How to navigate money fights with your friends and family

Money can be an emotionally fraught subject. Here's how to not let it ruin your relationships.

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Maxine McCrann

Whether it’s with a best friend, sibling, or that cousin who's “just checking in on you” after disappearing for years, conflicts involving money might sometimes to pop up. It’s the uncomfortable truth about living in a capitalistic society where so much of our lives and self-worth are tied to it. Money means different things for different people, though, so when it comes to discussing anything finance-related with the people you care about, it’s always best to tread cautiously.

Last year, I had my fair share of money-related spats. In December, for example, I owed my brother some money and forgot to pay him back. When he brought up that I hadn’t sent him the money days after he had requested it, he swore that I was trying to take advantage of him and that I was just playing dumb.

Money-related beef with a family member can get heated

To be fair, I can understand where he was coming from, but it was the holidays and I had genuinely forgotten — thinking about money has always stresses me out. I paid him then and there but out of pettiness, I told him that the gift I’d bought him for Christmas was way more expensive than the money he requested. Our argument snowballed into something that went way beyond money: It was personal and ugly. We didn’t talk for days.

What I’ve found after speaking to experts is that at the root of our misunderstandings or conflict about money is the fact that we all think and speak about it in radically different ways, even within our own families. Amanda Clayman, a California-based financial therapist who now specializes in helping others with money management issues, often talks to her clients about why these types of conflicts are so common. “Everybody has an emotional relationship to money,” she says. “Let’s say that money is a source of a lot of anxiety or shame, or both of those things. The way people handle their anxiety will mirror the way they handle their money, so if they’re avoidant — with their anxiety — that’s also how they’ll approach their relationship to money.”

Those of us who have an anxious relationship to money can relate to this all too well; for a long time, I was the type of person who avoided checking their bank account for weeks at a time. When it comes to talking to the people we care about, though, having an avoidant relationship to money can have serious consequences.

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And trust me, I get it. Our culture often teaches us that talking about money is distasteful or that it “shouldn’t matter” in our relationships, so few of us end up prioritizing that conversation. Really, a lack of communication on the topic can lead to resentment and an unnecessary and sometimes hurtful power dynamic. In the end, our inability to candidly express what works for us financially gives money a power and importance that it doesn’t deserve.

What you can do about it

So how do you even approach conversations about your feelings around money?

Well, the first step is to admit that it’s extremely difficult to be honest about how you feel. Clayman suggests that instead of pretending to care less about money, I should start thinking about money in terms of a love language. If you’re not familiar, love languages are an overly simplified but sometimes helpful way to think about the ways we express our affection: words of affirmation, acts of service, gifts giving, quality time and physical touch. Our love language as adults often depends on how the people in our lives, especially our parents, expressed affection to us growing up.

Similarly, we should think about our individual relationships to money in the context of our culture and upbringing and accept that other people have equally nuanced approaches to it. When we ascribe too much personal meaning to money, it becomes harder to talk about objectively. On the flip side, if we understand that peoples’ approach to money has less to do with us than it does with them, it’s easier to approach the subject in a way that feels more comfortable for both parties.

For example, some people don’t mind being the ones to always foot the bill — it’s their way of showing they care, but maybe they’ll expect undivided quality time in return. Other people, though, will always expect you to hand them exact change. Neither is better than the other, and it doesn’t necessarily dictate what the person is like in other areas of life. It’s really important to never assume someone else’s approach to money.

When I thought more deeply about my own relationship to money, I started to realize where I often go wrong: I feel like there’s never enough of it, even when I am financially secure. My anxiety around money prevents me from wanting to even think about it. As a result, I’ve allowed money to turn into a big, scary monster and increasingly, a source of conflict.

I recently spoke to my brother and we agreed to be more transparent about money moving forward. I assured him that I never deliberately try to take advantage of his money and that if he ever felt that way, that he should express it. More importantly, we’ve left the door open for any future conversations about personal finances, because it’s not worth ruining our relationship over.