No matter your current cash flow, money has the uncanny ability to cause your blood pressure to rise. Maybe it’s because you’re not reaching goals. Or maybe it’s a problem keeping up with the bills. In my case, the stress starts from something pretty basic: How my husband and I actually talk to each other about our finances.
Backstory: We merged our bank accounts post-marriage a few years back. And ever since, the two of us come together weekly to review the data behind each expense. Still, the conversations can get emotional—heated, even—if we disagree with one another’s spending habits, something that, in turn, breeds stress.
That’s why I was intrigued to speak with Amanda Clayman, a financial therapist and Prudential’s financial wellness advocate, to talk through ways to improve our communication and minimize cash-related stress. In other words, she’s trained to use a cognitive behavioral therapy-based approach that integrates financial education, psycho-education and supportive counseling/coaching to help people re-evaluate their relationship with money. Game on.
Our biggest financial pitfall: My hour-long call with Amanda kicked off with an assessment of my biggest money concern. I explained that my husband and I—while goal-oriented, financially—sometimes get lost in the nitty-gritty of nickel and diming each other over expenses (say, his $6 daily coffee or my $350 winter coat).
Amanda’s take: She wanted to know more about our money habits and tendencies, but also our emotional state when we sit down to review our spending. Are we calm? Angry? On a scale of 1 to 10, what’s our anxiety level in relation to finances? (I rated us both at a 7, eep.) Acknowledging the vulnerability that money can create was the first step toward resolution, she promised.
Step #1: We need to relax the analytics. “A lot of people expect money to magically sort itself out—your dedication to regular communication about it is a win,” she said. But something had caused us to be more nervous than optimistic about our spending habits. “You’re getting stuck in analysis paralysis,” Clayman explained. “Money is really about life and we cannot know with perfect certainty what the future will hold in the same way our daily spending isn’t always a math problem we can perfectly solve.”
Our homework: To approach our budget with more flexibility. “You’re working toward goals and you need to grant each other a love and kindness about that,” she says.
Step #2: We need to regularly redo our budget. “I’m a great believer in the idea that money maps our lives,” Clayman explains. And if weekly conversations cause repeat stress on the same topic ($6 coffees, a $350 coat), our spending might be trying to tell us something. Her advice? Instead of beating ourselves up over these “frivolous” expenses, welcome them in. (Remember that note above about optimism?) “Your need for a winter coat should be given the same respect as putting money into a 529 or paying for child care. Otherwise, you’re saying to your partner: ‘It’s OK for X wants and needs and comforts to exist, but not others.’ It’s about having an honest open door policy about money.”
Our homework: To go over our account statements for the last few months, but with a different goal: excavation. If there is a recurring expense that’s giving one of us pause, we need to have a conversation about it to determine if it actually is something we need to adjust for (meaning we need to find other areas of our budget that we can cut).
Step #3: We need to spend more time looking forward. Based on our chat, Clayman acknowledges that there’s one critical piece missing from our weekly check-ins: Currently, we don’t devote any time to predicting what’s coming up. “A lot of expenses that feel unforeseen actually follow a predictable pattern,” she says. Say, your birthday month is coming up and you know you’re likely to go out more than the average month; or you have a rough estimate of the costs of preschool, which are looming next year. The more you can identify and prepare for, the less stress you’ll attach to discretionary spending.”
Our homework: Once a month during our weekly check-in, it’s worth taking a bird’s-eye look at what’s upcoming so we don’t under-estimate the amount of money needed in a discretionary fund. Maybe you pause emergency savings contributions that month to adjust, but looking ahead removes the surprise element—and reduces the stress.
A final stress-busting tip: When it comes to money convos, it’s helpful to have a start time and an end time, Clayman says. “Set a timer, say, for 30 minutes, and remind yourselves that, even though it’s not the most fun topic, it isn’t something that’s going to go on forever. You also don’t have to cover every single thing about your financial life every time.” She adds: “The goal is to keep it emotionally contained so you have a reliable way of opening up this thing called money, then safely put it away before you get too overwhelmed to continue.”