3 secrets for learning the language of money in relationships

Guest post by Jen Bettencourt
By: thedailyenglishshow – CC BY 2.0
By: thedailyenglishshowCC BY 2.0

It’s no secret that one the most contentious issues in many relationships is money. It truly does make the world — and our lives — go ’round. Money also doesn’t discriminate as to who its issues affect; it influences partnerships between people of any age, race, gender, background, or income level.

But while money may affect all our relationships, we vary on how it affects them. These differences, combined with the taboo nature of discussing money, can leave people feeling lost when trying to navigate this topic with their partner.

I’m by no means an expert on relationships or money, as I’m sure Dr. Phil and Suze Orman could tell quickly given the chance. But I am someone who’s had to examine her own financial values in the context of her relationship. I’ve had to work with my husband to cultivate shared ideas and practices for our life together.

The following tenets are a product of my six years of learning, compromise, and growth…

1. Value each other’s strengths

While my husband and I both managed to stay debt-free and save some money throughout our twenties, we approached money management in differing ways before we were together. He executed his budget like the maneuvers of an expert chess player, each move in preparation for two ahead. My actions were more similar to The Game of Life; I reacted to situations as they came and made the best decisions possible given the card I drew.

What we have learned over time is that neither of our strategies are necessarily wrong and that they each have value. We needed to come together to develop a shared plan that 1) we could both live with and 2) capitalized on the best of what each of our methods brought to the table.

I quickly realized that my husband was onto something with his forward-thinking and spreadsheets. His budgeting enabled, rather than restricted, our lifestyle. For example, reining in our spending each month allowed us to take the vacation we wanted and even have it totally paid for before we left!

My contribution, on the other hand, has been to ensure that we still enjoy the little things. My weekly iced nonfat caramel macchiato may be frivolous, but it makes me happy. I have also been good at reminding us that we can’t plan for absolutely everything.

2. It’s okay to keep some things separate

This doesn’t work for everyone but can work wonders for some couples — present company included. Sharing your lives doesn’t have to equate to sharing literally every cent. Think of it this way: Do you and your partner share each and every meal? Agree on all movies or TV series? Have all of the same hobbies? Or do you eat/watch/play some things together while still going it solo on others?

Our approach to budgeting has been similar to the latter. We share some accounts for bills and long-term savings, but we maintain individual spending accounts for day-to-day purchases. Sure, sometimes the color drains from my husband’s face when he sees me carrying seven Target bags into the house after a trip to “just get laundry detergent.” But ultimately, he knows that I’m managing my own spending money, just as he is managing his. We have agreed on certain parameters as a couple but have the freedom of spending our money according to our own preferences.

Bonus? Separate spending accounts come in handy for gift-giving purposes too!

3. Maintain an open dialogue

Communicating regularly can help you bridge the gap between your opinions, as well as work towards a plan that satisfies both you and your partner. One of the benefits of talking things out is that it helps both people feel invested in your financial health, even if one partner takes the lead in actually managing your money.

In my case, I appreciate the fact that my husband and I make important monetary decisions together, even if he’s the one crunching the numbers and keeping an eye on our spreadsheets.

The bottom line

Just as with any other aspect of a relationship, money is best handled by being yourselves and putting your heads together to find something that works for the two of you. While you are the only ones who can do the work to improve your relationship, you are also the ones who will reap the countless benefits from your time and effort.

Comments on 3 secrets for learning the language of money in relationships

  1. This is a great list.

    Surprisingly number 2 has been both the most effective and the most controversial for me. My husband and I have a fairly simple system – each month 2/3 of our wages go into the joint account for shared/household stuff like electric bills and food and the remaining 3rd stays in our private accounts for each of us to use as we choose.

    We think it’s pretty much perfect because it saves a lot of arguments: it means we can both buy things the other person may not consider worthwhile purchases (like Batman comics, novelty items in online games, doughnuts, etc.) without the other person worrying about what else the money could/should be used for, or even needing to know. We do collaborate on big non-essential purchases for both of us like holidays and upgrading the computer, but it still means a lot less discussion and arguments.

    But a lot of other people I’ve told about this seem genuinely shocked and confused – apparently married couples not sharing absolutely everything is a strange concept that must be indicative of some kind of deep rift in the relationship. (We also haven’t combined our book or CD collections, which has much the same effect when people find out.)

    People also, without fail, assume it must be my husbands idea because he earns more than me, so obviously this is all an elaborate scheme to deny me my rightful 1/2 of his salary. When actually it was my idea, because I’m the one who would stress over every purchase if it was bought with shared money (and more so things I’m buying that he would never want or use).

    • We get similar reactions to not sharing everything! I do share a savings account with my husband which is mostly used for school fees or major house stuff like new security screens, but we both maintain our own bank accounts and pay for our own stuff. He does pay for the majority of the household expenses as I’m currently a stay-at-home-mum, which makes it a bit more fair since I’m not in paid employment and most of my government allowance is spent on the kids.

    • I absolutely agree. My husband and I share a savings account, but that’s it–we’d both hate to share our checking accounts because we have such different spending habits.

    • I agree, people seem to think that not sharing everything is indicative of some kind of problem in our relationship! I actually think it can show strength in a relationship, that we can maintain our independent identities in some ways and trust the other person with their own decision making regarding spending. Like you said, it also eliminates some of the worry of questioning each purchase! Well put.

    • We also have a joint account and separate accounts. We actually take this a little to the extreme in that we have: joint checking, joint savings, my checking, my savings, and his checking, his savings. Six accounts is a LOT to manage, and it definitely isn’t for everyone. We are both pretty spreadsheet oriented people though, so it works for us.

      I’d also like to add that we actually put ALL of our money into the joint account first. Then, when we have our monthly “budget meeting,” we plan our budget for the month, and we each get an equal share of spending money and savings money that goes into our own accounts. What that means is that our salary differences have zero effect on our individual ability to buy things for ourselves. Our reason for this is that, as a married couple, we are in this together, and it would be unfair to the partnership if one person got more spending money simply because they made more. Perhaps some people would feel differently, but we feel that there’s no reason to enforce what basically amounts to a capitalist class structure inside of our married relationship.

      Having separate accounts is great– it gives each of us a little bit of financial freedom and means that we don’t have to be accountable to each other for the random little things we might want. We can also be all sneaky and buy gifts for each other and keep it a surprise, which is great too. 🙂

      Also, I feel like this is a good place to make a plug for the app we use for budgeting: YNAB (You Need a Budget). Google it and give it a try. It basically rocks.

    • My parents always had seperate accounts. My dad had the larger salary, but my mom got what might be seen as “joint income” because the rental property income went into her account. They divided up who was responsible for what bills. Sometimes he might write a check to her account to cover something or vice versa, but they just kept managing money distinct.

  2. When my husband and I first got together, we managed our finances like most people do. We had a joint account only for the rent and for expenses like electricity, gas…
    We both put a fixed sum on the joint account each month. If more was needed, we’d add something extra. That worked fine as long as were still studying, but required a fair amount of calculating (“I paid for the groceries and you paid for cinema. You still owe me 20 euros!”).

    When we both started working, we sticked to this system. My husband was lucky to find a great job and he actually made almost 1000 euros a month more than I did. This was great, because he could save more and buy nice things. On the other hand, I often had to tell him I couldn’t go out, because I didn’t have that kind of money. He’d buy me dinner or pay for my concert ticket, but I really didn’t like the way it made me feel.

    When we bought a house, I was really worried because the mortgage would cost me almost twice as much as the rent had done. We then sat down and talked and decided to change our system entirely.
    Now all of our money goes to the joint account, except for a small fixed sum we keep for ourselves (which is the same for both of us). Now we pay everything from the joint account. Only personal expenses like clothing are paid from personal accounts. That way we can save some personal money or splurge without feeling guilty.

    This has improved our lives and relationship. We no longer have to talk about money all of the time. I no longer have to worry or say no to fun things. Our relationship feels much more equal.
    Of course my husband gets to spend less money on guitars nowadays, but the peace our new money management system has brought makes up for it entirely.

  3. I think finding a way of communicating about finances that suits you both is important too. I earn less, but have fewer debts than my husband, and though I’m not critical of this he can get quite stressed talking about these face-to-face. However we’ve found that discussing it via email is much better for him, it depersonalises the conversation and allows me to remind myself where we are at without having to raise the topic again.

    I thought I’d share in case it might help someone else who is finding this sort of conversation difficult.

  4. When we went to the premarriage workshop required by our pastor to get married, the “Marriage and Finances” section was one of the most helpful! A lot of great suggestions came up – all of the ones that you share here, as well as the very important statement, “There’s no wrong way to do money as a married couple, as long as you’re talking about it.”

    The consultant suggested that if one of you hates talking about money, make it a conversation accompanied by something that partner enjoys – a trip to a favorite cafe, for example, or a long walk. Make a schedule that works for both partners – maybe you only talk about money the day after you both get paid, or once a month, or on Saturday afternoons, and if one of you really hates talking about money, then restrict money conversations to that scheduled time. But you have to talk about it and be aware of differences in opinion.

    Luckily, my husband and I actually kinda like talking about money and planning for the future (though whenever my student loan debt comes up I freak out a bit), but it was really interesting to hear what other couples had to say about their experience and expectations. It turned out to be really reassuring.

    • I think it is great that the consultant empowered you (and other couples) with the advice that you’re not doing anything wrong unless you’re not communicating. It is so easy to be intimidated by money that you just don’t talk about it, which ultimately hurts you in the end.

      I also think that it’s great you and your husband like talking about money! It kind of becomes addictive… the more you see yourself succeed when budgeting and managing your finances, the more inspired you become to take an active role in the process.

  5. We’re in the middle of a financial transition, and it’s been a really interesting learning experience.

    For the first several years, we both worked and kept a spreadsheet of fixed and variable shared expenses, split so that each person was contributing an equal % of their income to shared expenses, ie: He made twice as much as me, so he paid 2/3 of the shared expenses. We’re both on about the same page as far as spending/saving/investing goes, so this allowed us freedom managing our own money.

    Now I’m a full time student, and my partner has picked up all of the shared expenses, and a few of my big monthly expenses. There were many conversations and some definite discomfort for both of us along the way. It’s hard for him to be suddenly paying a bigger chunk, and it’s really hard for me to lose some of my independence. However, we’re getting married in the next year and this has really helped us view ourselves as an intertwined unit. Also, remember that it’s okay for your partner to feel their feelings and work through them. Talking about “Oh yeah, I’ll pick up the shared expenses and support you through school” is a lot different than actually looking at your bank account when that first month goes by. It’s okay to be a little grumpy for a while.

  6. My fiance deals only in cash, whereas I almost never have cash. We’ve discussed a joint bank account multiple times, even one where’s he’s just a “ghost” (basically, his name doesn’t appear on anything outside of the bank, but he would have the ability to sign checks, deposit/withdraw, etc) and the idea of that makes him very uncomfortable based on some bad experiences he’s had in the past.

    So, we’ve compromised. He is technically responsible for the rent, and he gives me a portion of each of his paychecks. Typically, he gives me the rent plus some extra that he trusts me to use as I see fit. Lately it’s been going towards wedding stuff, but it’s basically for anything I need it to be: spending money (since I never have cash), cable, groceries, etc. My fiance doesn’t have any other bills, so this arrangement actually works out for both of us. Our utilities and food + my personal bills (credit cards and student loans) combine to about the same as our rent, so even though it’s split completely differently, we end up spending about the same amount of money per month.

    This also plays to our strengths, as my fiance prides himself on putting a roof over our heads while I am better at the overall money management and budgeting. People who know of our arrangement sometimes scoff at it, but, I don’t think there’s a “wrong” way to handle money as long as the bills are paid and both people are comfortable with the system(s) in place!

  7. My husband and I married right after college and immediately combined our finances – we have a shared checking and savings accounts and jointly contributed to our student loan debt (which we have officially paid off!!).

    We do a monthly budget and track spending in Google Sheets. It’s so easy to add a recent purchase on your phone while out and about using Google Sheets app.

    To keep our sanity – we both get $50-100 “allowance” each month to spend as we please. The amount depends on how much we got paid and/or if we’re wanting to make a joint purchase (vacation, new tv, laptop, etc). Most months though it’s $100 and is used for whatever we like. We can spend it, save it, whatever. It’s our “unquestionable” money and is a method we suggest to pretty much everyone we meet. 🙂 No more fighting that I pack my lunch every day but he eats out once a week and that’s so unfair. With the “allowance”, I can get a brow wax, go thrift shopping, or out to drinks with the girls and he can buy pop tarts and video games to his hearts content — and no one gets upset anymore because everything’s even and each person has a choice.

  8. I grew up food pantry poor. My husband grew up trust fund rich… And we handle financial decisions like a boss! We learned early on how we think. For me its: how many dollars does this cost? For him its: how good of a deal is this? We both determine “need” based on the answer. I’m a super saver, while he spends every penny, looks in the couch cushions and his car for more…and then spends that. So the deal is he pays the bills with his income and spends the rest ( except for the paltry sum I force him to save) I take care of big purchases, retirement and liquid savings. We both do what we are good at and we both win.

  9. One thing that came up in our pre-marriage counseling was: how big of an impulse purchase will you make before you call your partner? A $2 candy bar? A $20 DVD? A $60 video game? Obviously this will be different depending on your income, but if you’re too far apart and you have joint finances, you’re going to worry.
    Also how much can something vary before you call your partner? My husband will routinely say, I am going to the store to get xyz fun non-essential, it’s probably going to cost X. And as long as that doesn’t go Y over, then he doesn’t call me (and vice versa).
    For us knowing these “free to spend” limits and both of us knowing what our situation is works well for us. We have everything jointly. We tried pulling aside an individual allowance/account for each of us, but that didn’t work. Everyone should find their own system though!

  10. The hardest thing for me about talking about finances with my partner is that money carries a lot of emotions with it. Whether good or bad, money (or lack of it) can make people emotional, sometimes to high degrees. So often we end up discussing our underlying feelings about the situation more than the money itself. This is very difficult due to my Spock-like tendencies, especially when my partner is feeling rather emotional about the issue.
    Another thing about financial-emotions, is that the emotions can linger, or take a long time to tease through and resolve. But sometimes money needs are required at certain times, and decisions need to be made regardless – paying rent and buying food are definitely time sensitive purchases!

  11. I’ve always found this fascinating because some people develop systems that seem really complex to me, but I’m sure what my husband and I do would be complicated to other people. We lived together before we got married and in different situations. When I made more money, I would cover the lion’s share of the bills. He covered more when he made more.

    Now, we’re married and have a mortgage, and we each have a checking account, but the other person is a signer on it. Our savings accounts are separate, and I’m a saver so I have most of our savings in my account because he knows I won’t pull out of it for anything less than something truly important. It was funny about 6-8 months after we got married, I mentioned how much I had in my savings because even though it’s a separate account, I still think of it as part of “our” finances. I nearly had to pick his jaw up off the floor because he had no idea I saved that much after purchasing our home.

    But for day to day stuff, we use credit cards for almost everything. I like getting 1% back from Discover and we pay it off every month, without fail. We have “my card” which was mine coming into the relationship, but he has one to make purchases with. That card is for all normal expenses: gas, groceries, we pay the cable bill and electric bill to the credit card, pretty much anything we need for the house. The other card is “his card” which he had before we met. I consider that the “fun money” card for going out to eat, the movies, when he wants to buy video games, etc. they go on his card. It allows us to see each month how much of our expenses go towards things we “need” vs. things we “want”. And if we have a rough month (my hours are variable and while my paychecks are somewhat steady, they’re not always for the same amount) we can cut back on the fun money pretty easily. He pays our mortgage and his card. I pay my card, the car note, and our health ins. I haven’t calculated it down to the penny, but it works for us.

    We touch base about finances as bills are due, when we get pd, etc, but for now this system is working for us. As long as you have open communication, I think you can make a lot of different systems work.

  12. This is a great conversation!

    My husband and I each have an “allowance” of the same standard amount automatically deducted from our paychecks into our individual checking accounts. Every other penny goes into our joint checking account that we use for all our bills, groceries, anything for the house, and even meals or coffee if we go out to eat together. Our rule is that as long as we’re doing it together, it can come out of our joint account. Anything specific to only one of us, i.e.,workday-lunches, bras, comics, my student loan payments, individual trips, etc., comes out of our “allowance”.

    We like this method, because it allows us to each manage our individual finances separate from our joint account. When our joint account is too low to go out for dinner together, we can either take the other person out on a date, or we “go dutch”. We’ve also agreed to keep birthday and Christmas gifts under $50.

    As for the joint account – we have a shared google calendar that works well for managing bills, or knowing when the other person’s paydays are.

  13. We maintain a joint account for house bills/travel/miscellaneous but the bulk of our money stays seperate. I find it easier to only have to manage myself and don’t want to stress about balancing accounts and bugging each other about where we spent. We’re both adults and trust each other to spend wisely.

    That being said, we do sit down once a quarter and review things. We like to make sure we’re on track with savings, that the budget is still accurate, and to plan for any upxoming expenses. That has helped a lot in terms of getting back on the same page for our financial future. While we keep our money seperate it’s still OUR money and checking in every three months helps ensure we are working towards the same goals

  14. If you are not married and don’t share accounts, and maybe even if you do, I recommend Splitwise (app/site). It automatically splits expenses between any number of people and organizes it all so if you owe Bob ten bucks and he owes Jenn ten bucks, what the app tells you is that you in fact owe Jenn. I’ve used it to handle rent, groceries, and “I got you this time if you got me next time” stuff between my partner and I, as well as with our roommate when we had one. It’s fantastic. Oh, and you can link it to PayPal and settle up right there in the app.

  15. My mother never worked a day in her life and stayed in an abusive marriage for 35 years while my father controlled every cent she spent. It made me vow that even if I married a millionaire, I would keep some kind of personal income or savings to always feel like I could get out. Many of my friends rely solely on their partner’s income and it gives me cold sweats.

    Coincidently, or maybe not, I married a guy who has always earned less than me. He insists we split our essential expenses in half (rent, utilities, groceries and car insurance) and then I pay for extras like going out or replacing furniture or whatever. I’m also the emergency fund in case the car breaks down or we have a big medical bill. It works out fine but sometimes I wonder if he feels pressured as a male to pay for half of our life. I also hate the looks we get at restaurants or bars when I’m the one pulling out my credit card. We even had friends joke that I’m his sugar mama. It really pisses us off because no one bats an eye if you reverse the genders.

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