How do you handle money and debt in a relationship?

Offbeat Home & Life runs these advice questions as an opportunity for our readers to share personal experiences and anecdotes. Readers are responsible for doing their own research before following any advice given here... or anywhere else on the web, for that matter.
Take the Money Leave My Heart artwork by Etsy seller DopeQuotesInc
My partner and I are cool with a lot of things, but in certain arenas we just don't line up. Couple that with the fact that the career path for both of us isn't identical — and for one of us, it's a work-for-life kinda thing.

How do you reconcile it when one person in a relationship feels that debt is a sad reality of this modern life, and accepts debt as "just something that happens," and the other person is more in line with the "DEBT IS AN EMERGENCY" kinda deal?

I'm just curious how people reconcile different attitudes toward saving money — how you negotiate it in your own relationships? How you navigate the compromises about what you want in life in tune with financial ability and personal differences and hopefully come out with a happy home? -Shi

This is tricky. As my partner and I were deciding to get married, we had a lot of in depth conversations about what we wanted and, of course, money was part of that. I'm actually the less frugal one of the two of us, and it took (and takes) a lot of discussion at times.

Here are the things we've discussed or learned over the years that might help…

Things will change

In fact, a lot has changed since our first talk about money. While I was the more frugal one in the begining, in fact, we've now both trended toward more frugality. So you might have to renegotiate your money talks now and then as your priorities change as your lifestyles and jobs change.

Try to understand each other

This is one of the big things for us — when there's a difference of opinion, we both try to really understand the other person's point of view. And, usually, if it's really important to one person, we figure out how to make something work.

Getting a house was actually the biggest disagreement we've had. He was sold on doing it; I wasn't. We talked for a long time, and eventually decided that we'd try it, and if we both didn't like it we could sell. Fortunately now we both are liking it, but getting to this place wasn't seamless.

Compromise and acceptance

On the smaller day-to-day stuff, we just let the other person satisfy their wants. (For me it's coffee and concerts; for him it's books and puzzles.) Then we assume it comes out even in the end. (It doesn't; I spend more.)

For bigger issues, like vacation spending, we compromise. For example, we took a big international trip last year, but we made sure to go to pretty budget-friendly locales.

By implementing some of these rules and talking points, we're both happy enough with our financial situation that we don't feel a need to police each other. But every relationship is different so…

What are the ways YOU handle money and debt in a relationship?

Join our community!

  1. Not having debt isn't a bad thing, so if you're able to pay it down and make your partner happy, that's a win win.
    But if you can't (because it's too big or you just don't make enough), start delving into the reasons why it's no big deal to you and such a big deal to your partner. How does your partner see it as affecting your day to day lives? What kind of payment plan would make your partner comfortable? Is their attitude toward debt based in religion, something they were taught by their parents, or something else? Understanding that can help both of you find a way to work around it. Try to make compromises. "We'll pay X toward debt this month, then we're free to use Y for fun things."
    But if this attitude seriously affects your partner's (or yours) daily enjoyment of life, then I'd recommend therapy. No one should be so hung up on money that they can't enjoy a five dollar burger or a Redbox movie.

    2 agree
  2. Most of your fights will be about money. It's super important to learn to communicate open, honestly and respectfully about this issue, especially because it doesn't go away. I think it helps that we have the same big goals and priorities in life, so when we talk about money, it is in the context of us trying to work out our life goals.

    Practically speaking, I was more on board with home ownership, using our saving as a down payment and getting a mortgage. My husband didn't like that idea at all. But we talked with trusted older friends about our life plans, asking for wise advise and both had open minds. I got what I wanted, but in the process became more open to what husband wanted and more content with potentially not owning a home. Conversely, we often talk about being more generous and therefore thrifty with ourselves, and I'm the one whose compromised more on this issue. But as we continue to have the conversation, I'm happier to bend to his way of thinking on the matter.

    Keep talking. Keep the conversation going. Have bigger ideals and goals that you're both committed to than just "mortgage bad". Good luck!

    4 agree
  3. Debt doesn't need to be an emergency, but it is an obstacle. If everything's going on credit cards and car loans with high levels of interest, that interest is lost money that you could be putting towards achieving your goals instead. Sometimes it's necessary – life isn't obstacle free – but the fewer obstacles you put in your own path the easier life is. It's important to know what you're spending your money on first before worrying about whether it's okay that you're spending it. Keeping spending diaries, or reconciling a few months' accounts, will give you an idea of what's actually going on financially. Money is one of the areas where I think "I feel" statements can actually make things worse, because you're imposing your individual values onto a set of numbers, saying this number is bad but that one is good. Talk about your shared values, your shared goals, then look at the numbers to see if they line up with that. If they don't, that doesn't make them bad numbers, and it doesn't make you bad people for generating them. Maybe what you think your values are and what they actually are are different, and that's okay – maybe you thought you wanted to retire young, but actually the numbers tell you that you want to spend the time together now. Maybe the numbers are telling you that you're prioritising going out with friends, but your goal is to own a house and socialise with them there. If you tackle your budget with an open mind, questioning yourself as well as your spending, then it becomes an exercise in goal setting, and you can work towards bringing the numbers and the goals in line.

    8 agree
  4. With frequent small talks and some pretty emotional big talks, our financial philosophy has adapted a lot over the years. We worked hard to find small compromises that bring our priorities closer together. Things like, "I know debt isn't a priority for you, but it's really important for me to be debt free. I won't make us live in poverty to pay it off, but can we agree to pay 2x our payments?"

    We've also found areas of finance that fit our strengths. I budget because I don't mind the bookkeeping and my husband is better at the bigger money management stuff like investing and long term strategies.

    With enough small adjustments over the years, we've gone from separate finances with one of us flat broke and the other buried in consumer debt, to completely combined finances with healthy savings and not being able to comprehend taking on frivolous debt.

    4 agree
  5. The key that has worked for me and mine is that we have a clear budget. We both work so we share the burden of expenses. . . I make more (and much more until recently) — but we spilt it as a percentage of what we make so our paychecks are allocated to our joint savings (a number we both agreed on) and our joint bills – and the remaining percentage we can do what we want with. It isn't perfect and large purchases (like our new bed) are discussed.

    Assuming A makes $100 and B makes $75
    A contributes ~57% and B contributes ~43%
    –if the Bills are $50 – A pays $28.50 B pays $21.50
    We do it on a larger scale so A pays some bills and B pays others and we have worked it out to be ~about~ right. We also contribute to savings the same way – This helps it feel "fair" and "even" with allowing flexibility. We also both have money we don't have to justify spending to each other – This helps when I want another *random* item – it is my decision without guilt of *our* money – and if B spends a ton on *random* item I truly am indifferent – assuming our shared obligations are met.

    Also B had no debt going in and A had student loans that are paid before the percentage split – worked for our situation

    We both come from low income backgrounds so this has helped tremendously – since we have weird money issues.

    6 agree
  6. I agree that rules, communication, talking points, adaptability over time are all key. I think the main reason my marriage failed is the classic communication breakdown. My ex refused to talk to me about money (among other things) after I told him "I don't budget" in the beginning of our relationship (when I was young and dumb). We never merged finances or worked on concrete financial goals. As someone who used to be really into the idea of keeping separate accounts, I now think that having shared financial goals and working as a team to accomplish them is a HUGE part of a long term partnership. My advice is talk it out no matter how hard that is. Ideally *before* you marry the person (or get into any kind of major commitment), so that you know whether they are willing to be that kind of partner.

    1 agrees
    • I should clarify that I'm not saying keeping separate accounts and having shared goals are mutually exclusive. You can do both (though I think sharing accounts probably functions as a great prompt for forcing uncomfortable conversations).

      1 agrees
  7. We use YNAB (You Need A Budget) and I can't recommend it highly enough. It's allowed us not only to track what we've been spending, but see the big picture and have a framework for discussing things openly and without blame. You budget when dollars come in (when you get your paycheck), so it works well for people with variable income, and you can set goals for debt reduction but also set aside fun money, funds for vacations, etc. We're lucky not to have debt at this point, but for us it means that we can talk about priorities so we don't resent it when the other spends money on something they alone value. Example: My husband loves cycling and really expensive bicycles. I want to buy a house someday. We both value going on a few dates a month for relationship maintenance. As the money comes in we pay bills first, then we allocate money toward those extra categories (bikes, house, dates). There is $100 in the date category, so we can go out on a date without feeling guilty. There is $500 in the bike category, so my husband can't buy a bike until that category gets more filled in. This way, we can both sit down and talk about big picture things every so often, and I can maintain the budget, while my husband can take a more hands-off approach and just check it on his phone before making a purchase.

    5 agree
  8. My husband and I believe that some debt is a necessary evil, but we want to have as little as possible. Example: The investment in equity usually outweighs the interest on a home loan. The book, "Your Money or Your Life" by Vicki Robin & Joe Dominguez changed my attitude about debt. Once you figure out your "real" net hourly income (after all work related expenses such as daycare and dry cleaning), you can figure out how much time things cost in hours you must work. The real eye opener for me was how much time it costs to pay the interest on debt. As a result, we decided to buy a modest home and cars when friends were spending a lot more. (Back then, the banks were willing to loan absolutely insane amounts of money to young couples with little credit history.)

    The other thing that influenced my thinking on debt, money and relationships, was working for a divorce attorney. I saw a lot of different ways of handling money, but one thing most of the couples had in common was that the spouses were in competition with each other for who got to spend the most long before they ended up in court. My husband and I did not want to take that path. Even though our paychecks are not equal, we consider it all to be "our money". We see ourselves as a team building a life together and we both contribute time, effort, and money to our family. We decide together what to spend, what to save, and how much of each. However, we are individuals with different interests, so we each also get a small (equal) amount to spend each month with no questions asked. If I really want a big purchase but my husband doesn't, I save up my allowance until I can afford it or if I choose to put it on credit I have to pay the principle and the interest myself. He has to do the same for things he wants.

    The key has been to educate ourselves about personal finance, make a plan, and keep talking. I agree with an earlier comment: Most fights do seem to be about money. Before we made a solid plan we seemed to face more financial hardships because we were unprepared and weren't on the same page about how to handle money issues. Negotiation isn't easy, but we can do it now with a lot less arguing than we did before.

    3 agree
  9. My husband and I have a goal to be debt free simply because we realized that our monthly payments toward debt are taking money away from us that we could be spending on stuff we like (i.e. entertainment, clothes, date nights, travel, etc…) Some debt does seem to be part of our life because we still find mistakes in our budget, but overall we are goal oriented toward shrinking debt if not eliminating it all together.

    We have a monthly "budget meeting" where we go over last months spending and next months spending on a spreadsheet. It's not always rosy, we don't always see eye to eye, and sometimes one of us just has to spend frivolously because we're tired of pinching pennies all the time.

    The cool thing is we are seeing our monthly payments toward debt slowly shrink as we are paying stuff down. We actually read Dave Ramsey's book – and although we don't follow it too closely, it gave us some good insight and help us set our goals while giving us some perspective on American credit card culture.

    1 agrees
  10. One of the most helpful things in managing finances in my marriage is having a personal-money bank account. We can negotiate the amount that I get per month, but unless we're in such dire straits that there's no room for anything but the necessities (which has occasionally happened) I always get something, and that money is mine to spend any way I see fit. I don't have to negotiate or explain anything. If I think the garden needs a pitchfork, I'll get a pitchfork. If I want to also put an absolutely worthless whirling thingamabob out in that garden, I'll save up for it. That money is already budgeted, so no matter how frivolous or impulsive the purchase, it's okay, so long as I stay within the limits of that account. And whenever I think we need something, I don't have to convince him that we need it. (My husband has admitted, "Without women, we men would live like bears.") This takes the pressure off considerably! It also gives me dignity as an individual being with tastes and opinions of my own, not an appendage of my husband.

    2 agree
  11. I second YNAB, and also having some independence through separate bank accounts.

    My husband and I each have a small set amount from our own paychecks that is automatically deposited into our own individual bank accounts. We call it our allowance. Our rules are: 1) we have to spend our allowance on anything that doesn't involve the other person, and 2) All other joint account purchases have to be discussed or agreed upon in some way. Date nights come out of the joint account, but if I go out to lunch during my workday, it comes out of my allowance. I have student loan debt, and my husband doesn't, but we've agreed that those payments will come out of the joint account.

    We sit down together once a week to go over our budget on YNAB, and I can't vouch for it enough. It still causes some heated discussions sometimes, but in the end, we both feel good that our money is going toward our goals.

  12. For me it was a non-negotiable issue, and I ended several relationships because of it. I definitely am in the "debt is unacceptable" camp, and got to the point where I considered my ex a complete moron because he couldn't pull his finances together (he was ten years older, and lived with his parents because he couldn't figure it out, ugh). Finding someone financially sensible was a HUGE priority for me, since if you're financially sensible, it gives you far more freedom as well as stability in your life. It also means you can live on way less, since you spend your money in smarter ways, and don't have the ball and chain of debt following you. Anyways I found him, my dream man who's financially sensible, and it's great! Don't get me wrong, we fight about other things, but for me I needed to be able to trust my partner not to blow our savings without discussion (which is what the ex would have done.) What works for us is a weekly budget, with separate categories for savings, expenses and fun. We agreed on the amounts together, and it feels like more than enough indulgences while also saving tons for retirement. Good luck!

  13. I totally agree with the "DEBT IS BAD, DEATH TO DEBT!" feeling. I was raised in a house where the worst thing in the world was if the credit card balance couldn't be paid off in full. I think it only happened twice! The only debt my parents had were car loans and the mortgage, which was refinanced to be paid of 13 YEARS ahead of schedule. My parents are insane when it comes to living debt free and they're very successful at it.
    When my husband and I got married we were fortunate to not have a ton of debt. We both had car loans, he had student loans and a credit card. Since then we've purchased a home, aka the biggest pile of debt ever, and he's paid his credit card off in full. The secret to our success as far as managing finances and debt is to keep things as separate as possible.
    We each have our own personal checking account which 90% of our individual paychecks go into. The remaining 10% gets put into our joint account which is used for household repairs and improvements. We each pay all of our own bills and the few joint ones we have (mortgage, auto insurance, electricity, garbage service, and heating oil) are split along income lines. Currently, that's 53% and 47%. Whenever either of us have a change in salary we redo the math to make sure it's still being split fairly.
    A lot of people, my mother included, don't like our system because they feel all the money coming in should be "ours." But I don't feel I have a right to decide how to spend money he earns and vice versa. This system means I can't get mad if he goes nuts in the $5 movie bin, and he can't get made at my Stitch Fix subscription. As long as we each have enough to cover our share of the joint bills, how the other handles their money is their business.

    2 agree

Join the conversation

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

No-drama comment policy

Part of what makes the Offbeat Empire different is our commitment to civil, constructive commenting. Make sure you're familiar with our no-drama comment policy.