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Published: Feb 19, 2015 6 min read
black and white chess pieces on top of stack of money on chessboard
Hitoshi Michael—iStock

The last really big money fight my wife and I had was about a vacation. Yes, after 23 years of marriage, the very thing that was meant to bring joy to our lives was causing each of us to seriously question whether we had married the right person.

Since I've spent my entire career helping people with their finances, you might think that I would be a good person to talk to about money. Unfortunately, this wasn't true for my wife.

But is it any surprise that a big decision with significant financial implications can lead to a heated conversation? After all, how you spend money is deeply personal, because it is an expression of what you value.

So how can people make the best decisions together when they come to those decisions with different values?

This question is more complex than it seems, because seldom are big decisions simply economic and intellectual. They usually have emotional implications. And three major obstacles get in the way of making sound money choices: One, we are all biased in our perspective about money. Two, we feel like we are right even if the facts disagree with us. And three, deferring a discussion about money with a loved one can frustrate us, leading to an explosion over a seemingly small issue.

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Here’s a three-step plan to help you the next time you and someone close to you have to make a big money decision:

1. Know your biases.

I am a protector. I grew up in Zimbabwe, Africa, in an environment of scarcity and need. I worked from age 11 to have money. My wife grew up in Los Angeles with a very different life, one with financial stability. She is a giver and a pleasure seeker. I want money to give me security; she wants money to share with family and to enjoy life. I concentrate on the cost of things; she thinks more about the enjoyment something can bring. There’s no right or wrong way to view money, but it definitely affects how we think and feel about financial choices. When it came to our vacation, she wanted it to be longer than I felt was prudent. We both felt strongly about our perspectives. Knowing what biases we each bring to a financial decision helps us to take a more balanced approach. My firm's Money Mind Analyzer tool can help you and your partner understand your money personalities.

2. Look for a compromise rather than a choice.

When it comes to money conversations, we often decide a firm choice has to be made. What we are really making, however, is a tradeoff between different preferences. Emotions are natural when it comes to big decisions, but they can lead to real lasting frustration. Why? Because they often end with one person convincing the other to "see it my way." But the best answer is often a compromise of perspectives. I tend to be the more outspoken person, and that simply wasn't fair to my wife. She was rightly frustrated at not having her voice or opinions heard. So look for the middle ground where you can both win a little.

3. Have a disciplined process.

One of the best pieces of advice I have ever been given is to have scheduled meetings with my spouse to discuss life and our choices. Having the right mindset can change everything. We have a weekly meeting now with a list of things we need to jointly decide. We have rules, like staying calm and hearing each other's perspective. We also use a checklist whenever we have a big decision to make. Ready to start holding regular meetings to discuss important financial matters? You can use a checklist our firm has developed to help people come to an agreement about a big decision.

There is no magic to living a great financial life. It's all about your choices and how you make them. If you are on the voyage with someone else, then finding a positive way to decide together will make your life meaningfully better.

After that big fight about that family vacation, my wife and I decided that we had to find a different way. We still have different perspectives and passionate disagreements, but we usually find a middle ground where we each feel heard and both our needs are considered. One of the side benefits is that our three daughters get to see how we make financial choices — something neither of us got to see our parents do.

By the way, the vacation to Italy was great, and a little longer than I would have planned. I am eternally grateful to my wife for those extra few days I had fought against staying for.

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Joe Duran, CFA, is CEO and founder of United Capital. He believes that the only way to improve people’s lives is to design a disciplined process that offers investors a true understanding about how the choices they make affect their financial lives. Duran is a three-time author; his latest book is The Money Code: Improve Your Entire Financial Life Right Now.