Love and Money in Relationships: Helping Partners Improve Financial Transparency
• Emily Koochel • February 23, 2022
Money has been a top stressor for Americans for the past decade. This financial stress has a tendency to permeate relationships, resulting in money arguments.
In fact, research consistently shows that among the sources of couple conflict, money ranks at the top of the list1, and it doesn’t stop there. Economic pressure, or the perceived ability to meet our daily financial needs, is also a source of increased financial conflict for couples2.
Individuals and families tap into their own financial management skills to keep their households up and running—primarily relying on their own resources and experiences. It’s extremely important for partners to openly communicate about money so they can align their financial journeys. Financial professionals can be an essential asset in helping couples do this.
Our Financial Backgrounds Matter
Even though it may sound simple to talk to your partner—or your financial professional—about money, it isn’t that easy. Here’s why.
We have each experienced financial socialization—the formal and informal process of developing values, norms, knowledge, and behaviors that influence how we interpret, compute, and communicate about finances.
Generally, we build these attitudes and perceptions through our own experiences and circumstances throughout our lifetime, but our childhood years tend to be the most formative, and parents are the most influential agents during that time.
Surprisingly, we may not have even known that we were learning about money as children, and inversely our parents may not have known they were teaching us. However, research has shown that children are keenly aware of what topics should or should not be discussed. Common among these “off-limits” topics is family finances.
For example, one study3 asked college students what they felt their parents’ reasoning was for concealing financial information. The students suggested the belief that money should be private and that talking about money leads to conflict. These kinds of beliefs about money continue to inform our ideas later in life.
There are many factors that play a role in our financial socialization including adolescent experiences, education, and economic and social status. Because of this, people’s attitudes towards money can differ greatly, even between two partners in a relationship.
When financial professionals are meeting with partners, they may observe them experiencing financial stress, poor communication, and disagreements stemming from their differing financial socialization. Understanding that this type of conflict involves deeply held beliefs from our financial background is the first step in helping people talk about money more productively.
Help Partners Talk About Money
First, it’s important to look beyond the conflict. While it may appear that a couple is arguing about money, it’s more likely that they are arguing about values—and how to manage and align them financially. The conflict may be manifesting through unspoken expectations placed on the relationship.
Secondly, it is important for the financial professional to advocate for financial transparency. This “open and honest disclosure of one’s finances”4 provides both partners the opportunity to disclose their financial wants and goals without the fear of being shamed, belittled, or experiencing an otherwise negative response—but it can be challenging.
Self-disclosure may come with risks—things like creating a negative impression, losing autonomy, or losing influence in a relationship. It can be even riskier for clients in a situation where financial goals and financial management practices differ, or when there is an imbalance of power in the relationship. In these scenarios, you may find your client wants to avoid self-disclosure altogether, deciding it is not worth the risk.
When people enter into a relationship, they are transitioning from being the sole financial decision-maker, guided by their own unique money beliefs and values, and starting the deeply personal process of opening up to another person to form joint financial guidelines.
Because financial preferences are so individualistic, they can be a barrier to creating a joint sense of being a couple. However, through reciprocal and open communication, trust and transparency can be established, allowing for better financial goal alignment.
If a financial professional can facilitate these open conversations to establish a transparent financial relationship between partners, it is a huge win. Financially aligned couples are likely to see far greater success in their financial planning relationship.
The Financial Transparency Scale
In a recent eMoney webinar, Love and Money—Helping Couples Talk About Their Finances, I provided attendees with the Financial Transparency Scale (FTS)4. The FTS is a measurement for factors that mediate financial transparency between married individuals.
The FTS is a tool that provides financial planners with the ability to determine the level of transparency between partners through the dimensions of Financial Partnership, Financial Secrecy, and Financial Trust and Disclosure. The scale may be used in its entirety, or each subscale may be used individually.
I recommend that the scale be integrated into the client intake process or data gathering stage. Alternatively, a financial professional may use some of the questions as leading questions during a client meeting, such as, “How often do you sit down with one another to discuss your finances?”
Answers to these types of questions may indicate the degree of transparency and determine if using the FTS is appropriate.
Finally, it can also be used as a take-home activity. Clients should complete this individually without discussing their answers. The advisor may then review and discuss the answers with the clients, highlighting any similarities or differences.
No matter how you choose to do it, finding a way to gauge the financial transparency between couples is an essential part of facilitating more open money conversations. To continue learning on this topic, watch the on-demand version of our recent webinar on love and money.
- Britt, S. L., & Huston, S. J. (2012). The role of money arguments in marriage. Journal of Family and Economic Issues, 33(4), 464-476.
- Dew, J., Britt, S., & Huston, S. (2012). Examining the relationship between financial issues and divorce. Family Relations, 61(4), 615-628. doi.org/10.1111/j.1741-3729.2012.00715.x
- Solheim, C.A., Zuiker, V.S., &. Levchenko, P. (2011). Financial socialization family pathways: Reflections from college students’ narratives. Family Science Review, 16(2), 97 – 112.
- Koochel E. E., Markham, M. S., Crawford, C., & Archuleta, K. L. (2020). Financial transparency scale: Development and potential uses. Journal of Financial Counseling and Planning. doi: 10.1891/JFCP-18-0009.
DISCLAIMER: The eMoney Advisor Blog is meant as an educational and informative resource for financial professionals and individuals alike. It is not meant to be, and should not be taken as financial, legal, tax or other professional advice. Those seeking professional advice may do so by consulting with a professional advisor. eMoney Advisor will not be liable for any actions you may take based on the content of this blog.
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