I’m ashamed to admit this, but when I got engaged, one of the first thoughts after the excitement wore off was, “Oh, we’ve really got to figure out how we’re going handle money in our marriage.”
Not super romantic, I know, but I had student loans, we had a wedding on the horizon, and we were about to move to a new city. We’re both very independent people, personality wise and financially, and I didn’t know how to navigate combining our money while still feeling independent. With money being a leading source of tension in a marriage, I wanted to get in front of any issues quickly.
Now that we’re expecting our first child in a matter of weeks, I know we’ll have even more money hurdles and discussions coming our way. Though we’ve developed our own strategies for handling this and have healthy relationship discussions around money, I’m always curious to see how other people develop strong habits with a partner around money.
I reached out to some other financial experts, whose advice I really respect, to get their take and hear their own stories. Here are four real money disagreements and how they were resolved.
How do we get on the same page with our money goals?
When my husband and I got married, it was the second time around for us. We had both been through tough divorces. In fact, I had been through one where I had to take on a ton of debt and was left few assets. Coming into a new marriage where we had both literal and physical “baggage,” we were getting in a lot of arguments about what each person was spending without first checking in. We weren’t partners in the beginning, just two people trying to manage money separately. It’s not always pretty when you have been married before, and we were struggling to find new and better ways to communicate around money and did not have a money system that worked for both of us.
If we were going to be partners in marriage and with our finance, we knew we needed to set some boundaries and do things better this time around. We first started with creating monthly and yearly goals together, which we pin to the fridge so we can never lose sight of our direction. We also set up what we lovingly call a “don’t ask, don’t tell” monthly limit. This is an amount of money we can spend each month without having to check in with the other person – anything over that and we have a conversation. Then we created a weekly budget and take a certain amount of money each week and put it on a joint credit card. This allows both of us to track where every penny of our money is going and keeps us accountable for staying within our weekly budget so we can achieve our goals. Honestly, we don’t have a reason to fight about money after creating this system, and we feel like we’re true partners in life.
Shannah Compton Game, CFP®, Millennial Money Expert, Host of Millennial Money Podcast
How do we stop disagreeing about our spending?
When my husband and I got married, we were both 29. We had both been managing our finances separately, and blending two different financial styles was a challenge. We had spent our adult life so far earning and spending our money independently, so we didn’t have any discussions about how we would handle spending once we were married. It didn’t take long for the disagreements about money to start. I used to love designer handbags and figured that I worked hard — so why not treat myself? My husband loves electronics and would easily spend on the latest and greatest gadgets. When he would walk in the door with a new toy or I would stroll in with a new handbag, things would get tense. We were getting so tired of arguing, and we didn’t want to start hiding purchases from each other, which would only make things worse.
After too many arguments, we realized that it was time to get on the same page with our flexible spending. While we didn’t want to set rules restricting each other from buying things, we wanted to open the lines of communication. We decided to set a spending limit of $500. If we were tempted to buy something over that amount, we needed to call and check in with the other person. For example, if I was about to book a trip with some friends that was going to cost more than $500, I’d call my husband to talk about it with him. We’d talk about how this could potentially impact our goals, like buying a house, and it would help us to both make more mindful decisions about our spending as a couple. This open dialogue consistently helped us to remember that we are a team, making decisions and building our empire together.
Bola Onada Sokunbi, Money Expert and Financial Educator, Clever Girl Finance
How involved should I be with helping my future husband pay off his debt?
I’ve known that my fiancé had student loan debt from the beginning of our relationship, and we’ve been together more than seven years. But initially, he resisted the idea of me providing any sort of financial assistance after marriage. He felt it was his debt and his responsibility, and I felt that once we’re married we’re a team. I also sacrificed going to a dream school in order to attend a college that enabled me to graduate debt free, so he also felt some guilt about bringing debt into a marriage when I’d sacrificed to avoid incurring my own student loan debt.
It took lots of conversations over the course of years for us to reach a place where we both felt comfortable. Luckily, we started talking about the problem years before we even got engaged, so by the time we did decide to get married, it wasn’t even an issue! Eventually, we reached an interesting compromise. We’re going to do joint finances after we get married, but technically my income will cover a lot of our day-to-day costs and big bills, while his paycheck will go toward savings/investing goals and then debt payments. Technically, he still gets the satisfaction of handling it out of his paycheck, but I’m helping provide the support to ensure we can ditch his student loans faster than he could by paying them off alone.
Erin Lowry, author of Broke Millennial: Stop Scraping By and Get Your Financial Life Together
How do we balance two careers?
My husband and I have always been equal income earners, which was really important to me. A few years ago he was offered the opportunity to take a new job in London. We both had agreed earlier that living abroad was a priority for us as a life experience, but when it came time to actually make the move for his career, it got a little tricky. Due to the job market in London, his new salary would be approximately double what he was making in the US, but my salary would be cut in half. As a family, we would be making more, but after years of being an equal income earner, I would be making much, much less. It may sound ridiculous, but I didn’t know how to set aside my pride and not be resentful of his new paycheck. I was really worried about losing both my financial independence and the pride that I took in contributing meaningfully to our family income. Getting my resident card and seeing it stamped with ‘dependent’ (yes, I was considered his dependent for the move) was like pouring salt in the wound.
To combat feeling like I was losing financial independence, I knew that I needed to keep some money separate. We each set up separate checking accounts that would be used for our own discretionary spending money — no questions asked. We deposited our paychecks into a joint account and used that account to pay our bills and cover our household expenses. Money from that joint checking was also transferred to our joint savings and investment accounts. Additionally, each month we had an equal amount of spending money moved to our individual checking accounts for any discretionary spending, like shopping or trips with friends. Keeping money separate for spending helped me to know that though I wasn’t making as much, I still had the freedom to spend on the things that were important to me. To make sure my career wasn’t going to suffer indefinitely because of this move, we agreed to have a check-in at the one year mark. If things weren’t working, we’d change. Being really honest with my husband about what I needed in order to really enjoy this experience, without worrying about my career, helped us to come up with the right solution for us. Fast forward four years and we’re still happily living in London and the move actually allowed me to completely change my career trajectory for the better.
Erica Gellerman, CPA, MBA, and founder of The Worth Project