When Credit Card Debt Is Your Love Language: 3 Tips from Couples Financial Therapy

Relax, you’re in this together

financial therapy for couples: illustration of a couple with wallet
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Want to know a quick way to make your relationship better? Get on the same page about money. That’s our takeaway from a recent two-hour workshop called 'Couples, Money and Intimacy,' where therapists and formerly in-debt couples doled out their best advice for partners looking to improve their relationship with money—and each other. Why bother? Let’s look at the numbers: According to a 2023 American Psychological Association survey, 39 percent of respondents said that “money is a cause of a lot of the fights or tension in my family.” And financial counseling service found in a recent survey that 40 percent of divorced persons said that debt or other financial difficulties were the primary factors in their split.

So let’s say you know that you and your partner could use some help in the finance department—where do you begin? We have three simple tips that range from the obvious (keep track of your numbers!) to the subtle (who knew financial talks needed to have time limits?) to help you and your S.O. live in financial harmony. Spoiler alert: Open and honest communication is paramount. “I was a therapist for years, and I found people would talk to me in great detail about their sex lives before they would mention a peep about money,” said Natalie, one of the speakers at our session. Here are the tips we learned for healthy money habits as a couple (and individually, too) that are useful no matter how much debt, savings or income you have.

1. Know Your “Numbers”

No, we’re not talking about how many people you’ve slept with. In financial terms, knowing your numbers means knowing exactly what you are spending your money on, day-to-day. Because, sure, you may know what your yearly salary is and how much your partner loves to nab a deal at Wayfair, but do you really know what is coming in and out of your individual and joint accounts every day?

Start by keeping a record of purchases large and small—from the parking meter coins to the new belt from Macy’s—in a dedicated space for three months. Don’t forget interest rates on credit cards, car loans and mortgage balances. While this sounds obvious, it’s often a blind spot for couples, stemming from family of origin issues or who knows whatever trauma drama from a person’s past. Whatever the cause of your financial turmoil, writing down funds flowing in and out of your household is the essential first step in gaining control of your finances. (One woman in the session we attended marveled that she and her wife needed to be told to do this step, even though both had graduate degrees. “My wife took organic chemistry in college, but still we couldn’t figure this out,” she confessed.) Couples suggested sharing cloud-based spreadsheets to log expenses, while others used free tracking apps such as Mint and Nerdwallet.

2. Say “Spending Plan,” Not “Budget”

Ask any couples therapist and they’ll tell you that words matter. Meaning that there are some words that strengthen your bond and others that can chip away at it. And to many people, the word “budget” sounds repellent, akin to “sock darning” and “dental drilling.” We don’t have any advice for making money talk sexy, but the experts do have a suggestion for making those late night finance convos a little more palatable—stop calling it a budget. Instead, you’re following a spending plan. And one that you put together based on what numbers you came up with after three months of expense notation. Additionally, the spending plan should prioritize self-care for you as individuals and as a couple, like vacations (the experts we spoke with actually told us to budget for them), exercise and other feel-good elements, not just paying the electric bill.

3. Have Regular Meetings about the Spending Plan...with Pre-Set Time Limits

Partners are advised to show up at a weekly or bi-weekly finance meeting with an agreed-upon 45-minute or one-hour time limit. This meeting duration is not cripplingly lengthy; in practice, this minimizes the emotionally charged reactions so many financial-avoidant couples experience when they finally sit down with their bank statement. A pre-arranged schedule of financial sit-downs rejiggers the whole spending plan enterprise. With regular check-ins, it’s no longer a scary, complicated monolith—these are simply workable, bite-sized sessions to tackle stated goals, such as a plan to reduce expenses and budget for big annual expenditures.

Several couples in the financial couples therapy session we attended said they initially got angry, tense and shouty in money talks—until they set a time limit. They also relied on short walks or a deep breathing if they found themselves emotionally dysregulated during a money meeting; they were then able to reset and return to the task at hand—financial happily ever after (or at least, more clarity and less stress).

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dana dickey

Senior Editor

Dana Dickey is a PureWow Senior Editor, and during more than a decade in digital media, she has scoped out and tested top products and services across the lifestyle space...