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The way to have a difficult money conversation with a family member is to just start talking

Sandra and Joe Sena treated marriage finances like a business, with frequent audits.
Photo: Sandra and Joe Sena

Talking about money is like going to the dentist. No one wants to do it.

But the price of not having these conversations can be high.

Lincoln Financial wanted a better handle on why people shy away from these talks. Because they think it's unimportant? Just don't want to? To find out, the insurer surveyed 1,380 U.S. adults in August.

As you might expect, most people understood these conversations are important.

The closer you are to a situation — you're nearing retirement, or someone actually needs long-term care — the harder it is to discuss. Almost half the respondents (47%) called these topics a real struggle in critical life stages.

Lincoln Financial also invited families and couples to a restaurant for a meal with a twist: The menu featured retirement and personal finance data points and financial conversation starters. Diners were told they'd "pay" for the meal by having a meaningful financial discussion.

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"It's overwhelming and complicated," said Angela Schema, vice president of advertising and sponsorships at Lincoln Financial in Radnor, Pennsylvania. "It's awkward and uncomfortable to talk about death, medical problems or not having enough money for retirement."

About a third of respondents said there's no financial plan for them and their family members. Parents may struggle more with financial conversations than non-parents, according to the survey.

And younger people seem to be more comfortable opening up than older ones. A solid majority of survey respondents in the 25- to 44-year-old age group (71%) said they have money talks, compared with 58% of people age 45 to 64.

Love and money

"If you're not on the same page with your partner about money, welcome to the club," said Brad Klontz, author of "Mind Over Money" and co-founder of the Financial Psychology Institute. Money is the top reason for fights, especially early on, and it's the No. 1 reason for divorce in the first three years of marriage.

If you're not on the same page with your partner about money, welcome to the club.
Brad Klontz
author of 'Mind Over Money'

Money conflict is so common you should never feel the relationship itself is flawed. "What we really need to do is find ways to negotiate win-win solutions around how we're going to approach our money," Klontz said.

Just talking is a good way to start.

Lori Monte Hubbard, 60, was at the restaurant for the Lincoln Financial event with her boyfriend. "It was fun and interesting," said Hubbard, a life coach in Norwalk, Connecticut. "It made it easier to be more open about how I feel about money with my partner.

"It gave me an opportunity to look at it in a more lighthearted way."

'Marriage Inc.'

They're not millionaires. But Sandra and Joe Sena, who live in Bayside, New York, paid for two college tuitions and weathered two financial crises. And they did it all on Joe's artist income and sporadic contributions from Sandra, who was a stay at home mom for years.

Just for fun, the Senas went to the Lincoln Financial dinner. "They were surprised that we weren't surprised," said Sandra Sena, 55. The fact is, the Senas talk about money regularly.

Sandra, who now manages two medical practices, and Joe, an action-figure designer and manufacturer, say they owe their financial stability to a joint effort they've nicknamed "Marriage Incorporated."

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People point to the kitchen table as the place for truthful discussions, but the couple did not want financial conversations physically associated with their kitchen — or their home.

Their project started when their children were still small and they had some financial constraints. "We needed to get involved in budgets and controlling the cash, and meeting every week or so," Joe said.

Marriage Inc. was born out of the financial crisis. Joe had a business with a partner and it fell apart. The Senas had to sell their house and move back to Sandra's mother's house. Sandra had to return to work.

"It's gotten easier [to have financial sit-downs] as we have them defined," Sandra Sena said. "It's never easy or fun to deal with setbacks or belt-tightening.

"But having a vocabulary does facilitate communication."

The couple are like war vets who survived in the same foxhole, Sandra says. "And our good times — and there are plenty — are sweeter," she said.

Hemming and hawing

Christine Manning, 55, was surprised to find out at the Lincoln Financial dinner that financial planning is an ultra-sensitive topic for many. What wasn't a surprise: how a lack of planning can result in a huge burden.

Manning and her family are facing the fallout from their elders' lack of planning. Her mother-in-law recently moved to a nursing home.

"There was nothing in place so we could protect the assets she worked so hard for," said Manning, a drama director in Hopewell Junction, New York.

Assets from her in-laws' real estate business are dwindling. Their bills are piling up. Manning and her husband don't have the power or legal authority to do anything on their mothers' behalves when it comes to Medicare, Medicaid or even paying routine bills.

Manning's husband scrambled to shield holdings from the five-year sweep that Medicaid conducts.

Simultaneously, Manning's own mother may move in with the couple, because Social Security does not meet her monthly expenses. "She has no real retirement savings or investments," Manning said.

"No one I know talks about it," Manning said. They talk about work, raises, bosses. Changing jobs and rolling over a 401(k) but not long-term care.

Manning and her husband were driven to start planning their own futures so they wouldn't put their kids in the same vulnerable position.

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It was a wake-up call, and Manning hopes her own kids will learn from the previous generation's lack of planning. Since their parents are a buffer between them and their grandparents' experience, "they're like 'uh-huh, yep, good,'" Manning said.

Recently, Manning sat down with her daughter, 26, an actress. Together, they looked at her upcoming earnings and expenses, and Manning explained the importance of planning as well as investing your money.

Manning's own parents banked their savings. "It was work, pay your bills, work, pay your bills," she said. "I feel like there is a secret language wealthy people knew, that regular people weren't even speaking, so I wasn't using the language in my home."

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Disclosure: NBCUniversal and Comcast Ventures are investors in Acorns.