People have complicated relationships when it comes to finances. These relationships are more difficult because of rules of social politeness, which insist that it’s not okay to talk about it. A lot of us heard when we were growing up that it’s not “polite” to talk about money. That may be true when it comes to a cocktail party, but not in a relationship. Couples who are not used to talking about their finances often make mistakes in predictable, yet preventable ways.

There are three big mistakes that people usually make when talking about money in relationships. They are:

  • Assuming a right-wrong mindset
  • Focusing on differences and
  • Losing focus

Another mistake is losing sight of the difference between an argument and a fight. In an argument, both sides present their cases, discuss issues logically and then come to a conclusion. In a fight, words become heated, tempers flare and things quickly get personal. Arguments are a fine and healthy part of any relationship, but fights are destructive and should be avoided.

When you assume, you’re right and your partner is wrong, the conversation becomes all about placing blame. You make accusations that your partner has done something wrong. Your partner then gets defensive about his or her choices as a means to avoid losing face. You both get angry because you start to place priority on winning the argument rather than solving the problem. Instead of trying to place blame, work on solving collective problems. To do that, acknowledge that no matter who started it, you’re in this together. Shift your energies (and the conversation) away from who caused your money problems. Move toward talking about how you can build a more secure financial future.

People have different financial priorities. You might focus on saving and devote a lot of energy to making and sticking to a budget. Your partner, though, might be a bit looser with money and might spend more freely. When your conversations focus on these differences, one or both of you will tend to make unfair comparisons. Spend more time talking about the goals that you share rather than on your areas of difference.

It’s also hard to keep focus when discussing your finances. It’s tempting to slip into “fight mode,” where your goal is on obtaining the win. When you’re in this frame of mind, you tend to use a lot of strategies that aren’t great for problem-solving. You might bring up other issues, such as work-sharing. You might also shut down and refuse to listen. Remember, though, that it’s the topic that’s making you stressed. The faster you and your partner can work together to solve your financial problems, the better.

Now that you know  some of the pitfalls to avoid, it’s time to take some positive steps to make financial conversations more productive in the future.

  • Sit down and make a list of your financial goals. Think as long- or as short-term as you like. Do you want to retire early? Start a small business? Pay for college for your children? Get out of debt? Focus only on the things you agree on. Once you have agreed on a set of goals, write them down.
  • Develop a realistic budget. It’s tempting to put the harshest spending cuts you can imagine in place, but it’s not a good idea and can lead you right back into blaming and fighting. Coming up with a plan that you can both agree on is the easiest way to avoid these problems.
  • Be open about each other’s habits. We tend to use a rule called “special begging” to treat our luxuries as more important than our partner’s. If you never see the benefits of your partner’s morning coffee, it’s easy to see that as a place to cut spending. Your partner thinks of it as a necessity and might not see the need for your collectibles. Remember to value each other’s happiness equally.
  • Celebrate your victories. Set aside a small fund to cover shortages in the budget. If, at the end of the month, there’s still money in that fund, use it to pay for a date night or something you both want. Take some time to enjoy your financial discipline and spend some quality time together.