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How to Talk to Your Partner About An Expensive Purchase


Sep. 7, 2022 Fatherly

“The reality is it’s rare in our lives that we only have one goal,” says Paul Edelman, financial coach and owner of Edelman & Associates.

You could have just gone and bought the thing, except you know that making a unilateral decision on something expensive is not how it works in a relationship. If you did, then you’d never be able to fully enjoy it.

You must talk about the potential big purchase with your partner. You know that. You just might not want to because the purchase feels completely selfish, or because you’d have to admit to something that you’d like to have and that comes with a risk of rejection. These feelings cause you to think less clearly and when you do bring it up, make you more likely to choose one of three incorrect paths:

  1. Don’t say anything, guaranteeing you’ll get nothing.
  2. You do say something, but it’s in the form of, “Gotta clean out the garage to make some space. Just giving you a heads up.”
  3. You present it like a discussion, asking for your partner’s feedback but with no intention of taking it, which makes things even worse.

By doing any of these three things, “you’ve made a charade of it,” says Marilyn Wechter, a St. Louis psychotherapist and financial therapist.

So what’s the better approach? Advocate less and look to build consensus. It means saying what you want but also remaining flexible to a solution that you may have never imagined. It also requires some preparation.

What to Consider Before Having the Conversation

Usually when we really want to buy something, we tend to hyper-focus. Edelman says to think of a stage. Right now, the “boat” is the only thing on it, but you need to fill the space with the other priorities in your life and the stuff that might not make the purchase doable.

Start by thinking about why you want the thing you want. It could be because you believe you deserve it, that you’ve always wanted one, or that your partner just got something. It helps to know if anxiety, fear, or jealousy is driving the decision, which could help explain why you hesitate to bring it up.

Then after figuring out your goal, think about the other goals in play. Those include what your partner might want, the plans you share, like saving for college; and maintaining the health of your relationship, because this isn’t like buying a car where you can go all-out with a salesperson who you’ll never see again. This is your partner, and, whatever you do has to be thought out and planned together.

You’re not winging it,” Edelman says.

It’s also not a mind-reading exercise. If you’re not sure what your partner wants, ask. By taking into account everything in play, the stage fills up, and you can work on how to possibly integrate all the pieces.

How to Talk About Making An Expensive Purchase

Teeing up this conversation doesn’t have to be anything more than, “I have something to talk about. I’d like to buy X… How can we make this work?”

You want to share why it matters. That could be as basic as the purchase would make you happy, because your partner doesn’t magically know. But be careful about how much you talk. It’s easy to start advocating, Edelman says; persuasion turns into pressure, and, as Wechter adds, “if I impose something on you, all you can do is be reactive.”

The ultimate thing to remember is that you want the discussion to be a discussion, and, in any discussion, people mostly just want to be heard. When they do, no one feels the need to dig in. You both talk and then the brainstorming comes, Wechter says. 

Maybe you say, “I get this now. You get the next splurge.” Maybe your partner suggests that you rent over buying for this year or take a weekend instead of a week vacation. None of it might look like what you envisioned, but because you came about it together, it’s a plan that works within the restrictions of your life, and, with that, you no longer feel any urgency or frustration.

The conversation can also take the edge off of the feeling that wanting something that isn’t about the kids or your future is selfish. That worry makes you act impulsively, or makes you end up keeping everything to yourself. Your thoughts and anger build and they become “the myth you tell yourself,” Wechter says. When you get the words out, they lose their power and you learn that what you want may not be so impossible, because now it’s a shared burden rather than a solo act.

As for the object of your affection being completely self-indulgent? Maybe it is, but you’ve come to an agreement with your partner about it, and if they’re good with it, stop wasting time and energy wrestling with a term.

As Wechter says, “Selfish is okay as long as it’s not being destructive.”

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