"What We've Got Here is Failure to Communicate"

"What We've Got Here is Failure to Communicate"

by Ben Simiskey on Sep 30, 2020

Financial Planning, Communication

As I watched the contentious and headache-inducing first presidential debate last night with my two boys, a line from the 1967 movie Cool Hand Luke kept playing in my mind. “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.” It’s one of the most famous lines in American film history, and it felt like an apt descriptor for the disaster last night.


Politics aside, it got me thinking about the importance of communication in any endeavor – particularly as it relates to the process of financial planning. It’s not just a political debate where things can go seriously awry when appropriate communication is lacking. We can self-inflict significant – sometimes irreparable – damage to our personal, long-term goals when we fail to communicate or communicate ineffectively.


This can cut several different ways. Certainly, if you’re working with a professional advisor to assist with your financial life, the communication between advisor and client (both ways) is critical. The communication among multiple advisors serving the same client is another important piece. But for the purposes of this post, I’ll spend more time on the communication that takes place outside the advisor’s office – between you and your spouse or partner. (If you’re single, the lessons can still apply to the dialogue you either have internally or with a trusted friend, sibling, child, etc.)


Inside a committed relationship, there are daily opportunities for miscommunication. And finances are near the top of the list for ways that can happen. Money-related conflicts are frequently cited as a reason for marital stress or divorce. And those conflicts are often rooted in either lack of communication or miscommunication.


For example, this article lists “The 12 Biggest Money-Related Reasons People Get Divorced.” As you read the list, notice how every one of the reasons cited is, at its core, a communication problem.


  1. Opposing attitudes toward money
  2. Mismatched financial priorities
  3. Credit card debt
  4. Financial infidelity
  5. Overextending their budgets
  6. Inability to compromise on spending
  7. Major impulse buys
  8. Stress from combining bank accounts
  9. Unexpected major expenses
  10. Spending too much on the wedding
  11. Not having pre-marriage financial counseling
  12. Loss of financial control


Reading a blog post isn’t going to solve a couple’s communication problems. But I wanted to share some information to at least help. Consider reading (individually or together) some of the following articles:


How to Communicate About Finances with Your Spouse

10 Principles for Talking with Your Spouse About Money

How to Communicate for a Better Marriage and Better Finances

Marriage and Money: How to Improve Communication and Minimize Money Fights


While this post is primarily about improving the communication between spouses/partners, it’s also worth mentioning that one way to do that could be to involve a professional. Depending on the issue, that could mean meeting with a marriage counselor. But it could also mean working with a Certified Financial PlannerTM. It’s worth considering whether such a professional could help you – maybe even save your marriage.


TODAY’S ACTION ITEMS (Time involved: 25-40 minutes)

  • Spend 5 minutes alone reflecting on what areas of your financial life are currently causing you stress. You likely won’t need to dig very deep; these will probably be top-of-mind things. Jot them down. If you’re in a relationship, ask your partner to do the same exercise.
  • Compare lists with your partner and talk about what you each believe is the cause of the stress. Avoid assigning blame. I recommend setting an alarm for 15 minutes so that the conversation stays brief and doesn’t devolve into criticism. If the alarm goes off and the conversation is still productive and both partners agree, consider adding another 15 minutes. (If you’re single, these 15-30 minutes could be spent pondering the history and root causes of your financial stress.)
  • Pick one item to focus on over the next week. If both of you had the same item on your lists, that would be a great one to address. If not, either select one from each list or agree to pick one now and then one from the other person’s list the following week.
  • Commit to an initial step forward on that one item. If there’s not an obvious first step or if the two of you can’t agree, decide on a specific time that you are both willing and able to spend together in the next few days to continue this conversation. Remember: you don’t have to solve the entire problem in one go. The goal is to agree to an initial step forward and then to take that first step.
  • Feel really good about the time you just spent! You just did what two presidential candidates couldn’t do last night – and it only took half the time.