How to talk to your spouse or partner about money

How do I discuss making more money with my spouse?

There are plenty of reasons that a “we need to earn more money” convo may be in order. Perhaps you’re absorbing extraordinary medical or family care expenses, your rent is skyrocketing, you’re expecting a baby, you’re saving for a house down payment, or you’re having to pay for a kid’s college education. Heck, all that might be happening at once! Here’s how to talk about where you’re at—and where you want to go—together.  

Share the anxiety

If your budget shortfalls are stressing you out, it’s a good bet your partner is lying awake at night staring into the void, too. Start by identifying with her feelings. Try: “I’m noticing that we are barely covering expenses every month. It’s stressing me out, and I bet it worries you, too. Can we try to figure out a way to build a cushion?”   

Wealth does not equal worth

Salary has become such a common—if misleading—measure of success, and broaching the subject with a spouse could make them think that their self-worth is under scrutiny, or even assault. Acknowledge that salary is only one of many contributions a person can make to the family. You might be pulling in the upper five figures, but your part-time freelancer husband spends his non-billable hours packing lunches or repairing those leaky pipes under the sink. Especially with children in the mix, it can make financial and practical sense for one partner to stay at home or work only part-time, and the value of what that spouse contributes should be factored into the conversation.   

You’re a team, not rivals

Beware: A talk like this can slip into a competition. Even if you aren’t trying to compare salaries, your partner might assume you are. (We’re human. Humans are self-conscious.) The point is, try to get beyond “my income” and “your income” to “our income.”  

No stupid questions

Don’t assume that your partner knows how much “our income” adds up to. Even couples who have been together for years should start with the basics—and I mean the basic basics. Nearly half—43%—of people recently surveyed by financial services firm Fidelity didn’t even know how much their spouse was making at the moment. My advice if you don’t know? Ask. Your partner might dismiss the problem altogether until you actually put your annual household earnings on paper.  

Moving the goalpost

Another assumption to avoid in a conversation like this? Don’t be so sure that you both want the same things. From that same Fidelity survey: A third of spouses surveyed pictured very different financial futures than their mates. Together, you should agree on specific monetary goals—paying down medical bills or paying for a nursery—and calculate how much more money you need to reach them.   

Make a plan

Now you’re down to actually increasing your income (or at least trying to). I don’t want to downplay this, but bumping up your earnings will be a whole other process—and series of conversations. Small, short-term expenses might be covered by a few weeks of overtime. You might even clean out the garage and have a giant tag sale to buy that crib. Bigger lifestyle changes will mean bigger steps: negotiating for a raise, getting a short-term side gig, or even finding a new career. 

Psst—it might not be how much you earn 

I know financially satisfied couples of all income levels, and the key to their happiness is that they live by one no-brainer mantra: “Live within your means.” As you talk through earning more money, you’ll probably realize that the conversation you and your partner should really be having is about how to spend less of what you have.  

Go through your household accounts, identify the places you see overspending, and then show your spouse what you’ve found. Make sure the expenses you target aren’t line items that are important to your spouse but meaningless to you—even if you think he or she is the one with the spending problem. Then you can say something like, “Hey, I’m not sure either of us was aware of this, but we’ve been spending $X a month eating out. Do you think we can bring that number down?” 

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