Combining finances with your partner is a game changer. By pooling your resources and sharing expenses, you can end up with stronger growth potential and a larger safety net.
You can also end up divorced and broke.
While combining finances is great, it comes with the shared responsibility of managing that money. When both of your livelihoods are at stake, tempers can flare and worldviews can collide. It’s no wonder that money issues are the second leading cause of divorce, behind infidelity.
Thankfully, managing money with your partner isn’t rocket science. Here are some simple and effective tips for budgeting as a unit.
1. Divide Discretionary Funds Equally
Money can breed resentment in a marriage, especially when one or both parties feel like they’re getting the raw end of the deal. For example, if you’re buying new shoes while your partner is wearing the same pair for five years, they might feel like you’re being too frivolous.
That’s why it helps to allocate the same amount of money for discretionary, or non-essential, purchases.
For example, let’s say my husband and I each get $300 a month to spend on clothes, movies, hobbies or outings with friends. If I want to spend $20 on crocheting supplies, it doesn’t matter what my partner thinks because that money is coming out of my account. If my partner wants to spend $50 on a pay-per-view boxing fight, that’s his prerogative.
When you divide up the money, set some basic ground rules on what it should be used for. Should you use it if you’re grabbing lunch at work with coworkers? Does it include gifts for the other person’s birthday? Ironing out these details beforehand will make the transition smoother.
2. Recognize Each Person’s Priorities
Part of committing your life to another person is being involved in their interests. If your husband cares about orchids, you should ask questions and care about them too. If your wife starts taking martial arts classes, you should learn the difference between a high kick and and a front kick.
But caring is more than just lip service. It’s also recognizing when those interests, values and priorities influence the budget, and allowing for some leeway to accommodate them.
If your partner really cares about retiring early, then saving more than 15% for retirement is a priority you need to respect. If you really love to travel for extended periods of time, then saving money in a travel fund is something your partner should support.
Understanding your partner’s priorities is key to a healthy financial partnership. When you don’t respect their decisions and choices, that’s when conflict sets in.
Sit down together and make a list of your personal short-term and long-term goals. Then, make a list of your mutual goals, like buying a new house or saving for your child’s college education.
Go over your budget and decide how much to allocate for each goal. If you don’t have enough for all of them, decide what’s most important to both of you. Recognize that sacrifices will need to be made, and try to be as equitable as possible.
3. Meet with a Financial Planner
No matter how strong your marriage is or how closely your opinions align, you’ll probably have some financial disagreements. Maybe you don’t know who should manage the day-to-day budgeting or have a different approach to investing in your IRAs. As long as you can come to an agreement, most financial squabbles fall into the realm of normal marital negotiation.
But if you have fundamental disagreements on how to approach your money – or you both feel too uninformed to make decisions – consider seeing a financial planner together.
Like a marriage counselor, a financial planner is an objective third party who isn’t interested in assigning blame. They’re just looking to give the most appropriate advice for your particular situation.
Even if you don’t have any money fights, it can still be a good idea to see a financial planner every once in a while. They can point out your blind spots and help you manage your money more efficiently.
Find a financial planner who has experience working with couples and make a list of questions to ask beforehand.
4. Check in Regularly
Most people have a fairly loose approach to budgeting. They deal with it sporadically, only checking in when something looks off.
Make budgeting a weekly habit and associate something fun with it. My friend Lauren and her husband grab a pizza from a neighborhood place and go over their budget every Friday. You can do a coffee date, go to your favorite restaurant or make fancy cocktails at home – whatever gets you in a room and in front of your budget.
Check in on your spending, compare it to your projected figures and evaluate how you’re progressing toward your goals. Doing this on a regular basis will make the topic of budgeting less intimidating, and it can help you catch problems before they snowball into something big.
5. Address Problems Early
Like a drip in your faucet, money leaks are easier to plug when they’re still small. Once it gets to the point where your lifestyle is being impacted, emotions are likely to rise and conflict is almost certain to appear. If you notice that you’re going over budget on groceries every month, for example, bring it up sooner rather than later.
This principle also applies if your partner is suddenly going outside of the budget. Bring it up once you notice the problem, but avoid shaming or getting emotional. Your partner’s financial behavior could reveal a personal issue they’re having. For example, someone who’s spending more on clothes might feel unhappy with how they look.
Don’t be afraid to change your budget if necessary. A budget is not a stagnant document – it’s an ever-changing reflection of your life. Deciding to increase funds in one area or decrease them in another doesn’t mean you’ve failed at budgeting. It just means your life has changed.
When my husband and I bought our house, we added an extra line item for decorating and furniture. It wasn’t something we ever had to worry about with our apartment, but now it’s an important part of our lives. Your budget is like a diet, and sticking with it requires flexibility. Make sure your budget fits in with your life.
Zina Kumok is a freelance writer specializing in personal finance. A former reporter, she has covered murder trials, the Final Four and everything in between. She has been featured in Lifehacker, DailyWorth and Time. Read about how she paid off $28,000 worth of student loans in three years at Debt Free After Three.