In today’s episode, David Peterson, the founder of Married Money Financial Counseling is our special guest. David brings a unique perspective to financial coaching, as he focuses specifically on helping married couples improve their finances and their relationship simultaneously. With a background in ministry-based marriage counseling, David combines powerful communication tools with practical financial strategies to create a transformative experience for his clients.

Throughout this interview, David shares his insights on the common communication challenges couples face when it comes to money, and he offers practical advice for coaches who want to better serve their married clients. He discusses the importance of deep listening, asking the right questions, and maintaining a neutral stance in the face of conflict. David also dives into the concept of weekly money meetings and provides a detailed breakdown of how to structure these sessions for maximum impact. Whether you’re a seasoned financial coach or just starting out, this conversation is packed with valuable tips and strategies you can implement in your own practice.

David Peterson: That really happened organically. It was just an outgrowth of what I was doing previously. I had been doing marriage counseling, particularly premarital counseling a lot in my previous role as a minister. As that developed, I just really wanted to get better and better at that skill. I did further training in counseling and coaching through an ICF program and other forms of training just to get better at that. As I did, I ran into finances as a major area for many young couples in particular. I did further training in that as well, just continuing moving on this road of how I can help them better and better. When I knew it was time to transition from that job, I had people calling me to continue working with them and counseling in this area specifically. Some of them were young people I had worked with premaritally, and then they met other couples later who are struggling financially and said, “Hey, he really helped us, maybe he can help you.” It grew from that. I made the business and let it expand from there.

David Peterson: For the most part, they weren’t aware this was a major issue. They knew they had money tension, but they didn’t have any sense that they needed to fix it. In a lot of cases, they just simply believe this was just the way things are. Especially young couples, they just thought, “Okay, we have debt issues. We have issues with financial aid from college, but maybe this is just what it is to be an adult.” They didn’t always agree on everything but wondered if they would ever agree on everything. Of course, not completely.

But you can have a united marriage for your finances, it is actually possible. When I said that to couples, they were kind of shocked. They mostly came from families where finances weren’t talked about. A lot of them just didn’t have experience hearing couples talk about money in ways that didn’t include fighting or frustrations. Telling them that you can actually unite together for this common enemy, this challenge that’s external to your marriage, and that it can actually bring you closer together – it sounded both foreign to them and really intriguing. I just found that this was a place where it was the soft spot in their marriage, it was the place where you could push, and you could tell they were sensitive. And they were open to hardening that up. It continued – it was in every single relationship that I was counseling, there was a financial aspect that could be met, and it didn’t matter if they were struggling financially with income, or they were wealthy with income. It was always a piece in there that they could develop. That’s just common in marriage counseling anyway, no one comes in with a perfect marriage, because we’re all flawed people. When you bring us together, we’re just flawed in multiplayer. You always have something that you can work on in it.

David Peterson: I’ve got some unfortunate answers for you. The first is the easy one. Silence has more of an impact on answering this than what they said. It is where they are not speaking that matters the most. Some of this is the obvious ones, where one client just stops talking when they used to talk a lot on a subject. Suddenly, you get to the issue of the mortgage and the spouse who was just really animated has kind of lost interest or something like that. That tends to show there might be something you need to ask more about. They won’t just come out and say there’s a problem there, you’re going to have to dig. That’s the case for anytime there’s been a transition in the way they’re communicating with one another, you just have to pay attention to that and dig.

In reality, it just requires deep listening. It requires a coach to actually be intentional in listening. That’s probably the biggest failure for most coaches that I’ve run into – they want to give advice. We all do, it’s in there, and part of it is going to be advice. They came to us because we know something about money they don’t. But if you don’t handle listening really well, deep listening, where you are asking questions that guide better than what your advice could, then you’re going to fail in this. That’s where I would say the biggest push should be for most coaches who are listening to this – focus on how you can get better at that deep listening.

I sometimes offer the strategy of finding someone who will spar with you in coaching. Go in saying, “I’m not going to say a single phrase that’s declarative, I’m just going to ask questions,” and you don’t end until your guided questions lead them to a solution that they can take action on, based on their answers. If you can walk away saying, “Is that an action you’re ready to take?” and that’s your final question, you did it. You walked them through with never stating anything yourself, just asking them to look further and further. Whenever you find those moments, that’s where you have to ask the deep question.

David Peterson: First, you should actually ask the obvious question, because they’re not obvious to the person doing it. You should just straight up say, when you’ve got two people and one person who has been talking stops on a specific subject, you can simply point it out and ask why. “You know, I noticed this. Do you think there’s a reason why that’s happening? Have you guys talked about this before? Is there anything that’s happened with this in the last few years that has caused any kind of tension?” They may say no, and you can let it go. You can be wrong. Don’t put any emotional weight on being right, you will lose this game if you do that. Be wrong, ask the question and find out that it doesn’t matter, cast it aside and then move on. That’s the most important – actually asking the obvious one. We skip it, we try to act like we know so much and we’re going to dig deep. Just start way up here with them and then follow it down.

David Peterson: Yeah, and that can go for a number of different reasons. Again, you really do have to ask more questions, but it could simply be the deferral of – my partner genuinely does care more. But there is a loss of integration when you do that with money. This is a zero sum game. $1 spent in one area is not available in another, so you can’t not care about any of it, because it will impact all of it. Any discussion should involve both in that regard. So that could be happening, which does require digging.

But yeah, absolutely. I mean, that is that common phrase of, “We’ve thought about it before, we’ve had this problem before, it’s not worth the battle.” So I just want to defer to you, because I don’t want to have a conflict. That’s a really important thing to point out and to dig deeper into. Because if you don’t, if you don’t address it, then they will sabotage this later on. Oftentimes, they’ll sabotage it by self expression and other parts of their spending. They will find a place to find their own identity through their spending, because it’s a part of who they are. If they feel like they’re pressed out too much and you’re not advocating for them to step into that space, they will find the place and they will squeeze out somewhere else.

David Peterson: I tend to think of coaching in general as there is guidance and it is reflection. What I mean is we do what we can to hold a clarifying mirror to what’s happening in a person’s life. If we’re doing this well, we are making them see themselves from the outside whenever possible.

One of the things that I’ll do is I just will not allow myself to triangulate. I won’t get pulled into that issue and take a side in the fight. This is part of a counseling theory called family systems theory. The idea that I can get drawn into it and pulled in is common. We feel good when we are on the right side of things in life. No one votes for a political candidate that they think is terrible. We feel good about when we’re on the right team. That happens in these situations too. Coaches need to be aware that will happen to them if they are not really self differentiated in these conversations.

Instead, hold that mirror up and say, “How are both of you feeling right now? Does this way of talking feel good? When your spouse talks to you this way, what does it feel like? If you were to talk to yourself in the way that you were speaking, what does that feel like?” Make them actually express out loud what they’re feeling from those engagements. Oftentimes that simply pulls the brakes, it forces them to say, “I don’t want to talk like this. I’m doing so because they’re talking like this.” So it is this back and forth that causes the tension to rise. You can step in and say no one likes this.

What if we instead talk about things down here in this space – it is possible. But oftentimes, what that means is one, you may have to refer them out to a marriage counselor, or someone who’s actually able to handle some of their underlying issues, because this is a content issue, it’s not some of the underlying issues that may happen. Or it may just be that you need to work with them on communicating well with some base level communication strategy. And that may be enough to get them through financial coaching in a way that works.

David Peterson: Generally speaking, it’s just clarity and communication. Clarity is the part that every financial coach gets – we all agree that one of the things we’re doing for people is showing them where their money is going, how they’re spending it, what are the different pockets that it’s sitting in.

That clarity matters, of course, and that itself offers a foundation for the couple to stand on. They can’t argue, then, about what they believe their money is doing. And that does happen a lot. “We spend too much money on your gym memberships.” Well, maybe, but maybe not. And since you don’t even know how much you’re spending, it doesn’t matter yet. But once you have that foundation, you can step up from there.

The next thing, of course, is right above it. You’ve got the foundation of clarity, and then it’s communication. The operations of communicating better – that’s where the hard part comes in. That’s all I can say about that one, because you can’t do it as a coach. The hard part of communication is providing the tools that they can utilize regularly in order to improve communication.

There are different pieces that I use for that. For example, you have to get them to recognize they have an emotional connection to their money. That’s a real thing. I find, unfortunately, that a lot of men believe money is just a tool, it’s just like their hammer in the garage. They have no emotional attachment to it. But that’s not true, their money is incredibly emotional. You can help them see that but you do have to get them there for the conversation. When they can speak openly about how they’re feeling about their spending, or where things are at with their finances, and they can do that in a healthy way, you’ve got some momentum there for a united front. They’re no longer fighting each other, they’re fighting with each other. That’s a totally different game.

That’s why I do a money meeting where they have to meet weekly to have these conversations where communication is at the forefront of what that is. That’s the actual goal more than assessing their money. It’s actually communicating positively.

David Peterson: The money meeting is required to work with me. That’s part of my onboarding – one of the things you check is “I will meet with my spouse weekly.” So when they don’t do it, I actually screenshot it when they submit it, because it’s in the queue for them. I only work virtually with them and I have it ready. If they say that they didn’t do it, I literally show them the screen and say, “You checked this, this was bold. It’s literally in bold. We said this was part of it.” It’s not shaming, it’s the expectation. This is crucial to your success.

The reason I put it in there is the same reason I put everything else – this sort of thing is required to make this function. But the second thing is that what we’re addressing in the weekly money meeting is we are lowering the emotional threshold for money conversation. Usually when people talk about money, it’s because they need to, and they don’t need to when they’re flush with cash. They might get excited about that, but they need to because something didn’t work, something went wrong. And now we’re talking about it. That means I’m mad or I’m scared or I’m whatever it is, but it’s never “I’m just calm and happy and let’s talk calmly and happily about our financial situation.”

This lowers the bar and now they’re coming at it from this standard of “this is what we do, we talk about this right now.” We’re no longer coming to each other just when we want to rip each other’s throats out about the issue.

There is an agenda. The amount of time varies, though it usually starts for almost an hour for the first time because they are practicing some tools and they fail a lot. They practice active listening, they practice responsive and “I” statements, they practice no longer making accusatory “you” statements, and they will fail. So they’ll have to try again. I work with them directly on this, I make them go through the process while they’re meeting with me. But they still end up failing in the middle of it, because it’s hard. They go through those processes and those tend to take some time, but it tapers down. Eventually it can be as low as 20 minutes, but usually it’s 30 to 35 minutes.

They do have key things they have to go over. They have to talk about how the plan is working, what areas were difficult for them this week, what areas are green for them this week, what areas were particularly positive that their spouse did. They have to specifically note the positive things their spouse did. They’re not allowed to bring up the negative things their spouse did. But they do bring up the positive things. They can bring up the negative feelings they felt based on something their spouse did. But there’s a big difference – when I say “you did,” it’s positive; when I say “I felt,” that it can be about something negative.

They can’t say “You made me feel blank.” It has to be based on what you’re doing or feeling instead of the pure accusatory fashion, which we prefer to do. It’s an offloading of emotion, it’s a given that all my pain is external and you’re the problem. It’s our preference, so you have to fight it.

My goal is, I want both people to say their actual goals. Each person will state their goals to the other, back and forth, what they said their goal was and why they’re doing this at all. “We are doing this because we want this.” And then they’ll say it with I statements, “I want this.” So they’ll both say “This is what I want and this is what we want.”

It’s very structured at the beginning. It tapers off with structure throughout the program, so that at the end, they only follow about four different specific things to say, which has to do with the money plan, the positive statements about their spouse, and their goals. Since they have it weekly, the money plan stuff gets easier and easier and quicker, because it’s totally getting synchronized between them and the plan is just functional.

David Peterson: Active listening has multiple layers to it. Getting into active listening is essentially saying, “I’m going to spend my time focused on you, not me.” Most of us, when we are having a conversation, especially when there’s any tension, we are listening for what we’re going to say next. Even when we’re not aware, that’s what we’re doing.

So you are actively saying, “It’s about you, not me right now.” The only thing I can put my brain to is you. One of the strategies we do, and this makes everyone uncomfortable when they first start, is responsive active listening.

If you, Kelsa, were to be having a money meeting with me, and you were to say “I feel upset, David, whenever you spend all this money on Chex cereal, because I think it’s a waste,” my only response I’m allowed to be is “I hear that you feel really upset whenever I spend this much money on Chex cereal because you think it’s a waste.” The only thing I’m allowed to think about is remembering what you said, to repeat it back to you. The purpose of that is not just the repetition. The purpose is to stop my mind from thinking about anything else but what you’re doing.

Then the next layer would be to be able to ask follow up questions. When you’re doing the active listening, you’re not going to just respond, you’re going to care. Instead of saying, “How do I respond best defensively?” which is our mode to be like, “Well Chex cereal’s the best cereal and so that’s why it goes first,” we’d say something like, you might repeat it back and then you might go into, “I didn’t realize that you felt this way, or that you felt so strongly. Why is this such a big thing to you? Because to me, it’s just a few dollars. What is it? Help me to understand.”

So the next layer of active listening is saying, “I’m going to actually understand what you’re saying, not just the attack that I feel on me.” When you fully externalize it, you no longer are asking the questions about what is going on here until I understand what’s going on out there. There are a few different things that you can go down, but that’s essentially it.

I do have this for your listeners, as we talked about. I set up a page on my site. If you just go to marriedmoney.net/listen, you can download an active listening guide that you can use with anyone you’re working with as a couple. It’s really helpful, even if you’re not going to do any of the other kinds of counseling stuff. The piece of active listening will stop the sort of back and forth, fighting conversations of “you did this and you’re the problem.” At least help you manage that with them. It’s coupled with several steps that I mentioned, as well as the “I” and “you” statements and several other steps as well to get more advanced.

Kelsa Dickey: I appreciate you being on the podcast today and as a thank you I’d love to answer a coaching question for you.

Kelsa Dickey: This is a great question. The way I would answer this now compared to when I first started as a coach is a little different. It sort of depends on where you’re at in your journey. If you have a full client list, it’s a very different decision you’re facing versus “I’m kind of new, I’m still learning what I like most and don’t like most about different client scenarios and clients I work with.”

The longer you are in business and the busier you are, the more refined you become on really having confidence on who you help best, who you’re best for, the kinds of conversations around money and the areas of money that you enjoy the most. You’re going to be more creative and show up better during those conversations and that sort of thing.

The first question that I like to ask myself is, “Can I help this person?” That is first and foremost. If I can’t help you, none of the questions after this matter. My goal is to help people, that is why I think most of us go into this work – because we want to help people. So first and foremost, can I help you? If I can’t, then I’m going to think of the person who I think is best to help you and refer you to that person, hands down. It doesn’t matter if I may love you, I may think you’re amazing, we hit it off, your communication style, you’re funny, we can riff, we get along great. If I ultimately don’t feel like I can help you, it doesn’t matter. I want the best for the client. So that is first and foremost.

The second question then is “Do I want to help them?” This can be capacity changes, the answer to this question is sort of the perspective you take with this question. “Do I want to help them” is like, “I would like to help them, but I would love to help these clients.” So it’s not always that “No, I don’t want to help them,” it’s that I actually just have these other clients that I want to help more for any reason. Sometimes it is that it’s couples and that’s really where I can have the biggest impact. Maybe I’m designed to help couples more. All the steps, all the tools I’ve designed, my emails, my communications, they’re all built and ready to go for couples more than individuals. So it’s just easier to do, it feels like it’s a more seamless experience for the client as well, probably because you’re built to support that journey.

Another one can simply be personality differences. Not that either person is right or wrong, it’s not what I mean by that. It could just be a mismatch of communication styles, a mismatch of philosophies in general, or how we talk and communicate with one another. Sometimes you can just feel like, “Man, I don’t know if I’m really the right person for this client.” Could I help them? Yes, but the amount of intentionality or the amount of work I’d have to put in to make sure I’m speaking with them the way they need to hear things and that kind of thing would be a lot of work for me. Again, when you’re just starting out, that might be something you’re excited to try and explore and experiment with a little bit. The busier you are the more you’re like, “I can be picky.” There is some guilt that comes with being picky.

I know when I first started I was like “I can help everybody, I’m going to help everyone.” Then the more I sort of refined my niche and refined who I invest for, there are so many more emotions that come up with that. “Does that make me a bad person if I say no, if I give them to somebody else, is that wrong of me?” Ultimately, that’s one of the reasons why I do this podcast, and why I have The Academy®, and why I would love to see more coaches and professionals and counselors out there helping people. I feel like there’s plenty of people who need help, we need more people to support them and help them.

I also want to say that the reason you might not want to help somebody might be because of the specific challenge they’re experiencing, and whether or not you feel like you either have the knowledge, the expertise, or the skill set to help them navigate that. There are times really early in my business where I would tell the client, “I’ve never faced this before, I’ve never had a client face this before. But I feel confident that we can figure this out together. I feel good about that.” It was an area of money that I would be curious about myself, or be excited to learn right alongside this client around the strategies or that kind of thing.

And then there are times where it’s a challenge and you’re like, “Could I learn this? Yeah, probably. Do I have a desire to learn this, though? Maybe not so much.” This is true for me with insurance and investments. I used to be fully licensed as a financial advisor. I have no doubt that I’m capable of understanding those concepts and talking with somebody, but I don’t have a desire to learn. That’s not fun for me. So it’s not the part that I’m going to geek out with them about. I do think that affects your coaching sometimes, if you’re honest about it, especially when you’re fully booked and you get to be picky. You get to choose who you work with, choose the ones where you’re going to show up at your best, because that’s ultimately what’s best for the client – you showing up as your best.

The last factor is the depth of what the client is experiencing. This is one of those ones where you might not know until you’re working with somebody and you’ve already taken them on as a client. The other ones, I think you can kind of figure out early, this one not so much. I think it’s really clear sometimes that the money is a symptom of something else going on, and we as the coach are not trained, or have the licensure in order to be the one to help them. We need to recommend that they go seek out a therapist or something like that.

Either a therapist – go see, go work with a therapist, while we also tackle this part of it. So they can happen in tandem, there are so many of my clients that have therapists and we continue working together. It’s not like they go and I never see them again, it’s that we’re doing it together. Because it’s like I’m going to help you minimize the impact financially of what’s happening. But we’re going to keep having to put out fires, this is going to keep coming up, unless this other thing is addressed. And this is not my area of expertise. This is not what I’m trained in. But I can see it, again sort of holding up that mirror, that reflection for them of this is what I’m seeing, because they may not see it.

And then there are times where it’s like, “I’m going to have you go to do that, to go meet with somebody, and then come back to me when you’re ready.” Sometimes that decision is made financially, like you maybe can’t afford both a therapist and a coach at the same time. There are some people where they need to pick or choose. I think it’s our job as a coach to help our clients prioritize all the things that they’re trying to figure out at a time and sort of like, “Yes, I know this is important to you. But this is actually being caused by this other thing over here.” Helping them with that clarity piece.

So that is probably the other factor – the depth at which the issue, we know where it’s coming from. If that’s really something I can get to or if it’s really deeply rooted, that’s probably something that I’m going to refer to somebody else.

Kelsa Dickey: You do have options. I have chosen to sort of stick with, “Here’s who I am best for, and thus, here’s who Fiscal Fitness coaches are best for.” So all of the coaches on my team, we sort of specialize in a niche and that sort of thing. And then we refer the clients out who maybe aren’t the right fit.

However, you could hire a coach for your team who only works with singles, single individuals. And then you are allowed to focus your efforts and your time and attention on the couples that you have designed for. You’re keeping it in house, you are still offering your guidance and help and all of that, but you are not the one individually doing it. So you are still capturing the business. That is also a potential business model that you could consider. I’m just going to plant that seed a little bit and get you thinking about it and see what you think.

I never planned on hiring anyone else to do coaching with me. But as I understand that you hadn’t either and now you have a whole team! So you never know. I actually try not to say never, or always on just about anything, because life has proven me wrong every time I say that. I used to say that I would never hire a CEO for my business. And that’s actually something that I’m considering right now, actually, is going back into a coaching role and hiring a CEO. Again, if you would have heard me a year ago, I was like, “No, I’ll always be the CEO of my business.”

I do think we change, the journey changes us, the work we do, the impact we want to have, the way we think we can best go about having that impact changes. So I think it’s important to just be curious about it. Let that seed simmer a little bit. Stay curious, you’re going to be open to what’s available.

David Peterson: They can find me on Facebook, Instagram, and I have a lately not so up to date YouTube channel. All of those are “Married Money Financial.” You can always head to my website if you want any more information. I am actually always looking to connect with other coaches who might be in different areas. Especially when I want to offload single people – don’t all of you come to my website, I’m going to offer you coaching clients!