My Wife and I Fought About Money, So We Created a System to Fix It

“What’s a Sephora?” I asked, “And how can you spend $90 on it?”

So began another fight. The first year of our marriage, my wife and I fought about money all the time. Her shoulders raised in defense whenever I tried to talk about her debt, and I became passive-aggressive when asking about purchases I was seeing in our joint checking account.

We worried that money would become a noticeable crack in our otherwise great relationship. And we had cause to worry; we’ve all heard the stats: couples who fight about money issues on a weekly basis are 30 percent more likely to be get divorced than those who fight about money a few times per month. At that point in our relationship, weekly fights would have been a relief.

Fortunately, my wife is a scientist and problem solver at heart, and with some messy trial and error we came up with a three-step system that addresses our money issues head on. We’re now inching up on three and a half years of marriage, and fights about money have virtually disappeared.

 

1. The Limited Joint Account.
At the time of our Sephora fight, my wife was in relatively good financial shape. She had a stable teaching job and had gotten her debt under control. She chipped in on the mortgage and had just started a 403(b). If she was meeting all of her financial obligations and goals, why should I have cared if she spent $90 on makeup and hair goop?

The answer is that I shouldn’t have. I know this, but human nature is hard to change. Even when I was good and brought up purchases in a neutral way, my wife still felt she had to explain herself. Not good. Better, we found, was to open a joint account for joint obligations only, like mortgage and utility bills. Now we both pay in to cover expenses, and the rest goes into our solo accounts away from the prying eyes of the other person.

 

2. The Spreadsheet.
Even with the limited joint account, we had issues. Forecasting future expenses challenged us, and a few times the well went dry. More importantly, our situations were not equal. My wife still had student loan payments, which my parents were able to spare me from, and her salary lagged behind mine by a bit. At the end of each month, I felt flush and she felt, well, broke. It wasn’t fair. We fixed it by creating a fairly simple spreadsheet to calculate our monthly joint expenses. This wasn’t revolutionary by itself, but we added a calculation in called the pay ratio. Basically, the ratio took into account that since I made more money than her, I would pay more into joint account for expenses. Immediately, we both felt about the same amount of breathing room in our finances. A scrubbed version of the spreadsheet is available here.

 

3. The Money Meeting.
No matter how many systems we surrounded ourselves with, we still had to occasionally talk about money. And we found that these conversations happened at the exact wrong time: when one of us felt stressed or angry (feeling stressed after a long commute and tripping over a big Amazon.com box blocking the door was a reliable money-fight trigger). This venting of stress had almost nothing to do with money and everything to do with our other personal issues.

Our solution: the money meeting. Simply put, the money meeting is a monthly safe space we create to talk about money issues. Power points are drawn up, generous glasses of wine are poured. Neither person is allowed to be hungry at the time of the meeting. We huddle over a laptop, open a dozen browser tabs, and begin pouring over the numbers. We check each other’s savings goals. No questions are stupid. We assume all comments are meant constructively and lovingly. And either person can tap out if they become bored or stressed. At the end, we try to capture all the actions, things we promised we would do, and hold each other accountable for them at the next meeting. Did you change your joint contributions? Did you call that company to transfer your Roth IRA? Our friends, even those impressed by our method, think this is overkill. But I liken it to those long rituals foreign diplomats go through. Money matters in a marriage, like foreign relations, are so important that there’s no harm overdoing it to avoid misunderstandings.

Do I think our method will work for all couples? Of course not. Every couple is unique. But it’s important that, whatever a couple’s method for handling money, they come about it deliberately. Fighting about purchases in stressful moments is not a sound financial plan. Googling “What is Sephora?” in a private browser tab makes you a parent, not a loving partner. Though now that I mention it, my wife has some face wash from there in the shower, and man. That stuff is amazing.

 

 

E.A. Mann is an engineer and freelance writer living in Warren, R.I. He has a twitter account, but feels like an old person when he tries to use it.

You can see an example of a money meeting here.

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34 Comments / Post A Comment

kellyography (#250)

That spreadsheet is incredibly helpful. I am nowhere near getting married, but am terrified of things like this, so every experience story helps.

planforamiracle (#4,034)

@kellyography Hear, hear.

EA_Mann (#5,000)

@kellyography Thanks!

highjump (#39)

“Neither person is allowed to be hungry at the time of the meeting.” This seems key.

Caitlin with a C (#3,578)

@highjump Most of the fights between my SSO and I stem from forgetting that rule or its equally important cousin “no one is allowed to be sleepy at the time of the meeting”. Trying to talk about important stuff when you are sleepy/hungry = maximum crankitude.

Solid advice, E.A.

planforamiracle (#4,034)

@highjump I also really enjoyed this point and how it was phrased. In fact, I want to extend this rule to all meetings/important conversations in my life. Avoid the crankitude!

garli (#4,150)

@highjump This goes along with the “figuring out dinner before you get hangry” rule.

Money struggles and fights were probably 80-90% of the reason my ex and I split up. After nearly 10 years together we were never able to create a system that worked for us and the problems compounded after college. Add in alcohol abuse and problems with division of labor with the housework and I was ready to walk away and he seemed clueless as to why. To this day he still forgets to pay the car payment which is in both of our names and I have to make sure the money is taken out of his account.

lemonadefish (#3,296)

My husband and I do something similar, except everything goes into the joint account, and we each get an allowance for fun things (like bicycles, lego, $90 make up sprees, etc.) This eliminates the unfairness of my student loans & smaller salary, and makes us not care at all what the other buys with our fun money. Household expenses, food, vacations, loans, doctors’ visits, etc. all come out of the joint account.

@lemonadefish We do that too! It all goes in the joint pot, we pay for the household/joint/necessary expenses, and then we each get a relatively small allowance twice a month for fun things. I really, really like it this way. I can save up for a solo long weekend vacation, and he can go on a Kickstarter binge, and neither of us feels the need to justify our actions – nor does it have an impact on the overall household budget. If you want a thing, you either have the allowance for it already or you save for it.

We still had to/have to regularly sit down and discuss bigger-picture finances (retirement savings rates, shorter term savings goals, student debt repayment strategies, consumer credit, budgets for things) and make sure that our goals are aligned, but taking the personal expenses and associated feelings out of the picture really helps.

EA_Mann (#5,000)

@lemonadefish That’s a great idea, and I bet the idea that it’s coming at you as ‘fun money’ completely takes away the guilt of spending it.

limenotapple (#1,748)

@lemonadefish This is what we do. If one of us has financial issues, then we both do. We also talk about money…a lot…and discuss purchases of biggish things. We try hard not to criticize each other’s fun money spending habits. We only have joint accounts, but do have different accounts for emergency funds, household improvements, etc. It is nice not having to justify my actions.

I love the advice about choosing the right time for these important money discussion!

limenotapple (#1,748)

@limenotapple Also we are lucky that we make enough money to be able to save generously for retirement while still having money to blow at Sephora/Steam/AwesomeShoeStore/BoardGamesRus/whatever. If we didn’t, these conversations would be harder!

loren smith (#2,300)

@limenotapple Yeah, that is basically what my husband and I do – we have set amounts that we transfer every pay into joint savings (retirement, car, vacation, emergency, food [going out to dinner fund!]) Our pay is deposited into our separate chequing accounts, which our credit cards are through, and anything left over after the savings transfers is free spending. We do freely criticize (jokingly) each others fun money purchases (he drives a twelve year old European luxury car, it’s an eassy target, ha)

This is almost exactly what my partner and I do, except without the meeting (well, actually, yeah, we do money meetings, it’s just as-needed, like if we want to plan a vacation or move or something). We mostly have the limited joint account because we aren’t married and wanted to limit how much we entangled our finances, but honestly, I really like it and would continue doing it after we got married.

Yes, never having an important conversation while hungry is right up there with never going to the grocery store hungry (made that mistake this weekend, now I have a box of pop tarts I have no idea what to do with).

swirrlygrrl (#2,398)

@polka dots vs stripes As I am sure you have realized, eating that box of Pop Tarts is not the correct answer. Food Bank? Or the always trusty “leave it for the vultures at the office” strategy!

@swirrlygrrl They were my afternoon chocolate craving snack for the week – they got eaten with minimal guilt, otherwise I’d be having a snickers or something (assuming the snickers is worse? maybe? I don’t want to know).

ilovetobudget (#913)

I am commenting purely to point out that the first and last lines of this piece are genius.

EA_Mann (#5,000)

One little easter egg that I left out of the article is that since we calculate expenses monthly but pay in weekly, we end up with 4 weeks of extra unused money in our joint account for buffer or for fun. Reason is this: 12 months times 4 weeks =48 weeks when there are really 52 weeks in a year. It’s as close as I’ve gotten to a moderately sized magic money tree

planforamiracle (#4,034)

@EA_Mann That is like the budget equivalent of hiding a $20 bill in your winter coat pocket before you put it away for the season, so you forget about it and find it again in the fall :D

ceereelyo (#3,552)

Thank you for including this spreadsheet! Hubs and I have been married since May, but living together for the past five years and are trying to figure out how to do money together-together now that it’s all legal. I am your wife in this scenario, with credit card debt accumulated, where as my husband is debt-free/car-paid. However, we are both kind of dumb when it comes to money and find our thinking “where did our money go?”. Thanks for the tips!!

eraserface (#1,628)

This is really interesting to me, mostly because I don’t understand it (but not judging). My husband and I both view any money as our money and the idea of a separate account for separate, personal purchases baffles me.

We used to fight a lot about chores, that was our contentious issue. So we fought for two years about it, and then decided to come up with a chore list, and fights pretty much immediately stopped, for good. Sometimes logic/order/science works, regardless of the issue at hand.

shannowhamo (#845)

@eraserface Indeed, to each their own. My husband and I just put everything in the joint account and go from there. I’m sort of “in charge” of money so luckily he’s not poking around in there judging my Nordstrom Rack and he doesn’t seem to mind asking “can we afford ___?” before he buys a comic book or whatever. We do make about pretty much the same amount of money and we’re both paying down debt so that probably makes it easier. But I don’t even look at my CC debt and his student debt as his and hers anymore, it’s ours.

acid burn (#113)

We don’t have a joint account, but we do have a spreadsheet. Generally it works out that he pays the rent, I keep track of the bills, and then everything (plus any other large shared expenses that one of us paid for, like a new couch or plane tickets for both of us) goes into the spreadsheet. At the end of the month, whoever paid less paypals the difference to the other. When he made twice as much money as me, everything got split 70/30, and now that we’re both unemployed it’s back to 50/50. We’ve talked about getting a joint account to use for shared costs directly, but since we have no plan to merge finances completely, it didn’t seem like it would save that much effort. We’d still both be moving money around every month; we’d just be transferring to the joint account instead of each other.

tuntastic (#2,769)

If you are still googling actual syntactical questions then I want to help you learn to google better.

Beaks (#3,488)

@tuntastic Sometimes I like to carelessly type searches into Google just to see how close it can get to what I’m thinking, in a free-form, disregarding spelling or logic kind of way. It’s really kind of alarming/ amazing. We’ve come a long ways from the days of carefully constructed boolean search queries.

Which is to say, google’s gotten so good that I think there has been a noticeable degradation in the quality of my searches, which has not shown up in the quality of my results.

Ellie (#62)

@tuntastic You get a more direct answer to the question of what Sephora is by googling “What is sephora” than by googling “Sephora.” The syntactical question method is in fact the preferable method.

EA_Mann (#5,000)

@tuntastic never thought I’d say this, but thanks for defending my syntactical searches! For better or worse, writers think in sentences.

UrbanGarlic (#4,303)

“Better, we found, was to open a joint account for joint obligations only, like mortgage and utility bills. Now we both pay in to cover expenses, and the rest goes into our solo accounts away from the prying eyes of the other person.”

This is exactly what I’ve been planning on doing… well, when I’m with someone.

I like the article and the money meeting doc. Have fun on that London trip!

pizzatourist (#2,449)

Loved reading about this! Was excited about the spreadsheet but I am not able to use it. Am I the only one having this problem? It won’t let me fill in any fields, save it, etc.

EDaily (#4,396)

@pizzatourist You should be able to download the Google Doc as an Excel sheet. Just click on “File” in the upper lefthand corner.

pizzatourist (#2,449)

Thanks. I e-mailed it as an attachment and it works just fine.

EA_Mann (#5,000)

@pizzatourist Thanks for the kind words. Let me know if you find any issues with the spreadsheet.

jenenifer (#5,422)

This is exactly what we do in my house, and it’s taken us from the brink of constant arguments about money, to sensible, healthy conversations about money.

We pay a proportionate amount into a shared bills account for all the bills and household expenses, keeping our own day to day spending separate, and every month sit down with all our statements and note down where we’re at in a big spreadsheet. We don’t keep track of all our purchases, but just noting down snapshots is enough to keep us aware of where we’re at, and also not at one anothers throats!

And definitely, definitely never do money talks hungry, tired, drunk, or otherwise overly emotional – make them neutral spaces and call them off if it starts getting too heated. Nothing good comes from that!

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