How do you communicate with your spouse about money?

Two adults one child’s recent post about getting her husband on board with a joint spending/retirement plan and the hiccups therein got me thinking.  How does one communicate about money with one’s spouse?  There seem to be so many different examples on the blogosphere, from couples who write personal finance blogs together and have money discussions and their joint views as a center to their relationship to couples who continually harbor resentment, keep score, hide, and fight about purchases.  (The latter are somewhat difficult to read!)

#1:  I think the way I communicate about money issues with my DH is probably not transferable to most people.  When we got married, I basically told him, this is the way it is going to be because this is what we can afford and whenever we got a negative shock (“Wait, you have 10K in student loans that you didn’t know about?”  “Wait, I have to pay capital gains taxes on stocks I didn’t know I owned that are now worthless because my father transferred them to me right before the company went bankrupt?”) I would freak out and cry a lot and he’d try to make me feel better.  As we got into better financial situations we would discuss our goals with what we could do with our relaxed spending.  So with him not worrying his pretty little head about money at first and then mainly only positive money interactions after, it hasn’t been an issue.  We’d figure out how to solve problems by talking them through (like DH getting miserable because he either wants to spend all his money or none of his money and both states of the world are bad– solved by an allowance that allows him to spend all his money without hurting our finances).

These days money isn’t that big a deal and we have a lot of systems in place that set precedents for most spending.  We still check with each other for big things and DH stays within his allowance for his fun money.

#2:  We talk about things…. like, “Hey, just so you know, I’m thinking of spending money on X.  Is that ok with you?”  Before that (when we had a lot less money) we had really separate finances.  We still do, to a large amount. 

He does joint taxes for us both.  We tell each other after we’ve made charitable contributions, usually.  But mostly we’re responsible with our own stuff and have these systems with our joint stuff.

So that’s how we communicate about money.  If applicable, how do you guys communicate with interested parties about money?

47 Responses to “How do you communicate with your spouse about money?”

  1. Omdg Says:

    We do like you do in purchases. I make most of the major financial decisions and he has veto power. This is not optimal…. But given he feels overwhelmed by all of it, is fine I guess, though it places more pressure on me than I’d like.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I tend not to be too overwhelmed about money stuff because I’m technically an expert on money. Just like he’s an expert on engineering stuff in the house even though before we got married I was always the person who fixed everything at home or in the dorm. These days I’m more likely to start the conversation about a big money decision before I’ve decided because he’s taken more of an interest in finances since he realized how powerful they are.

  2. Jay Says:

    Before we were married, I expected this to be a major issue because our families are SO different. And then it wasn’t. He never said anything (I’m the spender in the family, but compared to his parents Scrooge was a spendthrift). After a few years, I asked him why he’d never said anything and he told me that since I earned far more than he did, he didn’t feel like he had any right to tell me how to spend it. By the time he was comfortable bringing it up, he’d realized I wasn’t actually being completely extravagant.

    I pay the bills and deal with the accountant. Everything is joint – we have separate credit cards and I pay all the bills. We talk over major purchases. The line for what constitute a “major” purchase has moved a lot. We’ve been married 30 years, starting when I was in med school and he was in grad school, and at that point if we spent more than $20.00, we discussed it. Now…”major” probably means somewhere north of $250.00. We both have anxieties about money, they tend to land on different aspects of our finances, and we have learned to talk it over rather than cranking at each other.

  3. moom Says:

    We don’t really discuss it because Moominmama isn’t interested in finances and wants me to handle it. And mostly we have enough money that we don’t really need to worry about spending. Major issue I guess was deciding how much we could afford to spend on buying a house. And we would discuss about buying a car, say. She’s not at all interested in the investment side of things.

  4. Katherine Says:

    I am definitely more interested in money stuff than my husband. Our utilities are in my name and our phones and insurance are in his, but all of the accounts are set up with my email address, so I get the notifications. I usually just mention to him when I’ve paid a bill, or remind him to log in and pay the insurance. I maintain the expense tracking, but I get him to look at it too, so he knows what our situation is.

    He is naturally less spendy than I am but I’m more interested in big goals. Up until now the circumstances of our life (grad school) have been more conducive to just checking in to make sure we’re not overspending, since we’ve been renting and haven’t had enough income to do big goals. But before the summer we’ll be needing to make big money decisions, and so we’ll be talking more about the big goals we might want to set.

  5. Mel Says:

    It’s funny — until you asked this question, I have never thought about it. We sort of don’t really talk about it. Or it isn’t a source of stress. When we got married, we pooled all our money. We mostly feel the same way about obtaining new items — I’m maybe a bit more frugal but 90% of our non-need purchases are books, music, or video games that multiple people use. If someone wants to make a bigger purchase, we mention it to each other and make sure the other person is cool with it. But we just don’t have a lot of individual purchases that only affect one person. We don’t have one person going out for lunch while the other person brings lunch. We just sort of both do the same thing and overlap like that a lot. And we also don’t talk about goals with our money with the exception of saving for travel or dealing with making a budget for big events or home repair so we don’t overshoot on the spending. But money just isn’t a topic that comes up very much.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      We’ve had a lot of potential changes to our careers as well as real changes to our incomes, which necessitates money discussions. Most of them are nice like, “what do we do with all this extra money?” but some of them were, “you’re really miserable at this job, I think if we make these cut-backs you’ll be able to quit the job a year earlier than we’d planned.”

  6. Ana Says:

    I do a lot more of it these days—I took over saving/investing and am a lot more committed to tracking our spending. We discuss any purchase over a couple hundred dollars (we used to say $100, but honestly, we’ve both spent more than $100 on clothes, for example, and never thought to ask the other person). We sit down and talk through big things like vacations or home repairs, but otherwise don’t discuss money much. We used to be equally spendy, but I’ve become more frugal lately. This is sometimes a source of contention, but I haven’t figured out how to discuss this without nagging, so for now, I’m giving him a bigger monthly allowance and just letting it go. In the scheme of things it doesn’t matter.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      The allowance was such a breakthrough with us. I don’t actually care what he spends it on so long as it’s a predictable amount. So lots of us not having me say, “Do you really NEED that?” because of course he doesn’t, but he wants it and we can afford it. Letting go on some of the ridiculous things he buys was pretty key to my mental health.

  7. xykademiqz Says:

    DH and I have separate checking accounts and several savings accounts, one general purpose savings that is joint into which we both put money and draw from, another where he puts money for longer-term savings, and I have my own savings where I save during the academic year.

    My salary is about twice his, so I pay the mortgage (along with property tax escrow and insurance), daycare and afterschool care, groceries, clothes for the kids, extracurriculars (swimming for all three, basketball). I can’t save very much from my salary, but I try to put away $500/month; starting next year when the youngest starts kindergarten and the daycare bill drops by a whole grand, I’ll be able to amp the savings. DH is paying off his car, pays gas/electricity and water, his and Eldest’s phone, Internet, insurance for both our cars and does most of the college savings for the kids. I think he spends too much on electronics in general and we occasionally argue over it, but mostly I let him be. We are doing okay, and I don’t want to be the bad cop who spoils everyone’s fun all the time. We always discuss large purchases before making them and neither of us is particularly impulsive when it comes to dropping lots of money on something. We are aligned in believing memories are important, so we aim for 1-2 family vacations every year (nothing extravagant, but you have to spend a couple of thousand on each, even without flying).

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      DH gets to make his own trade-off about whether or not he wants electronics or lattes (or audible or board games or mail order maple syrup or whatever the hobby du jour is etc.). Though sometimes if it’s electronics I want too (ex. a replacement ipad for the one DC2 broke that DH had originally purchased out of his allowance) we’ll come to an agreement wherein I say that X can come out of general funds (usually the minimum cost for what I would want) but he has to pay anything over X.

  8. Norwegian Forest Cat Says:

    Looking forward to reading the comments on this one! I’m still not sure if I want to keep finances separate post-wedding or not, since we have very different spending habits (but similar goals in the long run). Thankfully we’ve had lots of productive conversations on this topic anyway, so whatever we decide should be a pretty smooth transition!

  9. crazy grad mama Says:

    We have separate checking accounts, but manage the money jointly. Most of that managing is done by me: I keep track of the budget (I have the passwords to all the accounts) and tell my husband how much money he has available to spend on certain things. If one of us wants something big, we talk to the other and decide whether we can buy it right away or need to save up. My husband is supposed to be in charge of his own retirement savings, but so far is not very good at remembering to do that.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Sounds like he should automate his retirement savings so he doesn’t have to remember anything.

    • Leigh Says:

      I’ve made investment plans for my boyfriend while he supervises me accessing his account data and then given him instructions for the auto things to let happen. He’s not really a planner, so usually I have to sit him down and say we are doing your tax planning for the year, etc. But it seems to work out! I would definitely recommend your husband to set things up automatically.

  10. Catwoman73 Says:

    Thanks for the link love, N&M! I am working on a post about our particular situation right now, so I certainly don’t want to say much, but I will say that hubby and I are vastly different in our communication styles- probably as a result of our vastly different upbringings. But the key for us has been to understand each other’s needs, and respect them, even if we don’t understand them. I won’t say that we are perfect (not even close), but he is getting better at understanding my need to think (sometimes at great length) before discussing big money issues, and I am getting better at understanding why he struggles with financial discipline more than I do. It hasn’t been easy, as you know, but I feel incredibly fortunate to be in a marriage that is strong enough to endure these growing pains. More to come…

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I think it’s really amazing that you went from not communicating well to communicating well and without fighting. I wish more people would make that switch! (And I’m really curious how the switch came about, like what is different now. How did you gain that understanding etc.)

  11. jjiraffe Says:

    My husband and I are pretty aligned on finances. We both are pretty frugal, we check in on where we are on budget almost everyday and we love saving money. I think finance has actually bonded us closer most of the time. I do prefer to eat out more than he does. Probably our biggest difference.

  12. Revanche Says:

    We’ve gone through a LOT of change in communication. We’re both from very different backgrounds and styles, and our communication had to change as we went from both completely separate finances, to partially combined, to fully combined. I used to dread our tough talks but after many years, I’ve realized that I was attributing more hurt and harm to having them than truly happened.

    He was the spender, from a family of somewhat profligate spenders, even when you factor in the fact that they have a lot of money. I obviously, am the total opposite and a complete controlling personality to boot. Before we got married, I stated plainly: I will be in charge of the money. He didn’t mind the idea, he generally knew I was good at money mgmt, and trusted my good judgement but making it a reality was a long journey. For one thing, giving up control of everything in your 30s, feeling like you might be getting judged (uh, sometimes), that’s not an easy thing to do. For another, he didn’t actually know in an absolute sense how good I am with money until a very experienced and money savvy friend pointed out that I have better experience and judgement than mutual friends twice my age. This is partly because he thinks I make it all sound easy when I give him reports on what I’ve been handling.

    We’ve had disagreements and even arguments, I suppose, on occasion but they’re not common. We talk through most purchases and plans and get agreement before they happen, most of the time, we find a way to see the other person’s point and share our POV so that we can compromise or agree. I wouldn’t even say we’ve had an actual fight over money, honestly, it was always about something else underlying the money itself. We recently had a hard time seeing eye to eye on a proposed gift and we had some hard moments in getting at the truth of what was bothering each of us, but after a couple hours of talking, we found our way to agreement again. And it’s so important for us to have those hard talks because that’s how we deepen understanding of the other person’s way of thinking so that we can empathize and hear each other.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      DH and I also came from pretty different spending backgrounds. But he seemed to be fine with me just saying this is the way it’s gonna be and then we’d talk when stuff wasn’t working and try to find a solution. I initially went in thinking things would be more complicated, like we’d have 3 separate accounts (his/hers/ours) as soon as we had enough money to do so, but he’s just a really easy guy so things ended up being simpler than I had assumed they would be.

  13. emmalincolnblog Says:

    What a fascinating topic! I keep seeing references to having different backgrounds in the comments, and also to now knowing how to talk about money. I think that those two things are key: can you talk about money and how did you grow up. Once those two issues are out in the open, the rest is just compromise :)

  14. bogart Says:

    Wow, fascinating topic. I’ve read your post and the comments it inspired but not the post that inspired it (yet).

    So. Well when DH & I got married he was a real adult who’d been living a real adult life for a long time. He had a house, a mortgage, associated utilities (and overdue repairs…), etc., a job, was vested in a pension system, had 2 college-bound kids (1 HS Sr., 1 HS sophomore), one with a chronic health condition, a car, an ex-wife (no alimony, joint responsibility for kids through college graduation by mutual, non-formalized agreement), no savings, and a loan out against his 401K. I had a job, a car, a horse, a tiny bit of savings (and a tiny 403b — but tiny only because I’d only worked 1 year), and a bit left on a car loan. I, too, was a real adult, but not a settled-down one; I was accustomed to things like utility bills, but when we wed, I moved into his home and embraced sharing responsibility for everything about his household. Oh, and we refinanced the house (leaving 10% equity only) in order to buy his former wife out and get my interest (and responsibility) in. Haha, fun fact, I lived full time in that house for only 1 out of the first 5 years of our married life.

    So when we got started more or less everything was in his name. The mortgage was joint and we took out a joint account to facilitate that and to serve other shared purposes, and we added me to things as needed (or not if not needed). Over time things have evolved and I’m now “responsible” for lots more bills, and he for fewer, but basically, our approach in the “big picture” sense from the beginning has been that every last bit of it is both of ours, and conversely, in the “little picture” sense, we each manage chunks (e.g. our income is direct deposited into our individual checking accounts) and don’t ask too many question/pay too much attention to the details except when needed. We lived so hand-to-mouth (by the standards of what I considered reasonable) when we first married and then gradually started having somewhat fewer commitments (the kids got through college and found their own jobs, and health insurance, after some frighteningly expensive COBRA coverage for the one) and more to the point, making what feels like more money (it’s funny — I just asked a CPI calculator and actually we only make about 30% more now than we did then after controlling for inflation, but — and these are 2 biggies — DH is now retired (so he is bringing in less, and that’s OK), and we have lots, lots, lots (lots lots) more saved than we did then, so I no longer, e.g. wandering around thinking, “How can I ever save enough for retirement?” I’m on track for that.). Thus while our styles have never really changed (I continue to be a frugal planner and he more live-for-the-moment), I no longer sweat “the small stuff,” much. And even if his “small stuff” does add up to a surprisingly large amount (if you ask me), well, we are muddling along OK.

    An interesting addition to that “different personalities/approaches” aspect in our case that I have been mulling recently is differing time horizons. I just now went and plugged our data into a basic life expectancy calculator, and it has me outliving DH by 25 years (that’s a combination of our age difference and differences in life expectancy). In other words, at least now (though arguably as long as we’ve known each other), it’s entirely rational for him to have a shorter time horizon than I do. I’m not sure what to make of or do about that, but in terms of a bunch of decisions we’re contemplating/have made recently, it’s pretty strikingly obvious.

  15. undine Says:

    We’ve always shared bank accounts, but I handle most of the finances and do the taxes. We both spend money sparingly but have some extravagances (i.e., Audible). If he wants something a lot, I try to make sure that we can afford it/he can get it, and vice versa.

  16. Rosa Says:

    Before the kid, we each put half our paychecks into the joint account, to cover mortgage, utilities, etc. When we had roomates they gave us cash or made out checks to whichever one of us, and we put those in the joint account for repairs & other rainy day things. Other than that we each handled our own money – he always maxed out his 401k and left the rest in a checking account, I had a 401k and a Roth and a tiny fun-stock-picking account, plus some CDs and a savings account. Oh, he had a ton of company stock & stock options from the period when his employer was a startup that paid mostly in stock instead of actual money, which turned into Big Company stock & options when they got bought up.

    When there was a car it was my car, we each had bikes & I got a subsidized bus pass from my employer.

    We went to the credit union together to open a 529 for the kid when he was an infant, and I discovered my partner had all his non-retirement savings in a checking account. So I kind of bullied him into opening a money market right there, and started a campaign (since successful!) to move more and more of it into the stock market.

    When I wasn’t working after the kid was born (for 2 years) we fought over money like CRAZY. It was terrible. He would freak out when I spent money on anything at all, total anxiety meltdown over things like “the baby doesn’t need two pairs of shoes why did you buy a second pair he can barely walk!” I was handling all the bills and I found myself thinking things like “I could just charge this and pay the credit card bill, he never looks.” So I started forcing him to do half the money handling, stuck the kid in daycare, and got a job.

    When I went back to work, I had spent down all my personal savings (not my retirement accounts, but the savings account quaintly labeled “Vacation” at the credit union). I couldn’t afford lunch out with my new coworkers on Friday. I came home and had a total meltdown and demanded couples therapy or I was going to leave.

    So, we went to therapy. The therapist seemed skeptical we even needed to be there – the issue was money, but we had plenty of money, the big money checklist (can you pay your bills? make your mortgage? is someone gambling or spending money on addiction?) was all fine. But spending, say, $400 on an Ikea couch caused us a multi-month standoff. Going to the grocery store cause him to have anxiety attacks at the checkout and come home with not enough groceries to get through the week.

    Therapy helped a little bit, me having a job helped a LOT with his general levels of anxiety (regardless of actual financial effects – my current job is so part time it’s not even spending money. But I *have* a job, he’s not the sole breadwinner between us and starvation), and we had a lot less conflict after that. Several years later a different therapist friend suggested just not caving to the anxiety – saying “yes I’m sorry you feel that way but this (paying a lot for medical interventions, fixing the car when it breaks, getting new siding for the house even though it’s ungodly expensive) is important and non-negotiable.” That has helped a lot, even though it feels like a really unfair way to fight – deciding his position is just irrational and ignoring it to focus on the emotional stuff. But it works. We haven’t had a serious money fight in a couple years.

    For big decisions I fall back on ridicule a little bit. He has so much anxiety around money he literally cannot remember how much there is – he always underestimates our savings by, like, half. When we do stuff like fund our Roths, or sell company stock and put the money in an index fund, or back when I first talked him into moving money from the 0 interest checking account to the some-interest money market, he will spend the next several months checking his account balance in the cash account and freaking out about how low it is. We funded our Roths for the year in January and for two months he’s been ranting about how I “made him” “spend all his savings” (on a Vanguard index fund) and pretending it’s a joke. But it obviously bothers him.

    So if we have a disagreement about stuff like “can we afford to get the trees trimmed or will you climb the dangerously tall ladder and try to do this yourself” I make him look at the account balances, quiz him on what they actually are (he can “forget” half the money in about 20 seconds) and make fun of him for money hoarding (“oh no if we hire a professional you will only have a pond of money instead of a lake!”) and usually he admits that, no, spending the money in the house-fixing account will not actually land us in a cardboard box on the street.

    We do sit down once a year – at tax time, when we have hard and incontrovertible proof about our actual income and expenses – and do a rough budget. This much for fixed expenses, this much for usual expenses, this much for luxuries, this much for charity. There’s a little bit of conflict about how much to save and how much for charity (I supplement the charity budget from my discretionary spending), but that’s about all the big-picture conflict. I used to give myself an allowance from my own paycheck, but his problem is doing spending, not limiting it, so a dual allowance system wouldn’t really work.

    We’re really lucky that we’ve never had a shortage of cash, though. I don’t know how we would handle it. Maybe with anti-anxiety meds.

    • Rosa Says:

      p.s. we’ve been homeowners for almost 15 years, parents for 10, married for 4. And all the accounts are technically joint, have been for years – mine/his are fictions, but we don’t access each other’s accounts unless invited, except at tax time.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I’m surprised this wasn’t something the therapist had experience with– it seems pretty common to me.

    • bogart Says:

      This made me laugh (sort of), because it could be that the answer to the “will you climb the dangerously tall ladder and try to do this yourself?” question is “that will land us in a cardboard box on the street.” With the emphasis on “dangerously” (and a few other things). Or at least that the likelihood that climbing the dangerously tall ladder will land you in a cardboard box (proverbial or otherwise) is greater than is the likelihood that spending the money in the house-fixing account will have that effect!

      • Rosa Says:

        I think maybe people usually don’t go to a therapist before things get really bad? I really would have walked if we couldn’t fix this issue, but our relationship was (and is) basically really good. I just don’t think people should stay together if they’re unhappy and I couldn’t see us fixing the money stuff without professional help. On the other hand, our money stuff seems pretty normal to me and all the professionals we deal with (house fixing & appliance replacing, doctors and dentists, mortgage refinancing) seem really surprised that we aren’t looking to borrow money, so maybe it’s not as normal as I think?

        And bogart you are absolutely right! But we were both raised with our parents (and us, when we got big enough) doing all this stuff themselves, right down to tuckpointing and dead tree removal, so he has a basic assumption that we can/should do it all and spending any money on it is a ridiculous luxury. It’s getting better as he gets older – partly because he works a lot more hours than any of our parents did, I think (one of his parents is pretty workaholic but still cut back hours when the kids lived at home.)

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        My initial impulses have been not unlike your DH’s but fortunately I have had economics training and understand opportunity costs (and how spending can increase my utility)! Also whenever I’m stressed I can run the numbers and see how we’d be ok in a lot of different scenarios. (Being able to run the numbers is partially the reason for having so much saved– I like having that security blanket.)

      • Rosa Says:

        I think with him it’s 100% not about the numbers and actually all about his feelings. Having a baby is seriously anxiety inducing, being the sole support of a family is also, and I had a super risky pregnancy/birth so there was that stress too. Through which he was a total rock and never acted stressed or upset because he was busy taking care of us. He wasn’t really raised to express needs or feelings so it all comes out as fake rationality, and it’s easy to get caught in the trap of arguing endlessly when the real issue is “how do you feel?”

        Because, seriously, if 40% of what you make goes into automatic savings, and then you pay the bills, and there is still money left over, there is no rational reason to feel anxiety when you spend that leftover money. It’s not at all about financial facts at that point.

  17. eemusings Says:

    I like #1’s description, a lot! Ours would be similar except no happy ending for us, because lots of stints of unemployment will do that.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Lots of money makes everything easier. Though when we had less money he was fine with spending nothing, which did make things easier along with the belief that we would make more later.

  18. SHU Says:

    i love having an ‘allowance’, although we refer to it as our ‘extras account.’ i find it more fun to have money that is just . . .MIIIINE. all mine. and josh has his, and i think he’s happy about that too. (mine goes faster). we have never had much disagreement about $ because we happen to have very similar financial styles. we avoid debt and do save/plan for big bills, but do not aggressively save. we DO like to ‘treat yo’self.’ neither of us are interested in early retirement.

    • SHU Says:

      (wanted to add that we do all the budgeting on YNAB which we have used religiously for 17 months now. i LOVE YNAB.)

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I don’t think either of us has negative associations with the word “allowance” since back when we were kids, that was free weekly money we got to spend on whatever we wanted (I spent mine on candy).

      It works really well for DH too and I’d really rather not know how much he spent on that maple syrup he mail ordered, so his allowance works well for me too!

      I wonder if communication is always easier when people have similar financial styles. DH and I really don’t, but we’ve come together in a way that the outcomes end up being the same. (It helps that we both never expected to be this high income, so there’s a lot less feeling of having to sacrifice, but I think mainly he’s just a solutions-oriented sweet kind of guy which makes communicating easy.)

      • Rosa Says:

        I haven’t found it to be easier. We just fight over the last inch, instead of the first mile. You know?


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