A financial check-in with your partner: the ideal Christmas gift

By Grant Donnelly, Ximena Garcia-Rada, Hristina Nikolova, Michael Norton & Jenny G. Olson
Posted on December 18, 2020

“Our research shows that conversations about money can be surprisingly enjoyable. Money talk, it turns out, can help partners feel more connected, boosting their feelings of financial security and well-being.”

As the year comes to a close, our attention turns toward (socially distant) festive celebrations and preparing for the new year. This is the perfect time for partners to sit down together and discuss finance. The next few weeks will be filled with financial decisions, from how much money to spend on gifts to how you can fund your generosity intelligently. And how is the financial plan for 2021 coming along?

Conversations about money aren’t often considered romantic or fun—in fact, they may end up in heated arguments, especially when money is tight. But our research shows that conversations about money can be surprisingly enjoyable. Money talk, it turns out, can help partners feel more connected, boosting their feelings of financial security and well-being.

First experiment: short- and long-term effects

In this long-term TFI grant, we are investigating the short- and long-term effects of having financial check-ins with one’s romantic partner. For our November 2020 study, which was conducted online, we recruited a group of 103 American participants (aged approximately 43 years old on average), all of whom have been married, engaged, or living together with their romantic partner for almost 9 years on average. We asked them a couple of questions about themselves and their romantic relationship. They were then told to have a 10-minute conversation about money (in person, if possible) with their partner in the next 24 hours. They made predictions about how the financial conversation would go, indicating, for instance, whether they thought they would enjoy the conversation, and how they would feel toward their partner whilst talking finance.

Twenty-four hours later, we asked the same participants to report how the conversation was going. Just over 84% of participants had made the time to have the chat about money. Surprisingly, people had underestimated the benefits of having a financial conversation with their partner. First of all, financial conversations turned out to be much more enjoyable than predicted: not only did participants report that both they and their partner enjoyed the interaction, they also experienced more positive and fewer negative emotions than expected. Secondly, participants learned more from the conversation and felt more connected to their partner relative to what they had originally anticipated. And finally, participants felt relatively better about their financial well-being after having had a conversation about money with their partner. While our participants anticipated negative experiences, our results suggest that financial conversations were generally positive.

Second experiment: saving versus spending

The next question we asked ourselves, was which money topics would be more likely to result in positive outcomes. To find out, we surveyed another group of 207 married participants (also American, approximately 40 years old on average, with an average relationship length of almost 8 years on average). They reported how they would feel about having different conversations about money with their partner (think of spending money on gifts for family and friends, saving for a major purchase, budgeting).

Generally, our participants believed that conversations about saving money would turn out more positive than conversations about spending money. And overall, they predicted they would feel generally positive about discussing most topics. In fact, from the list of 50 different financial topics (ranging from losing money whilst gambling to saving money for retirement) there were only three topics that were associated with extremely negative feelings: filing for bankruptcy, loaning money to a friend, and losing one’s job.

Results

Adding up the results of both experiments, we believe that conversations about money are important opportunities to strengthen the connection between romantic partners, and to help both people in the relationship get on the same page financially. It’s definitely worth setting some time aside – even just 10 minutes – for an intentional financial check-in with your partner. You might want to start by talking about a shared goal to save money next year.

If the conversation flows more naturally than you anticipated, talking finances might even become a recurring habit – which isn’t only great news for your common financial goals, but also for your relationship.