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Meet the researcher: Grant Donnelly, Ximena Garcia-Rada, Jenny Olson & Michael Norton

Posted on March 20, 2019

Selected for the TFI long-term research grant: Grant E. Donnelly, Ximena Garcia-Rada, Jenny G. Olson, Michael I. Norton! In their study "Putting it All Out on the Kitchen Table", they will examine how couples communicate about their finances. Who are the researchers, what is their project about and what motivated them to apply?

Personal finance ranks high on the list of taboo conversation topics. One reason financial discussions are so difficult may be because money is more than a bank account balance—it can represent security, happiness, freedom, greed, anxiety, and power. Every person has unique associations with these concepts and any differences between people become magnified through conversation. One domain where such discussions are necessary (if not inevitable) is among couples, as many of life’s major financial decisions are made in concert with a partner. The financial decision-making process within couples is complex and potentially stressful, as each partner brings his or her own associations to the “kitchen table” for subsequent discussions. Given the taboo nature of personal finance, even within close relationships, how do couples communicate about money?

In this research, we will investigate the frequency and quality of financial communication and its effect on couples’ financial and relationship well-being. Our main prediction is that financial communication enhances transparency, which may have opposing effects on financial and relationship well-being. Specifically, while transparency may improve couples’ financial well-being (i.e., through increased accountability or the ability to monitor goal progress), it may come at the cost of relationship well-being (i.e., through increased arguments), at least initially. The initial pain of being observed (i.e., via increased transparency) may subside as the couples’ financial health improves, ultimately strengthening the relationship. The outcomes of this research will provide consumers important guidelines on how to communicate honestly and effectively with close others.

“Before couples can save for retirement or minimize debt, they must share a mutual understanding of their financial goals”

What was your motivation to apply for the Think Forward Initiative research grant?

Despite its importance in shaping financial behavior, little is known about how – and how often – couples communicate about money, and how that communication influences couple’s financial well-being. Simply put: talking about money is challenging. Our central goal is to understand how couples communicate about money and, ultimately, develop interventions that foster more meaningful and productive conversations.

How do you expect that your research will contribute to people’s financial well-being?

People describe financial communication as a uniquely stressful topic, magnified when two people with different preferences, emotional reactions, and previous experiences attempt to find common ground. Before couples can save for retirement, minimize debt, or tackle investment planning, they must share a mutual understanding of their financial goals and existing portfolio. Our hope is that by documenting more (and less) effective styles of financial communication, we can help couples “get on the same page” with each other.


Grant E. Donnelly is Assistant Professor of Marketing at The Ohio State University. He holds a PhD in Marketing from Harvard Business School and a Master in Psychology from San Francisco State University. His academic work, focusing on financial, physical and social well-being, was published in high impact journals such as Psychological Science, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, and Journal of Economic Psychology. One of his latest publications about the effect of millionaires’ wealth on happiness also gained great attention in popular press such as The Wall Street Journal and Time.

Ximena Garcia-Rada is a PhD candidate of Marketing at Harvard Business School. She studies consumer behavior in the context of close relationships using laboratory experiments, field studies, and archival data. She previously worked as a research associate at the Center for Advanced Hindsight at Duke University, where she studied how social and cultural factors impact decision-making and dishonest behavior.

Jenny G. Olson is Assistant Professor of Marketing at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business and has a PhD in Marketing from the University of Michigan. She is primarily interested in consumer behavior, with an emphasis on interpersonal contexts (e.g., the interplay between financial decision-making and relationship formation and quality). Her work was published in the Journal of Consumer Research and received media coverage in, among others, Boston Globe, the Huffington Post, The Atlantic and Economic Times.

Michael I. Norton is Harold M. Brierley Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School. He holds a PhD in Psychology from Princeton University and was a fellow at the MIT Sloan School of Management and the MIT Media Lab. His work was published in numerous highly ranked academic journals and focuses on a wide range of topics related to consumer behavior and decision making. He co-authored the popular book Happy Money: The Science of Smarter Spending, and co-edited The Cambridge Handbook of Consumer Psychology.