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Q&A Tuesday: How can we improve communication about finances in our marriage?

My husband and I are newlyweds and are living off of my income while he is in school. We are trying to find a budget that works for us but I find that since I am in charge of the finances primarily I worry about money while he relaxes. Part of this is poor communication but part of it is that I am really focused on tightening up our budget to pay off debts and he thinks we are fine as we are.

So what is the best way to work with your spouse to plan a financial strategy for your family, especially when you may have different ideas or approaches to it? Money is the number one fight in marriages and I want to find a better way to communicate about it so we can work together rather than against each other. -Alice

Disclaimer: I’m not a marriage counselor, nor do I have years of marriage experience under my belt, so I can only speak from my own personal experience as to what has worked for us in our eight and a half years of marriage. This may or may not work in your situation and it may be wise for you to seek out marriage counseling or to find a wise older couple who lives locally who can counsel you as you’re beginning your marriage.

1. Accept That You Are Different

First off, I’m pretty sure all husbands and wives have different ideas about money when they first come into marriage–I know we certainly did. Even though we were both raised by financially conservative parents who taught us the value of hard work and stewardship and even though we spent a lot of time before marriage discussing finances, we definitely still came into marriage with different views and ideas about money.

You didn’t marry your clone–and it’s probably a good thing! You need someone who is different from you to help balance you out. Instead of being discouraged or disheartened that your husband has different views, accept him as he is. Don’t try to change him and make him just like you; it won’t work. Believe me, I’ve tried.

2. Learn to Appreciate the Differences

I tend to be ultra frugal, while my husband tends to be more extravagant (at least according my standards!). This can be a source of frustration for both of us, but we’ve also learned to appreciate and learn from each other.

My husband will readily admit that we’ve saved quite a bit of money over the years thanks to my thriftiness and he’s learned that being frugal doesn’t have to mean you are a miser or miserable. He’s also gotten quite good at saving money himself; in fact, he can sometimes outdo me when it comes to using coupons or getting a great deal!

On the other hand, my husband has taught me much about relaxing a little more when it comes to finances. He’s helped me to think in terms of return on investment and constantly motivates me to make the most of my time when it comes to money-saving ventures. If it weren’t for him, I’d most assuredly be wasting hours on supposed “money-saving projects” that, in reality, would result in little money actually saved.

Together, we make a much more balanced and stronger team than either of us would be on our own. That’s the beauty of learning to appreciate and build on differences instead of letting them just become big battles.

3. Be Willing to Compromise

Since both of us don’t naturally see eye-to-eye when it comes to finances, we’ve had to learn to communicate and compromise. While my husband does all of the bill-paying and budget-tallying at our house because he enjoys that sort of thing (while I find it incredibly tedious!), we both work together on creating and maintaining our budget. This has been key in us getting on same page with our finances.

I’d heartily encourage all couples to have regularly-scheduled monthly Budget Accountability Meetings to discuss your financial situation, to create and revise your written budget, to talk about financial issues that have arisen in the last month, and to review your financial goals and objectives. If you’ve never done this sort of thing before, it may be very difficult going at first, but I promise it will be worth it.

There is one rule that must be followed at these meetings: it must be a mutual discussion. Neither of you should be trying to force anything on the other person. There should be give and take and open discussion. You must both be willing to compromise and talk things through to come to a point of agreement.

Dragging your spouse to the meeting and berating them for their handling of money probably won’t get you anywhere–except in the wrong direction. However, graciously explaining to your spouse how you’ve been struggling with the financial situation and feeling like there is constant tension and frustration in your life as a result of not being on the same page will probably get you somewhere. And showing that you are very open to compromise and reaching agreement that is mutually beneficial will go a long way, too.

Related: How Do I Get My Husband on Board With Debt-Free Living?

reposted from August 2011

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  • I agree with Crystal! I’ve always said that my husband and I balance each other out. He came from a family that saw something they wanted and bought it on impulse. He has come a long way after experiencing the benefits of saving and spending our money wisely. We often talk about our long term goals which keeps us focused and motivated. We discussed a set “allowance” for both of us weekly- that we agreed on. Neither one of us buys anything “extra” without talking to the other person first. We’ve been doing this for six years now and this is what works for us. I am mostly a stay-at-home so we mainly live off one salary too. We are happy with our system because we have money available to do the things we really want to do!

  • Emily says:

    Wow, I literally could have written exactly the same story as Alice! My husband and I are also newlyweds living off my income while he is in school. I also feel I am spending way more of my time and energy thinking about and strategizing money matters (both in terms of earning more and cutting spending), while he doesn’t think about it much that I can see. On one hand, I feel I have it under control (mostly because I am the one tracking our spending monthly), but on the other hand, I don’t want to be the one building up resentments because I’m the only one noticing that his hobby/entertainment spending is not really proportional to our income at this time (for example).

    So, I’d be interested to see what some longer married people have to say about this issue, in addition to others in a similar situation. I’m sure it boils down to communication and goal-setting, but does anyone have systems in place in their marriage that has worked for them. Alice and I would love to know!

  • My husband and I are both naturally cheap (“thrifty” would be the nice word) and so we’ve been trying to remind each other to use our money consciously in ways that will bring more fun to our lives. I find that any conversations about purposeful spending — as opposed to the money that flits out mindlessly — are good conversations to have.

  • Deb says:

    My husband NEVER worries about money either, but he grew up in a family that HAD to trust the Lord for their needs and I grew up in a family that, although Christian, trusted their bank account and 401K. It wasn’t a communication thing for us, it was just coming from totally different perspectives. I even gave a testimony once that I never had any trials until I got married (I did get married at 20) but my faith was not stretched in any way shape or form either until we got married and dealt with real life. We have survived three degrees, 13 moves, 3 children, 1 miscarriage, etc. etc. etc., try to look at it as a growing/learning/faith building experience as you grow together in this area and realize that you have a lot of years of experience in your past that play into the habits/beliefs feelings about money/stewardship that affect your life today, but most of all, realize that worrying is just not really beneficial, do what you can, but realize that worrying just takes away the joy of today…..I speak from experience, I always say that I have to worry for tow people because he doesn’t worry at all.

  • Becky says:

    I’ve been married nearly 12 years and can identify with the frustration of feeling like I’m the one who’s doing all the worrying while my husband doesn’t pay attention to finances. For many years I’ve been the “secretary/clerk” in our family, too. I would recommend seeking out a financial counselor/coach you can meet with face-to-face.

    I felt that my husband and I knew more about money than most people did, but we really didn’t know much about how to work together on our finances until we got on the same team as we met with a financial coach. For the past 3+ years my husband and I have met periodically with a Dave Ramsey-trained financial coach. It has made a big difference in our attitudes toward each other and toward how we should use our money. Go together to the counselor as a “team” of two.

    Through much trial and error I’ve had to learn to be more proactive and specific in communicating with my husband than I think I need to be. Also, rather than making a financial plan prior to our monthly business meetings, I now make a list of the month’s bills, and then together (in the business meeting) we figure out how/when we’re going to pay the bills. This process takes much longer, but it has helped me feel like I’m not the one who’s carrying the decision-making weight on my own shoulders.

  • Alicia says:

    You should take Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University class. It’s amazing and will help your finances and marriage at the same time. It’s probably the best thing we have done since being married and completely stopped any and all money “fights” or worry we ever had 🙂

  • My hubby and I had this exact same problem when we first married. The solution? Talking about it!
    I had been holding my worries inside, which made him think everything was fine. He kept spending and I kept worrying. Once we made it a point to talk about the money situation (at least every week, but often every day), he cut down on his spending and my worry decreased because I had someone to share the load.

  • Amanda says:

    We’ve only been married for 2.5 years, but one practical thing we did was to split the financial responsibilities. He is in charge of the check book and paying all the bills, so he see all that comes in and goes out. I am in charge of the budgeting, putting things in categories and tracking how we’re doing. So, I also see everything that comes in and goes out. Once a month, we meet to look things over and make any changes or adjustments. We’re both aware of generally how we are doing, and nothing is hidden. There definitely has been some compromise and difference of opinion, especially when it comes to prioritizing what gets more or less budgeted money. But, we work through it. So far, this has worked for us very well. We both have a part in the process and “ownership” of the management of our money.

  • Communication, communication, communication! My husband and I are counseling another family through their financial situation. She did the finances and was always worried, keeping a tight reign on her spending because she knew what the numbers looked like. He spent freely, mostly because he didn’t know what the numbers looked like, thought he could spend his paychecks however he wanted and didn’t take true interest in knowing them. You could visibly see how the finances spilled over into the marriage creating stress.

    We told them communication was key – it must be regular, honest and consistent. During the one-month follow up meeting we asked how things were going and the way they interacted with each other was a complete 180 change. They talk every payday (Friday) about their finances, what was paid, what wasn’t, reasons behind it all, etc. No longer is she worried about handling it all and his spending has slowed because he really sees where his paychecks are going.

    Communication is key, but it must be out of love. No finger-pointing or blaming. Just the two of you trying to create a system that works best for you. Husbands and wives are teams and must work together. When communication is open, honest and frequent, it leaves no room or time for selfishness or bitterness. Plus it never becomes the elephant in the room. 🙂

    • Angela says:

      4. I would strongly try to get your husband to be in charge of the finances. This may seem crazy when you are the one who is most conscientious about money and the one who is making it but what I have found out is that if the man is not seeing how the money has to be balanced then he isn’t able to really feel a need for or stick to budgets. Scripture lets us know that the wife is to be submissive to her husband as unto the Lord. Ephes. 5:22. This is not a belittling thing, it is a place of honor and protection that God ordained. If he is in charge then when you two discuss the financial matters of the household, his word will be the final say. Trust God and know that He will work on your behalf as your husband grows in this area.
      We started out with me being in charge and it didn’t get better as time when on. I received the same advice I am giving and with a great deal of prayer and a bumpy start, I gave all control to my husband. I went to him when I wanted to spend something even little things. My husband became more conscience about his spending. We are now at a point where his is more thifty at times than me and I have no worries about money. He has been the one to work to pay off debts and I have been able to deal with the duties of the house and children while still being frugal.
      We have 7 children and have been married for 27 years.

      • WilliamB says:

        Angela has a good idea here, although I have a different opinion about the roles of wives and husbands and so may have different reasons. My reason is that one’s attitudes often change when one is the person who is primarily responsible for the thing.

        Fair warning: it’s going to agonizing for you at first.

  • Elizabeth says:

    My husband and I are on 2 completely different sides of the coin too. While he generally buys what he wants because he didn’t have a lot to call his own growing up (being the youngest of 4 boys) I on the other hand pinch every penny almost to the extreme having spent my infant years and my teenage years homeless (the second for being stupid and leaving the family in that defient teenage way). I learned a lot though from my mother and that is that you should always budget for entertainment otherwise people can really get into a rut. Be it going to the movies or splurging on deli meat for a picnic lunch.
    My husband and I have been married for nearly 13 years now and we communicate about everything be it what we want or what we need. He is in the loop for our exact budget and if he feels I’m tightening things too far we sit down and discuss what has caused this. Sometimes I’m just being silly having it imaged in my own head that we are worse off than we actually are and sometimes it is for legit reasons.
    Money can put a strain on anyone but the important thing in my opinion is to keep each others wants & needs on track. When you sit down it doesn’t need to be, “This is how much for this and that,” and leaving it there but including, “Is there anything you would like to do?” Right now my husband really wants a new TV though I don’t wee a need for it I also don’t discredit his want. I let him know if he can find a way to earn a little extra or make extra cuts that will help and that first we need to budget for our oldest child’s braces and how we can do that while still working towards his goals.

  • Dallas says:

    This is such a helpful post and I appreciate all the tips and encouragement in the other comments. My fiancee and I have been talking more about money ever since we got engaged in December and are beginning to plan our wedding. We are both finishing up graduate school degrees soon and a lot feels unstable in our new future together — we may be moving, we are getting married, we will be looking for new jobs, etc. etc. Talking about finances and making a savings plan — and most of all, knowing that no matter what happens, we are in this together — has given me a great deal of assurance and relief. Often things seem more overwhelming in my mind, and then after talking through the details and making a plan, I feel more in control.

  • Ledith says:

    My experience, having been married 30 years and also a therapist as a profession, is that money often is the proxy for other issues in the marriage—especially power and control. One way to move things into a more objective realm and remove some of the heat from the discussion is to learn to view your marriage as the corporation. The question then becomes is this expenditure (or savings plan or auto purchase or whatever) is the best thing for the corporation. It is often easier to agree to buy or not buy something if you look at it as a business—would you do buy that big screen TV for the business when you had a tax payment coming up? Another good technique is to agree to a savings plan and put up a visual reminder—a chart like the ones United Way uses, where you use red to fill in the thermometer, so you constantly see the progress you are or are not making. You can do the same thing for a budget, except you show how much of the budget you have used so far to date for categories such as food.

    Before we were married, we sat down and talked about our goals for the marriage—money, lifestyle and so on. Every Jan. 1 since then, for 30 years now, we have sat down with our favorite pizza, blocked out an entire afternoon (hiring a sitter when the ages required it) and pulled out our goals from the previous year (We have kept a journal of these “meetings” since year 1, and it is interesting to look back and trace the evolution of our marriage. I also put in a picture of us that is taken the first week of January, so we have something to laugh at each year, while we look back and see how gravity has taken its toll!). We talk about whether the goals from last year are still what we want to be working on, and if so is the way we are operating on a daily basis going to lead to the accomplishment of those goals. It is a good reminder that the daily decisions are important, even though it is easy to dismiss them (“Oh, buying this new shirt is only $10. Oh, eating this piece of pie is only one cheat on the diet…”) Finally, we each say what has been the best and the worst part of the marriage for the past year. That can be very humbling, but it is also very freeing to be that honest and take the risk.

    But, sadly, in the end it really does depend on both people being committed to the goal of having a solid marriage and stable finances. If one person is incapacitated by drugs, drinking, an anger management problem, or is half checked out of the marriage already through something like infidelity, then it is up to you to protect yourself by saving in any way you can so that you are prepared if your world blows apart.

    • WilliamB says:

      Ledith beat me to it, more or less – my suggestion is to consider whether your financial differences are reflective/causative of other differences, and therefore if the financial issues this raises are just proxies for the underlying issues. It could be power and control, it could be issues from childhood or previous experiences. But if there are other issues involved, try to focus on them instead of the money. It’ll help you address the strictly financial aspects of your relationship.

  • M says:

    Maybe it would help if you would budget a fun money or blow money category for each of you. This will show him that you are not trying to keep him from having anything nice or fun, but also give you both some bounds.

  • Emily says:

    Something my husband and I did was budget for “misc. money.” Every month, we budget $25 each (it’s what we can afford without feeling like we’re taking away from something else. I don’t say anything when he saves up for a few months and buys something for his jeep, and he lets me get my McDonald’s breakfast weekly. It works for us because we don’t feel like we don’t have any wiggle room. Congratulations on being newlyweds!

  • Karen Maria says:

    My husband and I have been married over 42 years and have been fortunate in that neither of us is a big spender (most marriages I know of consist of a “spender” and a “We really need to watch the spending” person). We have also been fortunate in that most of the early years of our marriage we were able to be comfortable with just him working.

    Nevertheless, I remember never understanding, all those early years, why he would always be worried about how much was being spent…..always remind me to limit how much was going on the credit cards.

    What changed this was when he got too busy and I took over paying the bills…..then for the first time I understood that “there is only a set amount of money/income with which to pay 0ff the expenses/bills incurred.” I had simply never seen “on paper in black and white” the total of the bills compared to the total available funds….it was just him “telling me with words” that there was a need to ‘limit the spending.” Words just didn’t do the job…..I had to actually “see the numbers.”

    Then later somehow we got in the habit of starting each month by getting out a piece of paper and making two columns….. one column listed all the bills “already in our bills file (which I liked to “arrange by date due”) or expected to come in,” and the other column listing all available income. Based on the total figure at the bottom of each column, we could make necessary adjustments; for example, if the “total bills” added up to more than the “total income,” we could cut back on something, just pay part of something (rather than our usual “pay the entire credit card amount due”), etc.

    Couples may go about making a monthly or weekly budget in different ways, but the MOST IMPORTANT part, I feel, is that BOTH husband and wife “see written in black and white” what the available income is and therefore how much (or little) can be spent. Then they can discuss and work out together exactly how that income should best be spent.

  • C says:

    My husband and I discovered and love it! It’s a free site and allows you to pull in all your different money sources into one area. You can log in and see your bank accounts, savings account, 401k, credit cards, college savings account, college loans, car loan, mortgage…really any financial account that can be viewed online can be view on mint. It provides pie charts and the ability to create budgets. It was very easy and user friendly. Because all transactions are filtered into one area, we sit down one time a week and categories the transactions (although the mint system is pretty good at auto categorizing).

  • Erin says:

    My husband and I had the same scenario as newlyweds. I was primarily in charge of finances and was always nervous about money while he seemed unconcerned, which led me to feeling resentful. Finally, I asked him to sit down with me and put a budget down on paper and set some new years financial goals. As usual, he shrugged me off, insisting we were doing fine. I told him it was important to me and would make me feel better about our finances and would he pretty please, just humor me? He agreed, grabbed his laptop and used excel to make a simple budget. He typed as I read him a list of our monthly bills, usual flexible expenses, and other upcoming expenses, like a car repair. Seeing it all written down, it finally dawned on him why I always nervous about money. Because he wasn’t the one paying all the bills, he hadn’t realized how many we had and how quickly they added up. That’s when the real communication began and I didn’t even have to do much talking. He explained he wanted a balanced budget too and had a lot of ideas on how to achieve that. He explained what was important to him to keep and why. He also suggested things we could get rid of. Together, we re-worked our budget. It relieved both my worry and resentment. Lesson learned: if you are both reasonable, financially responsible people, no one partner should be primarily in charge of finances. The one charge will be worried while the other will be in ignorant bliss.

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