The Wrong Place and Time to Have a Money Conversation

A few weeks ago, I got home late after a long trip. I’d been traveling a lot recently and didn’t sleep well that night. The next morning, I woke up and felt like I’d been hit by a truck.

Emotionally, I was at a really low point.

When I came downstairs that morning, I asked my wife, “How are you?” She said she hadn’t slept well. Her tone was matter-of-fact, but given my thoughts and emotions, I made a huge mental leap. I took her answer way more personally than I should have.

What did I do wrong? Did I keep her up late? Did I snore too loudly? Why was she blaming me? As I went down this mental rabbit hole, I started to get mad. It wasn’t my fault she hadn’t slept well.

To be clear, my wife didn’t mention my name or even hint that I’d done anything. All she said was, “I didn’t sleep well.” But because I was tired, I reacted to what I thought she meant. I mentally curled into a fetal position and then went on the offensive. You can imagine how the rest of the conversation went.

I’ve made this mistake many times before, and you might have, too. When we’re in a bad place mentally or emotionally, we engage in what some people call basement thinking. Every little comment feels like a personal attack. We can only see the obstacles in front of us, and not the potential solutions in between. We also default to shaming and blaming the people around us for how we’re acting.

Of course, even the most routine conversations can be filled with emotional land mines when we’re in the mental basement. But just imagine the outcome if we try to talk about something as emotionally charged as money. In those low moments, before we even realize what’s happening, the simple act of opening something like the credit card bill can lead to World War III.

Our money conversations don’t have to trigger these emotional fights. We can have meaningful and thoughtful discussions about our financial goals and what we want to do with our money. But those conversations won’t happen by accident. We need to make sure that all parties are in a good place emotionally. Talking about money when we’re in the basement all but guarantees a fight.

In these low moments, we feel constricted, like we can’t breathe. We take things personally. We use words that feel like daggers to the other person. Nothing good comes from conversations when we’re in a bad place.

So if we sense that a money conversation is headed south, we need to stop it — immediately. Respect the signs. If either person appears to be reacting personally, trust your instincts and call a halt to the conversation. Instead of throwing a verbal dagger and blowing up the conversation, tell them, “I can’t do this today. But I know it’s important. Let’s talk about it tomorrow.” A small break or a good night’s sleep can make all the difference and restore our energy. The higher our energy, the higher our thinking and the better the potential outcome.

When we start or return to these conversations with the right energy, we tend to end up focusing on the possibilities, not the obstacles. Instead of negative emotion overwhelming the discussion, we find ourselves moving away from “my way” or “your way” to the idea of a third, better way. But that can’t happen if we let basement thinking sabotage the conversation.

It might help to set up a routine for these conversations. Maybe pick a specific day and time. Maybe even pick a designated place outside the home, like a park or a coffee shop. Whatever the routine, our goal is to have regular, thoughtful conversations at moments of high energy. A routine can help us prepare for these conversations and avoid emotional minefields when we’re in the basement.

Talking about money can be hard. But these conversations will only be more difficult if we let basement thinking get in the way. Learn the signs and appreciate that sometimes stopping a conversation before it turns into a fight could be the best money decision you ever make.

This commentary originally appeared June 8 on NYTimes.com


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