. Think of it as a couple of minutes of awkwardness in service to the long-term health of the relationship.

FIGHT THE RIGHT WAY

Whether or not you’re married, fighting a lot doesn’t necessarily mean your relationship is unsuccessful. Fighting becomes a problem if the arguments are nasty and result in personal attacks, leaving both partners feeling drained and small. There is, instead, a right way to fight.

Say you’ve decided to commingle your finances — which I recommend only if you’re planning a future together — and your partner spent way more on a new bass guitar than you thought was reasonable. Follow these steps:

– If you’re really angry, take a few hours, or a day, to cool off. Wait to initiate a hard conversation until you’re feeling more calm and rational. “When we get angry, we’re no longer using the part of our brains that is responsible for our centres of reason and judgment,” Catalano says.

– Avoid outright blame. Try saying, “I was hurt when I saw that $500 purchase from the checking account, because we’d agreed to talk before spending more than $200 at a time from there.”

– Look to the future. Ask if the way you’ve decided to manage money together is working for your partner. Demonstrate that you’re in this together, and that one mistake or wrong move isn’t the end of the line for you.

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