Money and Relationships: A tricky business

By Carolann Grieve, Natalie R. Smailes

Families need to begin open and honest conversations around wealth, recognize teachable moments, discuss and learn about “money history” and educate each family member about money management.  

“Money is like an iron ring we put through our nose. It is now leading us around wherever it wants. We just forgot that we are the ones who designed it.”

Lynn Twist captured that statement by Mark Kinney in her 2017 book, “The Soul of Money: Transforming Your Relationship with Money and Life” and we think it speaks volumes. It gets to the core of the power of money. Not only does money have the power to buy goods and services, money has the power to impact our daily lives and decisions, and very importantly, the power to impact the myriad relationships we have from marriages to siblings to friendships.

Every one of us has a relationship with money. The key to money and relationships is understanding the pros, cons, implications and impact on each relationship. There’s no one right or wrong way to deal with money, but there is the need to recognize its resulting effect.

Let’s start with a simple exercise:

What words and feelings come to mind when you think about money? The answers go around the block – happiness, fear, power, control. Why is this? For the most part, our feelings about wealth are the result of how we were raised: what we heard; what we witnessed; what we experienced. Equally as impactful, our feelings are shaped by how we came into wealth.

·      Did we create the wealth and want control and success?

·      Did we inherit the wealth and now vacillate between happy and worried?

·      Did we marry into wealth and feel guilty or empowered?

·      Did we “win” the money via lottery or lawsuit and now fret over its impact?


Every one of these questions results in an answer that has great influence on how we perceive and utilize money in our lives. And yet, in our society, talking about money has been considered taboo for generations. Today, it is easier to talk about sex than money.

Taboo or not, it has become increasingly clear that communication around money and wealth is inextricably tied to maintaining that wealth. The saying, “Shirtsleeves to Shirtsleeves in Three Generations,” is one that is very familiar.

The statistics behind the saying may not be. 

These statistics, revealed in a study by Roy Williams and Vic Preisser, show that fewer than 1 in 3 families is successful at passing wealth over multiple generations. Naturally, we think it’s due to financial errors, yet those errors are the problem only 15% of the time. In their 2010 book, “Preparing Heirs: Five Steps to a Successful Transfer of Family Wealth,” Williams and Preisser state: Sixty percent of the failures are due to lack of communication and trust, and 25% are due to unprepared heirs.

In a 2019 study of next generation inheritors done by Credit Suisse and Young Investors Organization, more than half (59 %) said they would like to talk to their parents about money, while 68% said they didn’t know how to start, continue or maintain those conversations.

How can this be? The short answer: Families don’t know how to have these conversations and are afraid that talking about money will lead to entitled children.

This is a vicious cycle. Our grandparents didn’t discuss money with our parents. Our parents didn’t/don’t discuss with us and we don’t course correct. We repeat the behavior and the result is the same: We have no discussions about money and its impact on our lives and our relationships.

Unfortunately, the truth is, if we’re not discussing money and wealth with our children, no one is! In a 2016 study conducted by PWC, it was discovered that while 92% of K-12 educators surveyed nationwide believe financial education should be taught in schools, only 12% do so.  Yet, most parents think schools are covering the subject. On the other hand, wrote Paul Sullivan for a 2019 New York Times article, “Four Reasons Parents Don’t Discuss Money,” children are learning from their parents and observing their habits around money. That is a huge disconnect.

The power of your money history

Our current behavior around money begins at an early age. It is shaped by our experiences with money during our upbringing and also by how we came into wealth.

Understanding your money history goes a long way in shaping perspective. Money may be neutral – it’s just green paper -- yet we allow money to create much more in the way of memories, feelings and thoughts.

Ask yourself: “What is your first memory of money?” Although that first memory may be far in the past, money and our relationship with it continues to influence our current feelings about that green paper. In turn, those feelings seep into our relationships. Our family, friends and society all send money messages. Have these messages been positive from which you have adopted your own money message or negative to which you have rebelled? As you explore those money messages you received growing up, what are the current messages you are giving to your children? What messages did you receive from your parents that you would like to change?

Teach your children well

Children are like sponges; they take in everything they see and hear. It is well known that parental modeling is the No. 1 way children learn.  Model your behavior around money the way you’d like your children to behave.   

·      Help your children understand the difference between needs and wants.

·      Acknowledge that arguments over money create feelings of conflict.

·      Keep the messages in sync. Parents who send different messages regarding money create feelings of confusion.

.     Be willing to have discussions around family wealth. Parents who have no discussions create unprepared inheritors who may interpret this lack of discussion as a as lack of trust and confidence in their ability to be responsible with the wealth.

Developing self-esteem is critical to your child’s development. Parents can create an environment for the development of a strong self-esteem through exhibiting the behavior they want to encourage in their children, and by seizing opportunities for teaching productive habits. 

At Truist Wealth’s Center for Family Legacy, we suggest beginning to work with children as early as age five, teaching four basics: saving; spending; giving; and investing. Have age-appropriate conversations as opportunities present themselves.

Also, allow your children to cope with adversity. This is something that cannot be taught; this type of learning must be experiential. Allowing children to fail helps them to better cope, build resilience and take on even more challenging tasks. Not allowing a child to fail sends the message that a parent doesn’t trust them, a true blow to one’s self esteem, says Bill Murphy Jr., in his 2017 article for, “Want to Raise Successful Kids? Do These 9 Things.” Clinical psychologist Dr. Stephanie O’Leary says in her 2016 book, “Parenting in the Real World”: “Your willingness to see your child struggle communicates that you believe they are capable and can handle any outcome, even a negative one.”

Going back to the statistics around communication and preparing heirs, it becomes increasingly important to not keep wealth a secret. Journalist and author Ron Lieber shares a scenario in his 2016 book, “Opposite of Spoiled,” where a high school sophomore delivers a keynote address about children and their questions about money. “As our elders, it is completely irresponsible and it’s just blatant institutional adultism. I say this because I hear it every day, ‘You’re the future of this and that, Jacob. You’re the torchbearer.’ But how can we be the future if you are not going to teach us about money, which is our future?”

Don’t let the first time your children hear about the wealth they will have to steward be when you are no longer there to mentor them.

It’s not just the children

Money impacts relationships beyond our children. One of the main reasons for divorce in today’s society is money. Society’s lack of discussion around money creates spouses who don’t understand each other’s relationship to money or their money history.

Spouses or partners who openly communicate around money will understand each other’s actions and relationship to money – especially if one spouse came from wealth and the other earned his or her wealth.  These discussions allow spouses to establish guidelines for themselves as a couple and, as parents, to move forward with a more consistent money message.

While recognizing that conversations related to money are difficult, it is important to understand that open communication is critical for every successful marriage.

Talk and listen

The goal is very simple: Families need to begin open and honest conversations around wealth, recognize teachable moments, discuss and learn about “money history” and educate each family member about money management.  

Remember Mark Kinney’s quote: Money IS powerful, but you are in charge of that power and how it reflects on you, your family and the relationships around your family.

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Truist Wealth Center for Family Legacy is a marketing name used by Truist Financial Corporation. Services offered by the following affiliates of Truist Financial Corporation: Banking products and services, including loans and deposit accounts, are provided by SunTrust Bank and Branch Banking and Trust Company, both now Truist Bank, Member FDIC. Trust and investment management services are provided by SunTrust Bank and Branch Banking and Trust Company, both now Truist Bank, and Truist Delaware Trust Company. Securities, brokerage accounts and /or insurance (including annuities) are offered by Truist Investment Services, Inc., and P.J. Robb Variable Corp., which are each SEC registered broker-dealers, members FINRA, SIPC, and a licensed insurance agency where applicable.  Life insurance products are offered through Truist Life Insurance Services, a division of Crump Life Insurance Services, Inc., AR license #100103477, a wholly owned subsidiary of Truist Insurance Holdings, Inc.  Investment advisory services are offered by Truist Advisory Services, Inc., GFO Advisory Services, LLC, Sterling Capital Management, LLC, and Precept Advisory Group, LLC, each SEC registered investment advisers.  Sterling Capital Funds are advised by Sterling Capital Management, LLC.nagement, LLC, and Precept Advisory Group, LLC, each SEC registered investment advisers.  Sterling Capital Funds are advised by Sterling Capital Management, LLC.



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