Ask Pawan: How do I talk to my affluent partner about money?

Hi Pawan, I am trying to express to someone I care about the fact that I don’t have a lot of money (never have), but I don’t want to make them feel bad or hate me for not being able to treat them the same way they grew up (they grew up with money). How do I do this?

As a rule of thumb, folks generally don’t enjoy discussing personal income or family finances regardless of whether they come from the lap of luxury or leaner beginnings. I bring this up first to help set your expectations for this conversation and similar ones in the future — many of them aren’t liable to be fun. That doesn’t mean they’re not necessary.

It seems you’re already set on having this conversation, which is great, but I want to get across the importance of discussing income with loved ones, for a wider audience (and in case you get cold feet).

Talking about your personal or familial finance is a pretty difficult topic nearly every time it comes up. The upside is that it gets easier the more you do it, but put a pin on that while I talk about why it’s important to get that conversation going sooner rather than later, with those you care about

To be clear, I’m not saying you lead every introduction with a firm handshake and your credit score — beyond being a social pariah, you’re liable to get your identity stolen. What I am saying is that finance is a dimension that influences so many of our daily interactions, a truth people who didn’t grow up affluent are more likely to be aware of. Wealth obviously affects day-to-day choices like where to eat or how to travel, but it’s important for folks who grew up with a bit more money to spend to understand there’s a lot more to it.

Personal wealth can affect the hobbies people have, the cultural touchstones they possess and the way they think. Growing up, I could tell you what sales were on at the grocery store that day or where and when you could swing by and score some unwatched wooden pallets for a bonfire. This is part of why it’s important to have this conversation, regardless of what kind of wealth you were raised with: it’s affecting the world views of you and the folks around you and colouring how you interact, so you might as well interrogate it and, ideally, get a better understanding of the folks you care for.

What I said earlier about this stuff getting easier with practice is true. In the beginning of my post-secondary, I was as tight-lipped as they came regarding my finances. The idea of looking like a low-income schmuck really scared me, especially when I risked looking uncultured in front of a girl I liked. As a result, I found myself holding back in conversations and talking nonsense about what I thought affluent folks discussed. A few years later, I’m happy to talk about how I grew up and be more genuinely ‘me’ with folks from ‘the upper crust’ because I have had plenty of practice — for what it’s worth, finding friends who grew up in a similar way certainly didn’t hurt.

Returning to your particular question, my verdict is that talking about wealth with a significant other is largely the same as chatting about it with a friend — if not a bit more intense — though that kinda comes with the whole ‘relationship’ territory.

You’ve likely known this person for a good while and, as a result, have likely run into some of the idiosyncrasies that come from growing up in different tax brackets. They’re kind of like little wealth mile-markers on the side of a road. These wealth checks can range from a cultural reference going over your head or using some term that is inadvertently unknown to your partner. As a result, and this might be a bit of a moment for you, your partner is likely to be somewhat aware of the financial situation you grew up with, though maybe not to the same extent as you’re aware of theirs. In my own anecdotal experience, folks who come from a lower-income background are more in tune with the wealth checks that tell you if someone has money, but it can run both ways. Higher-income folks can catch on just as quick to these missed wealth checks.

The upside to this is, since you both care for each other, you’re probably running the same scripts in your heads, trying to figure out how to broach the subject while letting the other know that their income isn’t the end-all, be-all for the relationship.

Here’s my straight advice for how to get this conversation started: sit them down and get to it. Something I find useful is leading with a shared experience where one of you missed a wealth check unintentionally posed by the other to give some context for the conversation ahead. This’ll help centre the conversation on your relationship and the fact that that missed check wasn’t the end of the world, while also helping to illustrate just how pervasive wealth gaps can be in a relationship.

Ideally, you come out of this with a better understanding of your partner without feeling the need to hold yourself up to a standard you’ve made for yourself, based on what you think their childhood was like. An added bonus is anyone you meet in university is probably living a life less luxurious than what they’re used to, so the disparity in wealth might not translate directly to disparity in standards of living.

All in all, talking about wealth is something best done early and frequently, but it doesn’t have to be a conversation that happens from the get-go. Given the prevalence of wealth checks and how annoyingly often they crop up, I find it best to get ahead of them by addressing what your upbringing was like with whomever you’re comfortable telling. This goes doubly for the folks in the upper tiers of affluence. Navigating wealth checks can be exhausting if you’re trying to not let on what kind of financial situation you come from, so being a bit more cognizant of these wealth checks is something you can do to help reduce that burden!

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