Why Couples Struggle to Talk About Money
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Jeff FeldhahnJeff Feldhahn is an attorney by training and an entrepreneur by inclination. He received his law degree from Harvard and has worked at law firms in New York and Atlanta specializing in corporate law and nonprofit organizations. Jeff is the president and CEO of World2one, a tech company that he helped found in 1999. He is also a founding partner at FSB Legal Services, a unique partnership of high-skill, independent, entrepreneurial attorneys who enjoy the challenge of working as a “virtual l...more
Shaunti FeldhahnShaunti received her graduate degree from Harvard University and was an analyst on Wall Street before unexpectedly becoming a social researcher, best-selling author and popular speaker. Today, she applies her analytical skills to investigating eye-opening, life-changing truths about relationships, both at home and in the workplace. Her groundbreaking research-based books, such as For Women Only, have sold more than 3 million copies in 25 languages and are widely read in homes, counseling centers...more
Jeff and Shaunti Feldhahn talk about why couples so often fight about money in marriage. The Feldhahns shed light on this and explain why just having conversations about money is the most stressful part.
Why Couples Struggle to Talk About Money
Bob: Okay; alright. [Laughter]
Dave: No; I mean, honestly, we’re going to talk about this today. It’s a great topic to talk about, but it’s something that’s close to our heart. I bet you every couple would, at least, say, “Yes, we’ve had some real doozies over this thing called money.” Do you think?
Bob: I used to, at the Weekend to Remember®, say, “There are some people who believe that credit cards need fresh air and sunshine every day in order to—
Ann: Yes; amen! [Laughter]
Bob: —“while other people—
Dave: I’m married to her.
Bob: —“are more on the thrifty side of the street.”
Bob: Is that—okay; so now, we’re seeing where the conflict comes in.
Well, you want to introduce who we’ve got in the studio with us to help us with this discussion?
Dave: We’ve got Jeff and Shaunti Feldhahn in here, and they are our friends.
Jeff: Great to be here.
Shaunti: I’m sorry. We were trying so hard not to laugh—[Laughter]—as you guys were saying that.
Dave: I also saw you elbowing each other.
Bob: Yes; so are there similar patterns in the Feldhahn marriage to what there are in the Wilson marriage?
Jeff: Well, I like to think of myself as being careful with money; perhaps, cheap might be the other way of describing that. [Laughter] Shaunti has somewhat of another approach.
Shaunti: I was fist-bumping Ann.
Ann: Yes; she did.
Shaunti: Yes; we did.
Dave: So you guys decided: “We’re going to write a book about this topic called Thriving in Love and Money.” Many know you as authors; you have sold many, many books. We, honestly—For Men Only; For Women Only—two of your best-selling books—
Ann: You guys just might have saved our marriage.
Ann: Thank you!
Shaunti: Ah, you’re sweet.
Dave: —I don’t want to say it out loud, but we’ve plagiarized you so many times.
Shaunti: You go do that.
Dave: But one of the things we love about you is your books are written based on data; you know? It isn’t just opinions; it’s data-based, and it’s so true.
Again, we didn’t even mention this—I honestly believe the best teenage book I’ve ever read for parents is For Parents Only.
Shanti: Well, thanks.
Dave: I quote it all the time and tell people to do it. We just wrote a book on parenting, and we used your material all throughout; hopefully, you’ll get a footnote.
Shaunti: That’s great.
Ann: How many books have you written?
Shaunti: You know, somebody asked us that the other day. This is going to sound horrible; but I’m not sure, actually.
Bob: You need to do a research project.
Shaunti: Yes; I think, if you like count Bible studies and stuff, maybe, 25?
Ann: That is amazing.
Shaunti: Yes; it’s incredible for me to look back. I mean, my very first book—I sat here, in the studio, 22 years ago.
Bob: Yes; hard to believe.
Shaunti: Hard to believe what God has done. It’s amazing.
Dave: Someone might think: “Okay; the Feldhahns wrote a book on money and marriage. Is that because you have problems in your marriage about money?”
Jeff: I’ll let you start that one, Shaunti. [Laughter]
Shaunti: Actually, to be candid, this never was a topic we even had thought of studying, which tells you just sort of how backward we were in this area. This was the one area in our marriage, after all of these studies which we incorporated into our own, we were so not on the same page on this topic. We didn’t really fight.
Jeff: Yes; we didn’t fight; we just didn’t talk about it. [Laughter]
Shaunti: We didn’t; we just avoided it entirely.
Ann: But you had strong feelings about it, based on your faces.
Jeff: Oh sure; sure. [Laughter] We had assumptions about what was going on inside that other person.
Bob: Somehow, you’re managing it. I mean, you may have had strong feelings; were you having months, where you were looking at the checkbook, and going, “Whoops,” or not?
Shaunti: Not really. It was more of a: “You do your thing over there; I’ll do my thing over here, and we’ll just sort of get—we’ll cope; we’ll sort of get by,”—like we talk about it when we have to; but we really don’t like it, because we have such different values in different areas.
Ann: So how in the world did you write a book on this topic?
Jeff: Why don’t you share that?—because it really was a God-thing.
Shaunti: And this was a—
Dave: Hey, Jeff, I’m noticing something. You’re throwing all the questions to Shaunti. [Laughter]
Jeff: I like it when she talks. [Laughter]
Shaunti: Well, to be candid—this, really, honestly—this was a supernatural story, because it was really clear; I feel like God wanted us to study this. After our last research-based book was done, we had no clue what we were supposed to do. This was the first time in 20 years that we had no idea. We started praying very specifically after the previous book launch. March 1 is when I went, “Lord, I have no idea.”
March 9, out of the clear blue sky, we got a call from a company that we had actually never heard of at the time called Thrivent Financial. It’s a financial services company that’s sort of missional; and they said: “Look, we are starting an initiative. We know that money is a huge issue in marriage, and we don’t think it has to be. How would you feel about making this your next research project and us funding it?”
Shaunti: We looked at each other. We started crying; because I’m like, “So clearly an answer to prayer.” Then we went, “Oh shoot.” [Laughter]
Ann: That’s what I’m wondering, “Was there this little sliver of fear that started to come up?”
Jeff: Oh, absolutely. One—I thought as we talked about it—I said: “You know, we are the perfect people to do this. One because we want to get to the answers; we want to do the research; we want to be rigorous; and we’re like case study number one of what not to do in how you handle money in a relationship so that your relationship thrives.” Instead, we lived two separate lives—
Jeff: —along that way.
What would happen is—even though it was two separate lives, it wasn’t like it was neutral—what would happen is: Shaunti would choose a particular course of action, usually around spending, and mine would be the other. I would have a certain temptation; I would literally, in my mind, would go, “She’s doing that, because she has a character flaw,”—that’s the bucket I would put it in because, certainly, not spending is the most godly way of approaching anything—[Laughter]
Dave: Amen, brother.
Jeff: —and it’s the right way.
Shaunti: It’s really interesting—that’s what we were digging into in the research. It’s not how to have a great budget—because there are plenty of wonderful resources out there—and you wouldn’t want our advice on that anyway. This was: “How to have a great relationship around money.” It comes down to/it turns out: understanding all that stuff that you are thinking and all of these sort of underlying factors that are going on under the surface.
Ann: Did you have any idea that Jeff thought you had this character flaw?
Shaunti: Oh, he had never put it that way.
Shaunti: But you see the smirk on the face, and you see the “What?!” I would not have been able—he would not have probably been able to articulate it that way until we started doing this.
Jeff: —started doing the research.
Shaunti: I would not have been able to articulate—when you talk about, for example, that spender/saver dichotomy—which is, by the way, extraordinarily common in marriage—because even when you have two savers, usually, one of them is more of a spender than the other—so you almost always see this.
I wouldn’t have been able to articulate: “Well, yes; I want to be wise with money too, of course; but God also says that He’s come to give us abundant life, and—
Jeff: —“and we can trust Him.”
Shaunti: —“and we can trust Him to provide. And what about that guy, who stored up all the money in barns, and then never got to enjoy it? Shouldn’t we be giving ourselves some grace for that?” I never would have been able to articulate that either. That was one of the things that was so transformative for us is—suddenly, we had a language to talk about it.
Bob: I remember talking to a wife, who was so frustrated with her husband. This couple was $25,000 in debt at this point in their marriage. It was a source of great anxiety for her, much less for him.
They were at church; and there was somebody at night, who was talking about the work that they were doing in Africa. She watched her husband pull out the checkbook and write $100 check to support this work in Africa. She was freaking out, thinking, “We’re $25,000 in debt, and you think God wants us to spend $100, helping people in Africa when I’ve got credit card people calling me, saying, ‘When is the next payment going to come due?’” This is how the reality of this works out in so many marriages.
Shaunti: —so many. Well, here’s basically what we found: the bottom line that was so helpful is to recognize, “If you have any tension around money”—which most people do, not everybody—“if you have any tension about it, or avoid it, or whatever, it’s not about the money.”
Dave: Yes; that’s right at the beginning of your book.
Ann: It’s huge!
Dave: I want to know, “What in the world does that mean?” because you found that out from the research. If it’s not about money, what’s it about?
Ann: Could you analyze Dave and me while you do this too?—[Laughter] because we need this.
Jeff: Of course! [Laughter]
Shaunti: Honestly, the thing that was really incredibly powerful for us was recognizing that it turns out: it’s about how money makes you feel; and how it makes your spouse feel; and about all these expectations, running under the surface that you don’t even know were there; and these worries, and insecurities, and beliefs about how money should work—it’s all of this other stuff. Once you understand that stuff—it’s really amazing how talking kind of comes naturally.
Jeff: The fact is that most of us don’t understand that sort of stuff. Statistically,
77 percent of couples—the research found this—couldn’t talk about money or money issues without a level of tension and discomfort.
Shaunti: So it’s not just you guys. [Laughter]
Jeff: For me, as a guy, when I would always hear, “Talking about something helps,” that really didn’t help me; because in order to talk about something, one, I need to try to understand my spouse, which I found difficult in a lot of ways. But as a starting point, I had to understand myself in order to be able to articulate what I was feeling. I couldn’t do that in this area.
It wasn’t until all of the research—all of the focus groups/all of the interviews—that I began to hear things from guys, all over the country, that I went: “That’s me! That’s what’s going on inside of me. Now, I can talk about it.”
Shaunti: —and women, too.
Shaunti: One of the things we found is that there were very few things that were gender-related, by the way, in this. There were a few, but it is mostly non-gender-related.
Dave: Yes; I know that we got to the point—and again, I never got to the root of this—we didn’t talk about it, except in anger, which was sort of based in fear. Here’s how bad it got for us; again, there wasn’t a surplus of money. When we would pay the bills, back in the day when you wrote checks, I would literally hear Ann paying the bills—the check ripping—and I would have to leave the house; I couldn’t hear that sound.
Dave: I got so scared; I got depressed; “I’m not sure these checks are all going to clear. I wish she was not even paying them”; but of course, we have to pay them. Now, why is she paying them, by the way?—because I can’t even do it; right?
Ann: Wait; wait. I was going to say—the only reason I started paying the bills was because, when our kids were little, it was Christmas. I used to do our Christmas shopping for the kids in one day. I’ve got this cart that’s just jammed packed at Toys-R-Us or whatever. I get up there; you know, there is a line behind me. I’ve been waiting in line. I get up there; I do my credit card. The cashier gives me this kind of embarrassed look; and she says, “Oh, I’m sorry; that credit card didn’t work.”
You know, you’ve got the people behind you; and I’m starting to sweat a little. I hand her another credit card; she says, “Oh, I’m sorry.”
Dave: Okay; that’s enough of that story. [Laughter]
Ann: So I have to leave my cart.
Ann: I go home; and I say to Dave, “Nothing worked; what happened?” What happened was we had a bunch of bills that bounced, because there were insufficient funds; because Dave hates to pay the bills, because it creates so much stress.
Shaunti: That is so common.
Shaunti: You would not believe how common that is.
Dave: So we didn’t talk about it.
Dave: We just sort of fought little, snippy fights. Then I live in that world, like, “If we don’t talk about it, that’s okay.”
Ann: So I said, “Let me, at least, do the bills so that they are getting in on time.” Dave would hear the rip and leave.
Dave: That did force us to say, “This is something we have to talk about.”
What does a couple do? How do they start talking about it?
Shaunti: Well, the most important thing is to recognize, like I said, “What’s going on under the surface?” We identified—most of that, probably, not all of that—but we identified five of these big factors—I guess you’d put it—that tend to be very, very common with people.
It’s interesting, by the way, Bob, you said the thing about oneness.
Shaunti: And that was one of the big factors.
Dave: Hey; hey, please don’t—
Ann: Please don’t give him—
Dave: —be blowing up his head right now. [Laughter]
Ann: He’s so smart; he already knew.
Shaunti: He knows everything comes back to that; right? [Laughter] And it is really interesting—
Dave: In what aspect? What do you mean about oneness?
Shaunti: It turns out we are avoiding being one in marriage anyway, and it’s coming out in how we handle money.
Shaunti: That example of Jeff and me sort of: “I do my thing over here; you do your thing over here,”—I mean, literally, some young couples are like, “Could you Venmo $52 for your half of the gas bill?”
Ann: Was that surprising for you to find out?
Shaunti: Yes; that really was surprising. It was just—but it’s taking it to the next level. It’s really interesting. Some people, listening to this, may go: “Well, that’s not me; I don’t have that issue with oneness. We share the same bank account.”
Maybe, you don’t; maybe, that’s not a big issue for you; but maybe, ask yourself, “Do you ever try to pull the Amazon package off the front step before your spouse sees it?”
Bob: So they don’t know what you ordered?
Shaunti: That’s the same level of/ kind of just trying to do what you want to do that causes other people separate accounts entirely.
Ann: Why did you have to go there? [Laughter] That is just a little too close to home.
Shaunti: Me too; me too.
Ann: Here is one of the things you said in the book—you said: “Here’s the key. If you aren’t thriving in the love part of love and money, it will be difficult to come together enough to do the money part well.”
Shaunti: Unfortunately, that right there is where a lot of people live—where in sort of the church world—it has been all about: “Here is the technical ways you do a budget,”—
Shaunti: —and “Here is how you get out of debt,” and “Here are some of these principles for building up emergency savings.” All of that is awesome; but what we found is that, if you can’t talk about money to begin with, you don’t do any of that stuff well.
All of that is predicated on the ability to talk about it, which, like we said, 77 percent can’t do; 23 percent can. Like, the people who are listening to this who are in that 23 percent—like you happily skip to budget meetings. I’m so jealous of you—I just really am—but the rest of us, we need a little help.
Bob: You’ve provided some help, not only in the book, but you’ve got an assessment. In fact, we’ve got a link on our website at FamilyLifeToday.com where people can go and spend a few minutes going through this and get an idea of where are the strengths and weaknesses, where are the challenge points/the tension points. If you think, “We’ve got tension here; but I’m not exactly sure what it is, or why it is, or where it is,” the assessment will help you put words to and categories to what it is that you’re experiencing.
Dave: Let me just say—I haven’t taken the assessment—but if you’re thinking: “I’m not taking that assessment. I don’t want to know because, if I know, then I won’t like what I see.” [Laughter] I’ve learned enough to know this would be one of the wisest things you do, because it’s going to start a discussion. Yes, it will be scary; it will awkward; it may be really hard. It may even/you may end up in a fight at some point; but once you get a reality in front of you with your spouse, that discussion—am I right?—leads toward freedom.
Jeff: It does. You know—I mean, I’m like you, Dave, in that—I kind of liked living in my world, where I was correct in my perceptions of how money should be handled and how Shaunti should adopt my view; but that’s just not reality. What that does is it keeps us from becoming one. It keeps me from learning how God made this person that I’m married to, so differently than me.
Ann: Besides taking the assessment, give us a little baby step of: “What’s something we can do that would just get us started on the right path?”
Shaunti: Probably, let’s start with taking an audit of where we really are in this oneness thing: “How much do we really kind of want to do what we want to do with money?”—the assessment, by the way, will help with that. But you won’t just learn on that side—like Dave, what you said, “I don’t want to know what I’m doing wrong,”—it will also identify the things you’re doing well—like, “What are your areas of strength that you want to keep going on?”
Where are you starting? Because, if you guys know, we kind of want to do what we want to do; and that’s a big area to work on. If you all can then go, “Okay; are we willing?”—like especially during a time of economic uncertainty like what we’ve been through—I mean, seriously, a lot of people have to talk about money for the very, very first time. They’ve learned that, but they don’t know how. The place to start is going, “Are we willing to do that?”
Ann: That’s a good baby step.
Dave: It’s pretty amazing in, as you look back, that God brings this money to you to do research. None of us knew what was about to come—
Dave: —in our world; and now, you’ve given a gift to the world to say, “We’re all in a struggle—everyone—
Dave: —“and there’s a gift to help you navigate where God wants you to go out of that.” That’s a blessing from God!
Bob: And to go, again, to FamilyLifeToday.com to take the assessment online to see how you think differently about money; and then to get a copy of your book, Thriving in Love and Money. In fact, we’re making the book available this week to FamilyLife Today listeners. If you’d like to get a copy, get in touch with us; go to FamilyLifeToday.com or call 1-800-FL-TODAY. If you can help with a donation for the ongoing work of this ministry, we’ll send you a copy of Jeff and Shaunti’s book as our thank-you gift for your support of the work we’re doing, here, at FamilyLife Today.
The assessment is free online. The book is our gift to you when you donate to support the ministry of FamilyLife Today. Again, you can donate, online, at FamilyLifeToday.com; or call to donate at 1-800-358-6329—that’s 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
I think what you guys have written about in the book is going to be a breakthrough for a lot of couples, who find themselves in conflict, and they think money is the issue. This is going to help them see there is more at play here than just your bank balance, so I hope our listeners will get a copy of the book. Again, it’s our gift to you when you make a donation to support FamilyLife Today this week.
By the way, because we know that a lot of couples have been under a ton of stress in recent months, we put together, here at FamilyLife®, an online resource that is called “Taking Your Marriage from Good to Great.” We’re making this content free to anybody who’d like access to it; you can go to our website, FamilyLifeToday.com. There are two online mini-courses: one about resolving conflict in marriage; one called “Lightbulb Moments in Marriage.”
In addition, you’ll have access to messages from Paul David Tripp, Gary Chapman, Voddie Baucham, and Juli Slattery as well as a number of downloadable resources available. All of these are designed to help you shore up the foundation of your marriage. If your marriage has experienced some stress and pressure/if you’ve felt that in your marriage, this is a way for you to breathe some fresh air back into your relationship. It’s all available for free; it’s the “Taking Your Marriage from Good to Great” resource.
When you sign up to get the content, we’re also going to automatically enter you in a giveaway. One couple is going to be chosen to fly to FamilyLife to sit in on a FamilyLife Today recording session and then to have dinner that night with Dave and Ann Wilson. We thought it might be an extra incentive to try to get you to work a little bit on your marriage.
Go to FamilyLifeToday.com to get access to the “Taking Your Marriage from Good to Great”; and then, maybe, we’ll see you here as our guests for a FamilyLife Today recording session and dinner out with Dave and Ann. Again, all details are available online at FamilyLifeToday.com. No purchase necessary; you can see all the rules online.
Now, tomorrow, we want to talk, among other things, about whether our personal view of money and finances is shaped more by our life experiences or by our personality/our temperament. Jeff and Shaunti Feldhahn will be with us again tomorrow. I hope you can be here with us as well.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, along with our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our hosts, Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Bob Lepine. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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