In her 15 years as a financial planner who works with families, Carol Fabbri has seen it all, and it often isn’t pretty. Couples locked in a struggle over spending. Siblings crossing swords over inheritances. Parents warring over whether to throw a financial lifeline to an adult child. When the subject is money and the people doing the talking are family members, “I’ve seen gentle souls morph into demons,” says Fabbri, who is based in Denver. “People are rarely rational in these situations.”

You may be a whiz at Quicken and a disciplined index investor, but that doesn’t mean you can completely remove the raw human emotion from financial deci­sions: Money attitudes and habits run deep. We learn early in life to be spenders or savers, and formative experiences may lead us to ­associate money with powerful emotions such as love and the need to ­remain in control. So when there’s a financial decision to be made by family members with conflicting money perspectives, worlds can collide.

Tactics to Take the Sting Out of a Thorny Talk

• Meet in a neutral place. People tend to keep their voices down and control their anger more when they’re not at home, says state district court Judge John Roach in Collin County, Texas, co-author, with his wife, Laura, of “Divorce in Peace: Alternatives to War From a Judge and Lawyer” (Wheatmark, 2016). A casual restaurant is a good venue, Roach says. Or talk while walking in a natural setting such as a park, says Holly Gillian Kindel, a certified financial planner with Mosaic Financial Partners in San Francisco. “Studies find people are better able to process information and come up with creative ideas while engaged in physical activity in nature,” she explains.

• Focus on one topic. “Too many people try to tackle too much at once,” Roach notes. If you and your siblings have to deal with a parent’s daily care, for instance, focus first on what it will cost and how you’ll pay. Later, discuss who will oversee the care.

• Hire a pro. If the issue is a particularly contentious one, hiring a neutral person, such as a financial planner or CPA, can help keep conversations on track. The facilitator can also take responsibility for assigning tasks or requiring parties to share documents. “Having a pro involved takes the pressure off of you,” says Robert Karn, a wealth manager based in Farmington, Conn. “Let him be the bad guy.”

• Listen actively. “Mirroring what someone said in your own words allows them to feel heard and to say whether you’re understanding each other,” says Jennifer Safian, a divorce mediator based in New York City.

• Be respectful. “When someone’s talking, we tend to anticipate what they’re about to say and interrupt them,” Roach says. “Conversations break down at that moment.” Fight the temptation and wait your turn.

• Agree to disagree. No amount of talking can guarantee that you’ll get another person to see things your way, Roach says. When you reach an impasse, you sometimes have to be prepared to let it go and move on.

Having the Money Conversation With Family

How can relatives confront contentious money concerns without dynamiting family ties? Because personal finance is as much personal as it is finance, we asked experts from a range of disciplines—finance, law, psychology, and even preschool education—to address common family money scenarios, below, with spousesadult childrensiblingselderly parents, and new partners. We’ve also added our own practical advice. Some of our experts prescribe a warm and fuzzy approach; others tout tough love. Choose the counsel that best fits your style and situation to maintain (or restore) the peace and set out on a secure financial course.


Editor's Note:
 This article also appeared in the May 2017 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.