Talk money with your spouse -- and keep the peace

@CNNMoney December 2, 2011: 3:16 PM ET

NEW YORK (CNNMoney) -- My wife was raised by extremely irresponsible parents who used credit cards whenever they liked and never bothered with things like 401(k)s. When we met, she'd never even had a savings account. I need her help so we can save for retirement and our children's educations. But when I try to bring up money issues, it often ends in a shelved conversation. How can I talk to her without getting into an argument? -- E.K.

Your case may be extreme, but you and your wife are hardly alone when it comes to difficulties dealing with money. Finances can be a major source of tension in most relationships.

When my colleagues at MONEY took a deep dive into the subject of relationships and money a few years back, they found that seven in 10 couples admitted to arguing over money. Which makes it an even bigger cause of fights than sex.

But if you want to achieve the goals you've mentioned -- and you want your marriage to survive -- you and your wife are going to have to find some way to work out your financial differences.

I wish I could suggest some easy, surefire way of doing that. But there's no single correct method for ironing out these issues. And, to be realistic, you're probably never going to be able to totally eliminate all of your money strife.

Are you financially compatible with your spouse?

That said, I have three suggestions that may be able to put you and your wife on the path toward reconciling some of the differences you have over money, without disturbing the domestic peace.

1. Start with the right approach. I know you believe you're right about the paramount importance of saving and investing. As someone who makes his living writing about financial topics, I'm inclined to agree with you.

But I also know that there's nothing more off-putting than having someone start a conversation by telling you you're wrong but, not to worry, they're going to set you straight. That's a nonstarter.

Besides, it's rare that one person has all the right answers, especially in areas that involve more than a bit of subjectivity, like personal finances. If you show you genuinely want to hear your wife's views about how to manage the family's resources, you're more likely to come to a solution you both can live with, and get to that point with less stress.

Toward that end, I also strongly recommend that you leave her parents out of it. This is between you and your wife, not you and your in-laws.

2. Agree on some goals. I'm not just talking about saving for retirement and your kids' education, although they should certainly be topics of discussion. I'm talking about all sorts of different goals one has in life: having a nice home, enjoying family time, indulging oneself with treats occasionally, new clothes, a dinner out, a nice vacation. Some of these goals are immediate, some a little farther down the line, others very long term.

I married a secret spender

Ultimately, though, you and your wife need to agree on the type of lifestyle you can afford to lead today while still making provisions for future obligations. I can't read your wife's mind, but perhaps she feels that you're leaning too much toward the distant future and stinting on the here and now. Behavioral economists have long known that saving is difficult because our brains are hard-wired for immediate gratification.

The key is for you and your wife to find a way to balance these different goals. If you sit down together and write them all down, it will become clear that you can't do them all at once. You may have to compromise on some. But that's the point, you will arrive at a compromise together rather than have one person arbitrarily impose a decision on the other.

3. Make a plan. Once you're both on the same page about at least some of the financial goals you want to achieve, follow up with action. One step would be to work up a conventional budget that incorporates the various goals you've decided on so you can track whether you're making progress toward them. Or you could take the "bucket budget" approach, which many people feel is simpler and more effective in part because it easily combines budgeting and saving.

You may also want to look into other ways to assure that you actually save toward your goals. For example, Stickk.com helps you create what's known as a "commitment device" to meet various goals. Or you might find it easier to target certain areas that allow you to free up the most money that you can divert toward savings.

The point, though, is to make sure you follow up any discussion with a plan that you can monitor. Otherwise, all the talking and compromise may be for naught.

Ask the Help Desk your money questions

In the end, though, I think success or failure in this effort hinges on the opening gambit. If you go into this process with the attitude that you need to teach your wife the error of her ways, you'll be in for a rough time. But if you view this as an opportunity to share your visions of the kind of life you want to lead now and in the future, you should at least have a fighting chance. To top of page

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