Ep # 95: Financial Planning For Couples Who Don't Agree

Benjamin Haas |

Money is said to be one of the top causes of marital distress.  We sometimes joke that meeting with your financial planner can often feel like a combination of math class and marriage counseling. A big part of advising is listening, understanding, and communicating.  When couples don't agree, we try to help them focus on the points of agreement, which usually includes what matters most to both of them. Our goal is to influence the way they talk to their spouse about money through partnership and a shared vision.  

In this podcast, Adam and Ben talk through how we can be the middle man - so to speak - in this type of situation.

  • What do we mean by don't agree on - 2:37
  • How to find common ground - 8:25
  • Focusing on the points of agreement - 14:04
  • How to find a way to compromise - 16:22




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Full Transcript:

Benjamin Haas  00:02

Hi everyone and welcome to A/B Conversations, where we will help you CFP your way out of it. A podcast where you get into the minds of a couple of Certified Financial Planners on how we think and feel about everyday financial planning questions and what should really matter most to you. A healthier financial life starts...now!  Hey, Adam, welcome back. Happy Spring. Well, I guess not officially Spring. 


Adam Werner  00:31

When is Spring officially here? 


Benjamin Haas  00:37

Once we spring forward with a time change, that's kind of like the unofficial sign of Spring to me, even if it's still cold out.


Adam Werner  00:47

Daylight at seven o'clock is wonderful. Yeah, waking up in the dark, it's still 30 degrees and I'm looking at flurries out of my window. 


Benjamin Haas  00:57

Yeah, so speaking of cold.  Let's talk today about sometimes when there's some cold feelings between couples. Let's talk about financial planning for couples that may not agree on certain things and more importantly, why are we here? How can we help? 


Adam Werner  01:00

Ooh. Yeah, so I guess we should start with what do we mean by don't agree or give some examples of where there can be disagreements. So yeah, it's an interesting topic because we've certainly seen it in our experience. Something as simple as, 


Benjamin Haas  01:39

And maybe personally experienced it? I mean, we're both married individuals with spouses, not to pry into your personal life.


Adam Werner  01:47

Oh sure. Yeah, I don't even know how much to get into there, but I don't know that you could find two people that are perfectly in sync with every single aspect, especially when it comes to finances. Part of what we'll get into is why that is because everyone's history and their experiences in the past kind of influence their behavior, their activity, their bias, when it comes to that, and when you have two people joining finances, there can be conflict I feel like as a strong word, but there could be shades of differences. How do you bridge those two things? 


Benjamin Haas  02:37

So I think I interrupted you but we were probably going to just define when we say don't agree. I think the simplest one that we see is maybe they just have different viewpoints on spending habits or saving habits. It's not uncommon for couples to kind of pick on each other in an initial meeting with us like, oh, well, I'm the saver and she's the spender or the other way around. Yeah, he likes these to get these toys and I'm talking about the future here, so I think that's a common one. 


Adam Werner  03:06

Absolutely. Another one that we see frequently is just the difference in opinion on investments and risk.  There's often one spouse is risk averse. I just want safety. I'm not worried. I don't want to go on the market, roller coaster ride and the other spouse being, yeah, I'm okay with that. I don't worry about it. It doesn't bother me. I'm okay to be invested in things that are going to be volatile and then trying again to find that middle ground where they both feel okay.


Benjamin Haas  03:38

Yeah, and maybe on the goals side of that we definitely run into people that have different ideas on what they see the future needing to be for them. One maybe wants to work longer. The other one’s like I want to work as little as possible, just difference on time periods of things, and what's most important to them. I think it's also pretty common for us to see one person kind of take the lead, I'll say and that's not to say one person is more important than the other. But it's still well, there are some people that get married later in life and maybe they had independent finances that did come together later. They're also all those situations where it was kind of just one person's responsibility. It doesn't mean that the person that's not taking the lead doesn't have a viewpoint that they want expressed and that's where we can maybe see some of that marital distress around money, too. 


Adam Werner  04:33

I guess I'll start by just saying for anybody that's already gotten to this point and thinking, oh, yeah, that sounds like me. You're not alone. We've seen it. It's not uncommon. We often joke in some of those meetings when it does feel like there are just differences of opinion that those early meetings can often feel like a combination of math or finance class and marriage counseling all rolled into one. So, all of your stress and anxiety just cram it into one time period. Sounds awful but well, it's necessary.


Benjamin Haas  05:13

Yeah, and I'll say this. When we say don't agree that may not be explicit either. We've been doing this enough and we sit with enough couples that sometimes it's something that we pick up on, as maybe something that sounds like a stress or frustration. It's not that they're pointing the finger at each other, it's just, we recognize and we're going to go into this, how we can help? We recognize that different viewpoints exist for a reason. People have different experiences from their past different relationships with money, different learnings that they've had either passed down to them based on things that happen to them. So again, I like that you said it that way. This is not for us to pass judgment. It really is the first thing when we now move to how we can help. We're here to kind of just listen and understand why those things exist and help in any way that we can. Not that we're sitting here, taking sides with saver versus spender or aggressive versus conservative.


Adam Werner  06:14

I hope this is how we are different than most other planners or advisors specifically in this area, where what you just said, we're seeking just to understand first. Facilitate that conversation so we have a better idea of where people are coming from. Because that is, in our experience, and through a lot of the behavioral side of money that we are learning is so important. To uncover that, in and of itself, is a, I don't want to say it's a talent, but it's a skill. Just to be able to have that conversation, you said it, to be able to listen to what somebody's saying and pick up on key words or phrases, and ask those follow up questions to really understand why. Because it very well could be you if you have two, this couple, one person being the saver and one being the spender. The person being the spender is feeling I'll say attacked in that meeting, while the simple outcome could be just don't spend. But that doesn't necessarily get to the root of the problem or fix things in the grand scheme of things. That's where it does take a little bit extra to make sure that we're facilitating that conversation. It is a safe space for people to kind of share where they're coming from, how they're feeling, and try to find some middle ground where they're in agreement on. I said this earlier. I'm imagining people probably aren't as far apart as they may feel or it comes across at certain times when you actually start to talk through some of the issues or some of the disconnects.


Benjamin Haas  08:12

Yeah, and I think I'm glad you went there because as you were saying that I was going back to a lot of our questions. Just our follow up questions to better understand why do you feel that way? Why did you say that that way? Because I think if we can find that their common ground still is kind of what matters most to them and what they're trying to get to, it's not to label ourselves as saver versus spender. When there is I'll just say balance. We want couples to find balance between in this case, well, I spend a little bit today because I want to experience this or I want my kids to experience something in this realm, while balancing saving for the future. It may just be trying to draw out all sides of the viewpoints so that we can find compromise because here's the point before I let it leave my head, because it wasn't in our notes. The whole point of working with couples through any disagreement that they have is any plan that we write or we try to help them with is irrelevant if they can't put it into action. So, starting at the beginning by a big part of active listening, understanding, communicating, it's really just to figure out what tools do they have, and what do we need to support them with to actually put this advice into action that's going to take some agreement on their end. 


Adam Werner  09:32

Yeah. 100% and I'm glad you said that and then now looking at some of my notes, yet it can when they're feels, like you're not in a situation where it feels like a couple is just not on the same page and they can feel and sense that they're just not on that same page. They don't know how to get in agreement. It does make it incredibly difficult to plan for the future or even just to make financial decisions if you feel like you're on opposite ends of the spectrum. So yeah, it ultimately does come down to action and if advice can't be implemented, then it's no good.


Benjamin Haas  10:15

So then let's, we're really peeling back the curtain again. We made, I thought four good notes on four good points we wanted to make on how we can actually help and we're going to put it all under this camp of I think we just want to bring awareness to certain things. It's not choosing sides, it's not judgmental, it's all planning and big picture to try to help you move forward. The first one I kind of mentioned, so I'll take that, and then you can kind of moved through the next one. We just sometimes want to take the opportunity to just make sure there aren't misconceptions on either side. Again, I think we've just become as a society, pretty quick to judge and maybe not as empathetic as we should be. So, we get to sit in the middle and kind of be mediator here to make sure that how each person is viewing the other or their own financial situation, that we're all kind of working from the same starting point of what matters most. What we need to do to kind of get there and eliminate those barriers of misconception.


Adam Werner  11:18

Yeah. 100%. I think another way to kind of sort through that. We talk about it a lot. It's mental accounting. It sometimes, Oh, man. I'm trying to think how to put this in better words than what are currently just floating around in my head just nonsensically. The idea that the outcome or where that path may lead to, may be no different. That end result may be no different but there could be 50 different ways to get to that end result and the emotional journey to get there is going to feel different on all these different paths. Where ultimately, we've seen this work for certain clients is just it is that mental accounting. It's bucketing certain assets; I'm thinking specifically for when it comes to investment risk and being able to - your words - kind of scratch the itch for both partners where there is the safety and security of cash. We know what we need is here and it's safe. By the way, for the stuff that we're just not sure of or we're thinking about the long term, that can be invested. That can have some growth associated with it where at the end of the day, the aggregate of all of that usually ends up somewhere in the middle, where maybe it's not 100% comfortable for either one of them, but trying to split that difference and end up in the middle just by mentally accounting for certain things, we've seen that go a long way.


Benjamin Haas  13:10

Yeah, I think we talked about bucketing with expenses, too. I see a parallel between what you just said and that idea that, all right, if somebody feels fulfilled by doing certain things that may be looked at as focused on the here and now and not the long-term future. We owe that some respect, right? We do have to help people feel fulfilled. So, if there is spending whether that's vacation, it's stuff around the house, it's things for the kids. We need to live fulfilling and happy lives and there's an element of that. But I think maybe our job or the role that we can play is okay, but to what extent and to what limit because I'll go back to the word balance. All we're trying to do is help this couple kind of balance those two things. So, bucketing not only from an investment standpoint but I'd say also from like an income and expense standpoint. Where you allocate your income can be for today and tomorrow and sometimes that creates a little more synergy. Sorry, I kind of went on a rampage there. The third point I think we wanted to make was, I think it's our job to just kind of focus on the points of agreement and what my thought process there was, usually if it's parents with kids, that is a focal point of agreement. Whether that's how they're listed as beneficiaries, it's talking about education expenses, when we can kind of use their common ground as a starting point. That's sometimes healthier than starting with their friction point. 


Adam Werner  14:38

Yeah, and so, I want to build on that because I think I said it earlier. Oftentimes, we find that they're not as far apart as they may think or feel and that's where our role is facilitators for that conversation. I think you used the word misconceptions earlier, it's to try to shine a light on just giving some education. It may alleviate some of that stress or some of that disconnect, just to get a better understanding of the situation. In the absence of data or in the absence of information, it is so human to just fill that in with negatives and what can go wrong, what's the worst possible outcome here. That's immediately kind of what I know, this is me, or you lead to that and then you latch on to it. 


Benjamin Haas  15:38

Are you projecting here, Adam? 


Adam Werner  15:40

That's all I do and then you just get into that negative spiral. Where, take a step back. Where are we on the same page? What do we agree on? And then let's try to figure out what those specific concerns are because as we know, the surface level concerns don't necessarily reflect kind of the underlying emotional concerns.


Benjamin Haas  16:08

That's awesome segue into the last point that I was hoping we would make around just education and the leadership of implementation. I think it's to help people understand that, we can try certain things out. If this may feel like, okay, it doesn't feel perfect. It feels like it may create a little bit of a stressor or we need to find a way to compromise the two of us. Let's just test that. Let's move the savings here. Let's move the allocation here just a little bit and then let's check back in with it. Let's course correct over time. Let's find the spot where it feels good for both of you. I think sometimes when we feel like we're at odds with something or someone, it feels so black or white. I know in planning and trying to help people move forward, we're trying to create good habits. Those are little like micro actions at a time, where hopefully, that stress of making a wrong call or this is going to feel horrible. It's like dipping your toe in the water before your ankle goes in, before your whole leg goes in and you're getting your body used to something holding it. 


Adam Werner  17:14

Ultimately, I don't know if you already said this but our role in the process can only go so far. We recognize that there are limits to essentially what we can do. 


Benjamin Haas  17:30

We are not marriage counselors. 


Adam Werner  17:34

Neither of us are certified in relationship counseling. That is for sure. So, all that being said, oftentimes, it really can be as simple as let's identify where the friction is, let's talk through that and let's together, try to find what are our potential options here moving forward. What's going to feel good for this person? What's going to feel good for this person? And then that's, I guess that's where our job, our expertise really comes into play to try to figure out what are realistic paths forward that we know in our experience are at least going to get them still moving in the right direction. Because ultimately, you said it. The advice needs to be actionable for it to actually matter and at the end of the day, that's kind of our focus.


Benjamin Haas  17:35

Yeah, I think that was actually really good summary and maybe leave it at that. We're here to be partners. If it takes being the middleman in the conversation. We know that's part of what we need to do but if you find yourselves not agreeing, I'll go back to your comment from earlier. That's normal. I think that's all of us. It's going to happen at some point, not only in relationships, but our relationships with money and relationships between each other with that money. So, it's okay, this is a safe space to talk about it and let's figure it out.


Adam Werner  19:04

Yeah, sounds great. Let's do it. Call us.


Benjamin Haas  19:10

Thanks, Adam. Have a great day. 


Adam Werner  19:12

You too. See you in the Spring.


Benjamin Haas  19:29

Hey everyone, Adam and I really appreciate you tuning in. Please note that the opinions we voiced in the show are for general information only, and are not intended to provide specific recommendations for any individual. To determine which strategies or investments may be most appropriate for you. Consult with your attorney or your accountant and financial advisor or tax advisor prior to making any decisions or investing. Thanks for listening!


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