I well remember the day. That moment in my marriage when I just couldn’t take the financial stress anymore.
My husband, Jesse, and I had been married for about four years. We had a toddler and a newborn. Jesse had recently graduated from law school, and I was struggling with postpartum depression at the same time I was running a fledgling online business.
The wonderful starting job we thought my husband was going to have for at least a few years after law school ended up not panning out. Instead, we were left with job leads that seemed to be going nowhere, a bank account balance that was dwindling quickly, seemingly endless bills to pay and a whole lot of stress.
We’d get up each morning and simply try to make it through the day. I would care for our girls, stretch our budget as far as I could and look for creative ways to make my online business turn more than a part-time profit. Jesse would look for new job leads, follow up on old job leads, make telephone calls, send his résumé to any place he thought might be a possibility for employment.
Jesse finally got to the place where he started applying for any and every job he heard of — including with a company that was hiring staff to distribute telephone books.
I’ll never forget the day he got the news that all the openings for phone book distributors had been filled. It felt like a punch in the gut! Jesse was a licensed attorney who had gone to school for more than seven years . . . and he couldn’t even get a job making door-to-door deliveries!
And that was the day when, out of stress and frustration, I blamed my husband for not being able to get a job. I was so tired of having to live on a beans-and-rice budget. I was so tired of wondering how we were going to pay our bills. I lashed out at Jesse. I yelled at him — even threatened to leave him.
It was the last thing my husband needed from me, but as I’ve seen in our marriage and in so many other marriages, finances can cause enormous amounts of stress for a couple. Financial struggles can be the impetus for miscommunication, distrust, fighting and even divorce. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Couples can take proactive steps to significantly reduce their financial stress and to enjoy greater harmony in their marriage.
If finances are currently a source of stress in your marriage or if you and your spouse are simply looking for ways to be on the same financial page, here are six strategies I’ve learned since that rocky time in my marriage. These basics have helped me to live with much less financial stress so Jesse and I can experience married life with much more joy.
Get and stay on the same team.
To win in life and finances, you’ve got to be on the same team with your spouse. When it comes to finances, you have to ditch the me-versus-you mentality. Drop the “his money” and “her money” phrases and replace them with “our money.” If you want to enjoy financial unity, you’ll need to follow a game plan that you come up with together.
Before you start creating any kind of financial plan together, both of you should sit down and discuss your shared vision for life. Answer this question: What are your hopes and dreams for your future — as individuals and as a couple? Write your answers separately and then discuss them.
Set financial goals together.
I’m a firm believer in setting goals because it has the power to change the trajectory of life. So once you’ve discussed your vision for the future, it’s time to start talking about the specific goals you can set to help accomplish your dreams.
Break down your goals into manageable chunks that are realistic and trackable. Don’t just agree that you want to do a better job saving money; agree on a specific goal with a specific time frame. Consider something as precise as, “We want to save $500 during the next two months.” This kind of goal will help you as a couple by providing purpose, momentum and accountability.
As you’re working with your husband or wife to determine what financial goal you can reasonably set, consider where you want to be financially a year from now. What about five years from now? Are you aiming to get out of debt or save for a particular life season, item or vacation? Do you have an emergency fund in place?
Brainstorm these questions together. Remember: The key to success in minimizing stress and accomplishing your goals is to set the goals together. Work as a team.
Create a written budget that works.
Do you and your spouse view money differently?
Once you have a shared financial vision and have set goals as a team, move on to create a budget that will work. If you want your budget to be successful, it will need to be one that you both agree on and can commit to.
When you sit down together to discuss your budget, come to the meeting with an open mind. It’s never productive for a husband or wife to have everything already mapped out and then show up to the conversation with the intent of badgering his or her spouse into signing off on the plan.
Start the conversation with your spouse by answering the following questions: What is our combined monthly income? What is our total monthly spending? Are there areas we can cut to pay down debt more quickly? Are there areas in which we can save more money? After the bills have been paid each month and our debt has been conquered, where does our extra income need to go?
Discuss the ins and outs of the family budget. Honestly evaluate the lifestyle implications of your new financial plan, clarifying the choices and sacrifices you’re each willing to make to accomplish your goals. To set up your family for financial success, you’ll need to work out the nitty-gritty details, express your concerns and articulate your hesitations right from the start.
Be sure your budget is written down and stored in a safe place. Writing your budget gives you accountability and helps to maintain the spending limits you have agreed to set for yourselves. If you don’t write it down, you will be unlikely to stick to the budget you discussed.
You might consider using an app such as Mvelopes to help you track and stick with your budget. Also, keep in mind that you will probably need to tweak your budget fairly significantly during the first few months of implementation as you figure out what works best. A good budget is one that will serve you and not become a master to strangle you.
Communicate openly and honestly.
If you don’t communicate with your spouse, your shared vision and financial goals will ultimately fail. It’s important that you check in with each other regularly.
I heartily encourage couples to have monthly budget accountability meetings. During these meetings you can honestly discuss your financial situation, revise the written budget, talk about financial issues that may have arisen, and review your overall goals and objectives.
These meetings must be a mutual discussion between a husband and wife. The conversation needs to be a give-and-take debate in which one spouse is not forcing his or her opinion upon the other. Come to these meetings with a spirit of honesty, transparency and forgiveness. If you are not honest with your husband or wife about your concerns, this could lead to bitterness toward your spouse when the financial plan does not turn out as you had originally hoped.
Change your attitude.
When you change your attitude, you can change your life. This is true because your attitude affects every area of your life.
A can-do, committed, cheerful attitude will always take you further than a complaining, defeatist attitude.
If you have the attitude that your financial plan or goals will fail, then they most likely will. If you have an attitude of motivation and dedication, there’s no limit to how far you can go when you work together to accomplish your goals and financial plans.
Your attitude toward your spouse plays a huge role, too. If you have a spirit of forgiveness toward your husband or wife, it is much more likely you’ll have unity in your marriage and finances. When you extend grace to your spouse in times of difficulty or frustration, the unity you experience will propel you forward to continue being wise stewards of your money.
Learn to compromise.
When it comes to marriage, especially in regard to your finances, compromise can be your best friend. You and your spouse are probably very different people — after all, opposites do attract — so it’s important that you learn to appreciate each other’s strengths and discuss each other’s differences.
You will never agree on everything, and because of this, compromise is absolutely essential. A strong and healthy relationship requires give and take, with both parties willingly giving up what he or she wants for the other’s good. Compromise means finding a solution that works for both of you.
One common hurdle I see couples face is the spender-saver dilemma. One person in the relationship is the spender who enjoys spending money and buying things, while the other person is the saver who wants to pinch pennies and never spend a dime.
This is the case in my marriage. But my husband and I have found a beautiful compromise for this dilemma — we have established an agreed-upon “blow category” as a line item in our budget. We each get an allotted amount of money that we can spend on whatever we’d like, whenever we’d like. My husband (the natural spender) has the freedom to spend some money each month, and I (the natural saver) have the assurance that the money is accounted for within the confines of our budget. This arrangement has worked well for us, and I’m certain it has prevented many unnecessary arguments over money.
Both a healthy marriage and savvy money management will require teamwork, planning and dedication. If you put these six strategies into practice, you just might see encouraging results in your marriage as well as in your finances. When you get on the same team financially, you will create a sense of peace in your marriage and in many other areas. This in turn will equip you to enjoy life together, experience a closer relationship and be happier as a couple.
Crystal Paine is the author of Money-Making Mom: How every woman can earn more and make a difference.