The Lovely Language of Legal Tender
“What we have here is a failure to communicate.”
-From the movie, “Cool Hand Luke.”
In the movie “Cool Hand Luke, pre-salad dressing, philanthropist, Paul Newman played the character of a prisoner in a chain gang. Because he was sullen, unruly, and unable to change his ways, he was berated by the prison “Captain” for disobeying his orders. I love the above quote because it is worthy of expression from both a spiritual and financial perspective. Although money and spirituality may not appear to be closely associated with each other, they are inordinately glued to the choices many couples make when discussing important financial issues. Most couples in close relationships have not achieved the skills necessary to listen empathically; to the words one partner is saying and reading between the lines as to what is not being said. These small misperceptions can be an impediment to communicating more effectively.
John was Vice-President of a local police union. He loved collecting antique guns from the Civil War. When he was considering retirement, he mentioned to us how he scrimped and saved to obtain enough money to retire comfortably. He said, “I remember early in my career, I had very little in assets, earning $400 dollars every pay period and going to work with five cents in my pocket.” He continued, “early in my marriage I saved and sacrificed to provide a safe and secure financial future for my wife. Mistakenly, I neglected to spend time working on our finances alongside my wife to ensure she also understood our financial situation.” I was shocked to discover she worried that if she outlived me she would not have enough money to live.” He described the sudden realization, “like someone fired a pistol next to my ear,” when he was awoken to the extent of the problem. In a flash, he understood how the importance he placed on money was different than his wife.
Just because we go to work every day, working diligently to provide for our significant other doesn’t mean they will be happy. John is not the only spouse who has come to us with this situation. Many couples lack the important skills of quality communication.
In his wonderful book Sapiens1, author Yuval Noah Harari says,
“language is amazingly supple. We can connect a limited number of sounds and signs to produce an infinite number of sentences, each with a distinct meaning.”
Many couples avoid the subject of money, comparable to an apprehensive patient waiting to hear her prognosis of a biopsy. When couples meet with us to discuss important financial decisions, we learn how poorly they communicate with one another when discussing finances.
Everyone learns a language and depending on the geographical part of your country, there is a distinct dialect. People in northern Italy speak a dialect completely different than those who live in Sicily, yet they both speak Italian and are citizens of the same country.
Compound dialect with the usage of words. One partner who says they want to feel “secure” may have a completely different meaning of how to provide “security” for the other.
Recently I was traveling to see clients and while waiting for my plane the man next to me noticed me reading the Wall Street Journal. He asked me if I was an investor. I told him I was a wealth manager and was going to meet with some families to talk about important financial matters. He mentioned he was going to visit his fiancé’ and wondered, “why was it important to talk to your partner about money; if you trust and love the other person shouldn’t everything fall into place?” I know he meant well but that is precisely the misguided perception people have about money going into a relationship or marriage.
I explained to him that in the first stage of a relationship you care and trust very deeply for each other. You believe your love and the commitments you have made to each other will solve all obstacles, including money. However, after a few years of living together, your needs and responsibilities change. In this second stage, we need to be more deliberate about what we do, especially regarding our conversations towards money, finances and expectations for the future.
Skilled communication is the crucible of fire in a relationship. It forges strong connections when it pertains to finances.
Throughout our financial planning careers, Allie and I have discovered that what makes one person feel secure about money can be very different for the other. After the first few years of a relationship, couples descend from the exuberant emotional high to one that is more pragmatic.
Society has evolved in the last few hundred years making our financial decisions more complicated. Things that were luxuries have now become necessities. This lifestyle has generated new responsibilities.
One partner may say, “I work hard every day to support my family. Because of my success, I feel my spouse never has to worry about money. We have more than enough to live and the company stock that is given to me will one day make us millionaires. All this hard work will pay off one day!”
This spouse really believes his actions are a form of kindness and love. This is his way he expresses his feelings.
In contrast, his spouse said, “we are very comfortable financially, but I wish he was home more for the family. I’m glad he feels secure in our financial future, but there are other things that are important to me.”
Composer Gustav Mahler said, “It is not the notes being played, but it is the silence between the notes being played that contains what is best about the music.”
One thing I learned from studying and performing piano music is how to become a better listener. I remember during one of my piano lessons I struggled with an interpretation of the piece. My teacher suggested I hear the space between the notes as well as the notes. She said that what we don’t hear is just as important as what we do hear.
Three ideas to advance your skills in financial communication:
1. Acknowledge your appreciation and ask good questions.
An example of this may be: “I notice how well you research things before you make a purchase. This has been a great help for us as a couple while at the same time we are saving extra for our future”. These words are like “Manna from heaven” to a significant other. It gives some someone the opportunity to be really appreciated. Follow this up with good questions: “when you think about money what is the most important thing for you to have”?
2. If you had the opportunity to look back 3 years from now, what must happen for you to be happy with our finances?
When it comes to financial issues listen carefully to what someone is not saying as much as possible to what they are saying. Discover opportunities to make small, daily deposits into your partner’s emotional investment account!
3. Learning your partners money-mind
Compounding the challenges of poor communication is the failure to adjust. Talk about finances often and truly try to understand the issues that are important to your partner. Possessing good communication skills takes practice, patience, and perseverance.
Like Cool Hand Luke we must learn new ways to communicate with our spouses and partners to make legal tender a loving language.
1. Sapiens, Harari, chapter 2, p22