How to Talk to Your Spouse about Debt and Money

Do you remember the following words, “For richer or poorer…”?

Many marriages in North America are plagued by an overwhelming debt burden. Thus, it is not surprising that money fights are often cited as a leading cause of divorce. Moreover, many couples who are trying to get out of debt struggle with how to openly communicate about their money.

Debt initially brings one positive element into our life, but two negative realities also sneak in the door.

The good thing we get from debt is ownership of something before we can really afford it. That might be a house, car, TV, anything.

But, the two negatives that sneak in the door are stress and obligation.

Where there is more stress, you are sure to find more disagreement. When there are more bills than dollars, conversations between a wife and husband can become strained. Each typically evaluates the spending habits of the other and deems their expenses frivolous. The reason couples fight like this is because they have so many financial obligations that they judge the validity of very expense.

He’ll say, “Do you really need another manicure?”

She’ll say, “Why can’t you just take a lunch instead of buying one?”

Unfortunately, husband and wife don’t always recognize the problem at the same time, and one will be working in one direction while the other will continue accumulating debt. There are many ways to improve your marriage and money relationship. But it starts by addressing the situation in a healthy way.

How should you properly address money disagreements in marriage?

1. When you initially approach the subject, do so from a non-confrontational perspective where you emphasize dreams, not failures.

Ask, “Are you still thinking of sending our kids to private school in a few years?” As you address the future goals and dreams, you’ll then be able to backtrack and point out where today’s reality is a barrier to those dreams.

Say, “Yeah, me too. I’m just afraid that we won’t be able to afford private school unless we get rid of some of our debt.”

2. Avoid trigger words that result in arguments.

She says, “We’re in this problem because you always take a lunch to work because you’re too lazy to make anything before you go.”

He says, “Why are you always so obsessed with money? Why are you the budget czar? It’s because of all your nerdy math work that we never have any fun.”

There is one good thing in the first phrase. It’s the fact that she used the word “we”. Ultimately, both husband and wife need to be a team through the process. Remember, for richer and poorer? Yes, even if one spouse is 95% to blame, it is still the couple’s issue, so using “we” is a very good idea.

Areas of concern:

Use of the word “you” – Humans have a natural self defense mechanism. If you start to fall, you’ll probably put your hands down to brace your fall. If someone criticizes you or points out your flaws, you’ll want to fight back. For that reason, avoid “you” statements.

Use of the word “always” – Always is always a bad word when you’re talking to your spouse. This over-exaggeration will probably encourage your spouse to find exceptions to the rule rather than focus on solving the real problem.

Use of the word “because” – Before interpreting actions on behalf of people, it is best to listen to their own explanation. Instead, ask, “Why don’t you take your own lunch?” Through that question, you may find a simple solution.

3.  Choose the right setting.

If you have money problems in your marriage, you need to speak when the lines of communication are open. Ask,

  • How is my spouse’s mood? How is my mood?
  • Are there likely to be distractions?

There are many good questions to ask when you’re dealing with money problems in marriage.  However, the setting must be right before initiating a discussion.

What tips do you have to help spouses talk openly and freely about money?

Photo by Rolands Lakis

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  1. Mo

    Great article.
    Very good “how to” tips!

    In my Journey to being debt free, this was the most difficult part of it. I love my wife dearly, and I always felt that; providing for all my wife’s ‘wants’ was part of me being a good husband and the provider in our home.
    I felt the prompting from the Lord to get rid of my debt before my wife did. It took about a year and a lot of conversations, just like the ones you recommend here, before she came around. And truly, it was not my conversations and/or approaches that brought her to the same place I was… It was GOD. She came over one day and told me how God was convicting her about how she spent. So, my recommendation is to also pray along with your tips above. Both spouses have to be in the same page before debt elimination happens for good. Also, “be agood example”, of you expect her/him to change you should change first.

  2. Tim @ Faith and Finance

    One tip that I’d share is to make goals together.

    This is a great way to keep on track with your budget because you’ll think twice about spending a little extra on things that keep you from reaching your goals.


  3. Matt Bell

    Craig – One bit of advice I heard that I’ve found really helpful in all marital disagreements is that it’s okay to complain, but it’s not okay to criticize. A complaint focuses on what happened. A criticism focuses on the person and their character. A complaint is, “You overspent the clothing budget.” A criticism is, “That was really selfish of you.”

  4. Jackie

    I think approaching things from the direction of where you want to be rather than where you are now or how you screwed up can be beneficial. Blame is not productive, but taking responsibility and working together toward a common goal is.

  5. 20 and Engaged

    My fiance and I have been talking about money a lot lately. It’s definitely important to have the conversation away from distractions, as one party could easily get offended. Try to come up with some positive examples as opposed to negative ones. Show them that it’s possible.

  6. Alison

    Great article that gets to the heart of the matter, and dealing with debt productively together. Not much else challenges couples and individuals more than how they spend and deal with their money. Great tips here, thanks!

  7. Stryker

    One of the best marital tips I’ve been given is:
    “Always find a way to include yourself for blame.”

    For example, not: “you overspent the budget by never packing your lunch,” but “We overspent the budget because I wasn’t able to figure out how to fit your lunch packing into our morning routine.” A smart spouse *may* realize where the real blame lies, but the point isn’t to lay blame – it’s to meet a healthy spending plan!