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Marriage and Money: Is Your House Divided?

Written by Neal Frankle - 9 Comments

If you and your spouse (or partner) define “frugality” differently, it could lead to major problems in your relationship.

For example, you might think that going to Quicky Mart for a frozen yogurt is a nice little treat. But if your “other half” thinks it’s a lavish and extravagant waste of money, then you’ve got problems. Or maybe your idea of a vacation is sipping an umbrella drink on the beach at Maui, but your spouse’s idea is to visit Fresno and look for “hotel alternatives” by asking friends if they have a spare couch.

This issue is especially tough if your spouse is making most of the money.

It can be equally dangerous to the relationship if your spouse’s spending is making it harder for you to get out of debt.

This isn’t just a minor annoyance or something that dings your credit score. It can turn ugly.

You could end up with mountains of debt, ruined credit, and even IRS tax debt.

Most people who end up in divorce court cite money as the main reason.

Personal finance blogs spend lots of time talking about the virtues of frugality, and I think it’s great. I even support people who are into “extreme frugality” if that’s what they want to do. There is nothing at all wrong with that lifestyle.

The problem arises when a couple doesn’t agree on how frugal they are going to be.

A reader recently sent me an e-mail complaining about her husband’s ultra-frugal ways. I asked my readers what they thought she should do.

The answers varied.

Many people suggested separate finances. The thinking here is that each party should make their own money so they can each spend as they wish. Other folks suggested marriage counseling. One or two suggested a good divorce attorney.

My wife and I had to deal with this issue several years ago. I was making all the money at the time but I was desperately afraid to spend any. This caused huge problems and a great deal of unhappiness for both of us. Fortunately, we were able to find a solution. Here’s what we did:

1. We committed to finding a solution

We committed to find a solution we could both embrace – not just agree to. We didn’t want to simply appease each other. That would have led to built up resentments and bigger problems down the road. We made this commitment without knowing how to get it done. We just promised each other we’d find a way.

2. We got in each other’s heads

I acknowledged that my behavior was, at times, unreasonable. She acknowledged the same. I verbalized how my behavior must have made her feel. Once I did that, it was easy to be empathetic and even more committed to finding a solution. I believe the same thing happened for her.

3. We agreed on a budget

Ultimately, we are two different people with different needs and wants. Previously, I tried to convince her that what I wanted was good for the family and, therefore, she should want the same thing. This totally ignored her needs. It was also disrespectful.

Big surprise… It made her angry.

I acknowledged that she had important goals which were good for the family too.

Saving money is important for security.

But spending money wisely helps build a family.

I missed that completely.

The solution

We hammered out a budget that satisfied each of our needs. It was a compromise, but one we were both happy with.

In order to feel like we were building security, I needed us to save a certain amount each month. We put a dollar figure on it and made that priority number one.

In order to enjoy our lives and build our family, my wife wanted us to have certain experiences. After we satisfied our savings goals, we budgeted a certain amount for those items too.

Without a budget, we probably would not have been able to resolve this problem. Thinking back, the most important element of our solution was that we jointly agreed on a budget from a respectful, loving place rather than from a place of resentment.

Have you ever had to confront a spouse or partner with very different financial goals and values? How did you resolve the problem?

Published on September 30th, 2010
Modified on April 5th, 2012 - 9 Comments
Filed under: Miscellany

About the author: is a Certified Financial Planner in Los Angeles whose goal is to help people improve their finances and find balance in life. He covers these topics at his personal blog Wealth Pilgrim.

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9 Responses to “Marriage and Money: Is Your House Divided?”

  1. 1
    TeamworkFTW! Says:

    I make the money – he spends it! haha! Actually, he’s kind of a tightwad, but not as extreme as I am! I think I am addicted to saving money and I have a VERY hard time spending it on anything.

    I prepared a budget and we have monthly budget meetings to review how we did the prior month and to look forward to future months. I budget sparingly, so he has lots of wiggle room in categories like home & office supplies (he stays home), gifts & bdays, & entertainment (for family or for date nights). I’ve also agreed that whenever we come in under budget for groceries (budget is $600/month), we can use the “savings” to eat out. It’s a really good motivator – working as a team (I coupon & he plans meals around sales) we’ve come in up to $200 under budget for the month – which we can then use to eat out!! He wins because he always wants to eat out more. I win because we are no longer spending $800/month on groceries!

    Another thing we’d fight about were utility bills. He stays home all day (SAHD), so our bills are going to be higher than our neighbors’. But he was a utility HOG. He agreed to change his behaviors for ONE month to “prove” to me it wouldn’t make a difference. Well the savings that one month were certainly an eye opener for HIM! So we continued the “experiment” for another month – and I proved to him that it wasn’t a fluke. His behaviors had been previously driving up our utility bills to insane amounts (400-500/month)! I now budget $350 – 375/month (this is for all utilities – electricity, water & sewer), and we have come in under budget every month for the last year. This is probably TMI, but I also promised extra “favors” when the utility bill comes in under $300. It’s come in under $300 twice this year ;)

    for personal “blow money,” (as Dave Ramsey calls it) we each have our own allowances. We just implemented that last year, after 11 years of marriage! We would always fight about each other’s spedning on “unecessary” stuff. So we moved to a cash only allowance system – we each get cash allowance at the first of the month. It really changed his “nickel & dime” spending, like the $5 here and there at fast food places (which really adds up!). and now, if he wants something like a guitar amp – he just buys it with his own money (I think he had to save for that one) and I can’t question it!

    Me? I just have hundreds of dollars sitting in an envelope now ;) I should open up my own bank account (all of our acounts now are joint). I did splurge and spend $5 at starbucks last night. I think that might have been a mistake…now I want more starbucks!

  2. 2
    Carol Says:

    I adore my husband’s frugality. I don’t think I’ve ever met someone who so closely matched my own frugality. We both earn about the same salary. Both had saved about the same amount of money when we got married and bought our first home (which only took 4.5 years to pay off, living on one salary and using the other to aggressively pay down the principal). What’s awesome about our relationship is our willingness to spend on the other. For example, my husband wanted a new, faster computer. I said go ahead and get one, as we only live once, money is meant to be spent on the things we enjoy (but still within our means, obviously). He waited and instead decided to make that his birthday present. He does the same for me, encouraging me to buy what I really want, but I hesitate, telling myself I don’t really need it. We’re very generous with each other but also very frugal and trust each other completely. We stick to a strict budget and plan for purchases and discuss any and all purchases with each other. We have absolutely no debt to anyone, about a year’s worth of expenses in savings, and it’s a great life! I don’t think I could handle being married to someone who wasn’t frugal like I am.

  3. 3
    Scott Says:

    My wife & I used a shared joint checking account that my paycheck is direct-deposited into. All of the day-to-day expenses are drawn from this joint account, or are paid for on a credit card that is paid off each month from the joint account.

    We each get a monthly allowance ($100) that’s automatically transferred to a personal checking account that we each have. I can spend my allowance however I choose, and the same goes for my wife.

    This system works really well for us; but this largely because we’re united on how our central joint account works. I must add that it wasn’t always this easy.

  4. 4
    Sandy L Says:

    Sometimes it takes a traumatic life event to get someone to shift their spending ways.

    Although my husband is frugal, I’m more frugal than he is in many ways. When we both almost lost our jobs, we both went into frugal overdrive, but normally, he’s more balanced with his spending/saving approach than I am.

  5. 5
    Neal Says:

    Teamwork, Carol and Scot.

    ALL GOOD. Seems like the family that saves together stays together! Is that a new genius saying I just made up?

  6. 6
    Rosa Says:

    I’m surprised this isn’t a universal problem. I don’t know any couples with the exact same level of frugality – my partner and I met as dumpster-diving freegans with full-time jobs and matching 20% 401k deductions – but we’re still not quite on the same page, savings-wise – I feel like once we have a nice emergency/slush fund, the rest should go into the stock market, and he’d be happier with an ever-growing pile under the mattress.

    I like the allowance/splurge money, but I like mostly-separate finances more – otherwise it would be all Aldi rice and beans around here, and one pair of shoes each (that’s an actual “discussion” we had a few years ago – does a toddler need two pairs of shoes?). I don’t want my life ruled by his spending anxiety.

    With a core account that covers all the bills (mortgage, utilities, repairs, college savings, charitable giving) and separate accounts for everything else, we don’t even have to talk about most purchases and we can live together peacefully.

  7. 7
    Trav Says:

    My wife and I had completely separate accounts and shared expenses. Of course that wasn’t going to work once we were expecting our first child. At that point we picked a single number for a household budget.

    The household budget covers *every* expense — so it’s the size of a typical household income. We each contribute to the budget proportionately to our incomes (this left my wife free to go full-time mom if she wanted). The rest of our income is basically for savings/investments or for things the other person would really object to spending money on.

    The system has only been running for 2.5 years but it’s worked without a hiccup so far.

  8. 8
    Olivia Says:

    What you pointed out is crucial, working together to solve the problem and not take it out on each other. My sweetie and I are very different. He spends and I save. He was the one that insisted we each have personal mad money and since we’re living off of one modest income, it’s not alot. I used to try to convince him to put it towards the household but now appreciate his perspective. Everything is budgeted fairly tightly, but that little bit is an escape valve. It keeps the drudge out of life. We work together on our budget and are aware of and discuss any shifts. It’s made things much smoother. There are few surprises and all our needs are met.

  9. 9
    Heather Says:

    We differ on a few things, but overall, we’re on the same page.

    Where we’ve had issues is in tracking. He’s not much of a “keep track of where the money goes” kind of guy. He just prefers not to spend much, as evidenced by how much money remains in the bank.

    I’m a track every penny kind of gal.

    What we ended up with was agreeing on a set amount of cash to take out every Sunday. When the cash is gone, no more spending money until the following Sunday. We go grocery shopping on Sundays and usually fill our cars on Sunday or Monday, so the basic basics are taken care of.

    Things that we don’t pay in cash are tracked in a spreadsheet (monthly bills, car repairs, unexpected necessary expenses over $50; under $50 needs to get worked into the weekly cash) along with income.

    This way, anything that he forgets to put in the spreadsheet I will see by logging in to the credit card website or looking at the checkbook (he’s good about that). We’ve had a few squabbles about where the cash went, but not many.

    Coming up on a year of this plan. In the first 6 months, we saved enough money to pay off his car two years early. In the two months after that, we paid for surgery for the dog. In the months since then, my income was cut in half and we’re still floating OK (though we’re not saving much).

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