The Language of Money

By Nancy Gabriel

We don't all speak the same language when it comes to money. Some of us are spenders, some are savers. Some of us are extravagant, some downright cheap. Whether we are in a business partnership or a domestic one, whether we're co-parenting kids with our ex, or sharing the responsibility with a sibling to care for aging parents, we all need to communicate with each other about finances.

In a perfect world, these conversations all take place before a conflict occurs. However, we do not live in a perfect world. As a Mediator, I help people communicate and understand the money language of each other and believe me, this isn't terribly easy. Sometimes, I think of myself as an interpreter or translator rather than a Mediator, and I would not be exaggerating if I told you that hundreds of thousands of lawsuits could be avoided if people simply understood each other when the topic is money.

We learn to start learning the language of money in our early childhood, so a lot depends on how our parents communicated. My own parents constantly bickered about money. My dad was a dreamer, always chasing the big deal. My mom, on the other hand, was the pragmatist, constantly preaching the virtues of a steady paycheck. In spite of being married 64 years, my mom and dad never learned to speak the same money language.

So how do we become our own interpreters, our own translators of the money language we choose to speak? Can we buy an insurance policy of sorts in order to avoid future financial misunderstandings? I think the answer depends upon the relationship, the patterns already established, and the desire to avoid future conflict. In theory, the solution is simple -- communication. In practice, it's not that easy.

Let's take a case study of a divorcing couple with whom I recently worked. The wife was a stay-at-home mom, She cared for the children, cleaned the house, did the laundry, and had one single credit card which she primarily used to buy groceries. The husband had a good job. He worked long hours and took care of all the bills. The marriage ended for several reasons, not the least of which was the wife's refusal to get a job. Because they never talked about their finances, she simply didn't understand why they needed more money. And because their impending divorce was about to impact the very roof over her head, she was understandably terrified.

That couple's situation could have been avoided had they embarked upon a series of conversations designed to educate each other as to their differing money languages. Arranging the conversations might not be too difficult, but participating in them may very well be another story. As with any difficult conversation, it is as important to listen as it is to speak. Listening to understand (rather than to respond) takes some practice. But if you want to be solution-oriented, I have a few suggestions:

1. Make sure you both are goal oriented. If you focus on a shared objective, you'll realize that you're on the same team.

2. Do not minimize the importance of undivided attention. That means a quiet space, no phones, no interruptions. Make eye contact.

3. Do your best not to judge. If your partner used his/her entire bonus to buy a motorcycle or purchase a non-refundable cruise package, what's done is done. Instead of criticism, try empathy. Start your sentences with, “Next time, let's discuss a major purchase before it happens.” And be sure to define what constitutes a major purchase.

4. Once you've established a financial goal, it's time to brainstorm. Creating a plan together to achieve early retirement, or to pay off the home equity line of credit can be exciting, fun, and for sure it will strengthen your bond because you're working together.

If we're talking about a business partnership rather than a marriage, the goals will assuredly be different, but the methods discussed will nevertheless apply. Same goes for those difficult conversations between adult siblings about the finances needed to care for aging parents. Regardless of the situation, finding common goals will be a lot easier if you make that your starting point in learning to speak and understand the language of money.

We provide support to those wanting to resolve conflict using mediation. We help individuals mediate a variety of conflicts ranging from unpaid loans and barking dogs to scenarios of family transition such as elder care and sibling rivalry over estate issues. To learn more about Nancy Gabriel please visit


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