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Starting Your Marriage on the Right Financial Footing

Submitted by on October 9, 2013 – 7:12 am 56 Comments

couple future

Hey friends!  Let’s welcome Matt today, from Mom and Dad Money, as our guest author.  Thanks for joining us, Matt.

Marriage is something that’s still pretty new for me. My wife and I just celebrated our 2-year anniversary back in September, and while we’ve done a lot of things right and are very happy together, there’s still plenty we’re trying to figure out.

Money is one of the ongoing issues that every couple faces. It’s a big change to go from a life where your money is yours to do with what you please to one where all of a sudden you’re talking about “our money” and “our goals”. It can be a real struggle, but if handled correctly it can also be a source of incredible strength for your family and can bring you even closer to your spouse. So today I’d like to share some of the lessons I’ve learned on how to start your marriage off on the right financial footing.

Focus on joint goals, not small habits

This is my biggest weakness. I have a bunch of money habits that I’ve built through the years and I have a tendency to view them as “right” and other habits as “wrong”. You can guess how fun it is for my wife when I question why she’s doing something “that way” for the 100th time.

The reality is that we’re all individuals and you and your spouse are not going to have all of the same habits. Focusing on the little things and trying to get your spouse to do them the same way that you do them is not only going to be unproductive, but it’s likely to be harmful. Your spouse will feel judged and that can turn into insecurity and resentment, which can put a real strain on your relationship.

Instead, talk with your spouse regularly about the big goals you want to accomplish together. Maybe you have a date on which you’d like to retire. Maybe you’re trying to work your way out of debt. Maybe you want to buy a house, or save for your children’s education. Or maybe you just want a really cool family vacation. Whatever it is, prioritize those big goals and create a joint plan to achieve them. Focus on the big actions that get you there, such as setting up automatic monthly contribution to a savings account. Working towards these big positive goals will do much more for both your financial and emotional health than trying to micromanage each other’s daily behavior.

Along those lines, give each other “free spend” money

Joint goals are great. Those are the goals that will truly put your family in a place of financial strength and bring you closer to the day when you have full financial freedom. But again, you and your spouse are still individuals and it can sometimes feel a little claustrophobic inside the walls of a marriage. No matter how much you love your spouse, it’s still nice to be able to flex those “me” muscles every now and again and just do your thing.

With that in mind, I think it’s a great idea for each spouse to have some “free spend” money as part of the family budget. This is a set amount of money each spouse gets every single month with no strings attached. The joint goals are already handled, the groceries have been bought, bills have been paid, and now you each get a little extra to spend how you please. This lets you retain some of your individual freedom without sacrificing the things you’re working towards together. And it also gives you some space to make decisions without the other spouse’s approval, which can be nice from time to time. (Please note, I’m talking about harmless things like indulging a love of shoes, not, well, you can take it from there however you want).

Create a system that plays to your strengths and weaknesses

In the end, there’s no one right way to manage your money as a couple. I can’t tell you whether joint or separate accounts are better. You might be better off with one person handling most of the day-to-day financial decisions, or maybe having both involved will be best. There’s no definitive answer to these kinds of questions, and the truth is that you won’t get it all right the first time.

The best thing you can do is focus on the joint goals you made above and talk about your progress regularly. Talk without judgment about the things you’ve been successful with and the things that have been difficult. If you can stay supportive of each other, you will find through experience what each of you is good at and what you need some help with. The goal should then be to create a system where each person can focus on what they do well and have that be enough to keep your family on track towards its goals. That system will be different for every couple, so you have to be willing to find your own way together.

Expect the ups and downs

Getting the financial side of marriage right will be a journey. You will have plenty of disagreements, plenty of successes and plenty of failures. A key part of marriage is being able to navigate these ups and downs while always making sure that love and respect for your spouse is put above all else. If you can remember that, and if you can keep your sights set on your big goals, the rest will take care of itself.

About the author: Matt Becker is a proud father and husband and his site Mom and Dad Money is dedicated to helping new parents build financial security for their family. You can also find him on Facebook and Twitter.

56 Comments »

  • Money is the main reason I am divorced and not having a plan in the beginning was both of our faults.

    He had an ongoing issue with his feeling his wants were needs when I just wanted to get us out of overdraft for a few days every month.

    He made over $120,000 each year but it ran through his hands like a small child trying to hold sand.

    • Matt Becker says:

      I’m sorry to hear that Jane but it sounds like you were able to learn some valuable lessons from the experience. Money is such a personal topic and it can be very difficult to reconcile different styles, especially when one of them is irresponsible.

      • I am still dealing with the debt associated with restarting my life but once I can clear that (I hope to be debt free in 8 months) then I can focus on retirement savings.

        Some people love to spend money and I don’t want to be around that sort of person.

        • Matt Becker says:

          You’re in a great position with a plan like that. It’s not always easy to make the most out of a difficult situation but it really sounds like you’re doing just that. Keep it up!

  • We’ve been married for eight years and have never argued about money. I think it’s because we’ve always had joint accounts and joint goals. Plus, we both seem to be on the same wavelength most of the time.

    • Matt Becker says:

      We went the joint account route too and it’s worked really well for us, though I think you can certainly be successful either way. Having similar big picture mindsets makes it so much easier.

  • Good post, Matt.

    Even in lean times, you have to give each other a little bit of financial rope to play with, to explore hobbies, etc. If you don’t have enough money to make that work, then my recommendation would be to side hustle until you do! 🙂

    • Matt Becker says:

      I like that advice. You don’t have to just settle with your current income situation. If you want more room for free spending, you have the opportunity to make it happen.

  • Good post Matt! We’ve been married for 12 years and are like Holly & Greg in never having argued about money. We’re so thankful for that as so many do not have that which can really play on a marriage. Those joint goals are so huge to have and we also do the monthly allowance where we get money to spend however we want.

  • Joint goals, not small habits is a great way of looking at it.

    I think getting away from “tit-for-tat” spending and accepting that needs and wants ebb and flow. This month (or year) we might be spending more on Mr PoP’s enjoyment, other times it will be spent mostly on me. That’s okay. Just because your spouse spent $x on themselves last week doesn’t mean you should feel like you need to as well.

    • Matt Becker says:

      That’s a really great point about getting away from the need to keep things “even” in terms of spending. It takes a lot of trust but if you’re truly on the same page about where you’re going in the long term, it becomes much easier to let those little things go. Constantly focusing on the immediate little things is just a route to constant fighting.

    • Laurie says:

      Love what you said here, Mrs. PoP! Marriage works SO much better, financial and otherwise, when the focus is not so “they get, so I should get.”

  • Great post Matt. Money is often one of the biggest issues most couples face and also the main reason people divorce. My wife and I both have a frugal mindset which reduces conflict, though we still need to communicate better about our finances. In the beginning, we had a joint account but didn’t really use it much. When we finally truly joined the accounts, I think it made things a lot clearer and it’s just better that way.

    • Matt Becker says:

      The joint accounts have made it easier for us as well. We like totally buying into the “what’s yours is mine” philosophy. I know my parents have done it very differently though and they’ve been happily married for 30+ years, so there are definitely other options. You just have to find one that works for you.

  • Great thought on focusing on goals rather than habits. I hadn’t realized this until now, but I do the opposite a lot of the time. My worst offense is focusing on the once-in-a-while fancy coffee or lunch with colleagues that Mrs. DB40 buys. When we’re on pace to hit all our financial goals, why sweat this small stuff? She doesn’t nag me about my fantasy football fees…

    I really enjoyed the post — thanks for sharing it!

    • Laurie says:

      DB40, I just love that you are willing to recognize this and make changes. So many times in marriage one partner or the other does a whole lot of blaming and very little looking in the mirror. You’ve got the keys to a solid marriage, DB40 🙂

    • Matt Becker says:

      I do the exact same thing and really have to fight it. And just like you mention with your fantasy football fees, when I look at things objectively it’s very easy to see that I do almost all of the same kinds of things that bother me when my wife does them. So not only is harping on them harmful to our relationship, but it’s totally unfair. It’s so important to recognize that and make real efforts to cut it out of our lives.

  • Lisa says:

    I really enjoyed this article. My in-laws are confused with how we handle our finances. While we have our ups and downs, we are on the same page. Also, we have two joint accounts. We each “have one”, but we also have full access to both. Works great for us.

    • Matt Becker says:

      This is such a great lesson because the focus is 100% on what works for you guys, not what other people think. It’s your marriage and no matter how weird it might seem to others, you have to find your own way. Sounds like you guys have been able to do that despite the resistance.

  • Michelle says:

    Great post! W and I do many of these things. We’ve have joint accounts and joint goals for years now, and luckily we never fight about money.

    • Matt Becker says:

      Sounds like you guys have it down! It’s great that you’ve been able to build up so much experience before marriage. That will help out a lot.

  • Adam Kamerer says:

    My wife and I have only been married for about two months, but we’d been doing a lot of these things for almost a year before we tied the knot, so I think that means we’re on the right track! The free spend money is a great idea, but we’re just starting out and sometimes it’s difficult to find room for it in our overall budget. What do you do when you don’t have that little extra to divert to free spending?

    • Matt Becker says:

      Great job getting an early start! I would try to squeeze in a little bit of free spend money even if it’s a small amount like $10 a month. At the very least it would let you save up to spend on a slightly bigger purchase that means something only to you. And it gets you in the habit and potentially motivates you to either free up money from other categories or increase your income.

      • Adam Kamerer says:

        That’s a good point. We have been saving a lot of money on our grocery bill with coupons, so maybe I can find some wiggle room there to squeeze in a little free spending cash.

  • Spot on post, Matt! I see a lot of unhappy couples due to a lack of communication around money and goal-setting. It always shocks me how many married couples do not have joint goals or think they do but haven’t actually discussed them with one another. And surprise, surprise, they are not on the same page. I agree focusing on joint goals, rather than small habits is key. While those small habits can sometimes be annoying, they are just minor grievances when you think big picture. Free money for both partners definitely helps alleviate some of those frustrations over your partner’s spending habits. I know having joint goals and open communication about money has been key to my marriage. We’ve been together 23 years and still going strong! 🙂

    • Matt Becker says:

      23 years is really an impressive feat Shannon! There are many occasions, financial or otherwise, where spouses just assume that the other one knows what they’re thinking or that they’re thinking the same thing, but unless you actually talk about it there’s really no way to know. Communication is so key.

  • I have only been married three months but we are mostly on the same page with our money. Our only disagreement so far has been the decorating the house budget. What can I say, I am a Guy!

    • Matt Becker says:

      Haha, there will always be some level of disagreement on things, especially things that don’t fall into the strict category of “needs” but for one person hold a high level of importance. It takes some work, but I think it’s important to respect each other for who you are, and as long as you can stay on track with the major goals, to allow each other to indulge in some of your more discretionary interests.

  • Great post Matt. My wife and I don’t have set retirement dates and amounts, a little too many variables at this point. But the key for us COMMUNICATION. So important to be on the same page with budgeting, spending, and expectations from one another. Without communications we are bound to fail.

    • Matt Becker says:

      I agree Kyle. No matter what your goals are, and especially if they’re evolving, communication is key. You can’t be on the same page if you haven’t talked about what that page is.

  • Great article Matt – I wonder how many marriages end up in the divorce court with money problems as the root cause. Must be a very high %
    I share my finances with my wife – she is my rock.

    • Laurie says:

      LOVE that, Charles!! And more importantly, it’s great that you realize your wife is your rock. 🙂

    • Matt Becker says:

      Great point Charles. I don’t know the exact percentage, but I’ve ready plenty of articles indicating that it’s very high. It bodes well for you and your wife that you’re on the same page.

  • We’ve been blessed to have been on the same page about money from day 1. Now over 5 years in it, we’re still on the same page, and don’t fight about money. We discuss anything and everything openly, and also have fun money set aside for each.

    Totally agree with these tips, and can’t stress enough how important this is!

    • Matt Becker says:

      You guys are definitely a great example of starting from a tough financial position and working through it together to build something really positive. That can’t happen if you aren’t making every effort to stay on the same page.

  • E.M. says:

    This was an insightful post, Matt. I am really thankful that my boyfriend and I are on the same page about finances. We haven’t gone the joint route yet, but both of us have our eyes set on our student loans. Therefore, we don’t spend much on ourselves right now, which we are both okay with. The biggest expense he runs into, literally, is buying a new pair of running shoes when his old ones wear out. In the past, he has chided me for spending so much on cosmetics, but I’ve scaled back a lot in that area as I realized he was right. I think we balance each other out, as he gets me to spend on things that I sometimes unknowingly deprive myself of (like dining out occasionally), and I have gotten him to improve on bringing meals to work instead of eating garbage like McDonalds!

    • Matt Becker says:

      Those running shoes can be expensive! You bring up a great point about helping each other out in areas where one is weak, even when it comes to spending more. My parents have told me the story of going to Disney World when we were little, where my dad didn’t want to do it because of the expense and my mom pushed for it. In the end we went and it’s now one of the happiest family memories for all of us. Sometimes it takes a little push from your significant other to loosen up and spend on something fun.

  • Great post Matt! Nothing has helped move our marriage forward like being together on our finances. It’s helped us communicate better, develop financial and career related goals together and present a united front as we pass on proper money principles to our kids.

    • Matt Becker says:

      You’re so right that it can really help make a marriage strong. And you also make a great point about being better able to pass on sound money lessons to your children when you and your spouse are on the same page. Thanks for the input.

  • I think my husband and I never really planned in the beginning because we had no money. I’d tell couples just starting out to plan for when you do have money so you won’t let it slip right through your fingers as you become victims of lifestyle inflation. We have exactly the same ideas for the future, it just took us years to actually say them out loud and put them in motion. Better late than never, I guess.

    • Matt Becker says:

      That’s a really great point. It’s important to not only have a plan for handling your current situation, but it can be incredibly valuable to have a plan for when your circumstances hopefully change for the better. You’ll likely deviate from them somewhat, but starting with a goal in mind puts you in much better position to handle it well.

  • Mark Ross says:

    I really like the idea of having a free spend money when I get married. I think it could really help us enjoy a little bit of our hard-earned money every once in a while.

  • We’ve been married for just three years, but fortunately never got to a point where money became a reason to argue. I am lucky to have a wife that likes to spend very little on anything and trusts me with the bigger financial decisions (even though I never make a decision on my own, of course).

    I come from a family where my mother kept no budget and spent all the money she got the second she had them and this caused a lot of flames between her and my father. It was then when I promised myself that I will do all that I can to prevent that from happening.

    • Matt Becker says:

      Sounds like you did a great job learning from a negative experience. I think the division of labor you describe, where one person is largely in charge but all final decisions are made together, is one that can work for a lot of people. That’s pretty similar to the way we do things.

  • Great post Matt. I’ve been married two years, and I definitely think having the same long-term “big” goals are important. If you are both actively working towards things like paying down debt or saving money so your kids can go to private school, it’ll be a lot easier than if you feel like you’re a lone wolf pursuing the goal.

    • Matt Becker says:

      Absolutely. No one wants to feel like the only person working towards something. It takes some compromise, but it’s much better to work together on goals you’ve agreed on together than to work alone towards something only you want.

  • Alexa says:

    I am not divorced because of money issues but my exhusband and I definitely had different money views. Well, kind of opposite money views. I will admit I am one to think I am always right when it comes to money but he was one to care less when it came to money. This led me to handling all the financial decisions. He didn’t care about goals. We each had an equal amount of spending money and I did the rest. It kind of sucks when you don’t have someone willing to get excited and work toward goals with you. I’ll definitely be thinking of this next time around.

    • Matt Becker says:

      It’s so much easier when you can get excited about the same things. To me, that’s a huge part of a successful marriage whether your talking about money or anything else. With that said, it’s also important to recognize that everyone has different interests and it’s okay for one person to enjoy something more than another, including managing money. But if you can’t at least work out a system where your money is going towards agreed upon goals, then there’s likely trouble coming down the road.

  • This is a great post. I know so many couples who disagree on money. I think there definitely has to be like 50/50 between the couples when it comes to handling money. I really don’t agree with just one person handling the finances. I think its something that the pair should work together on. So I definitely think that you’ve made some great points in this post.

    • Matt Becker says:

      Hey Romona. Thanks for the kind words. I certainly understand where you’re coming from but I think it can work well with many different splits. 50/50 is great, but in our relationship I do the majority of the regular financial maintenance. When it comes to big decisions we talk them over together and make a completely joint decision, but then it largely falls on me to execute. So I’m not sure what our percentage is, but it’s certainly tilted away from 50/50 even though we’re absolutely working towards an agreed-upon set of goals and following an agree-upon path.

      One thing that I’ve learned from my wife is the value of having a division of labor. Running a family requires many different kinds of tasks (e.g. paying bills, handling investments, cooking, cleaning, taking out the trashing, mowing the lawn, etc.) and we’ve found that things run much more smoothly if one of us is largely in charge of each domain. We obviously share things too, such as childcare, but we don’t try to make sure everything is 50/50. Instead, we try to play to our strengths while making sure we’re still always on the same page.

  • Kathy says:

    After over 36 years of marriage I can honestly say my husband and I have never argued about money. We arrive at goals together and work as a team to accomplish them. Every account is joint except one account that I have that is really my mother’s money that I am managing for her. We have a savings account where we designate certain amount each month for him, for me and for us. That is our free to spend however we want money. Interestingly, I can’t find anything to spend my share on!

    • Matt Becker says:

      Wow, no arguments in 36 years? They need to get you guys in the lab so we can run some tests! Haha, in all seriousness though it sounds like you guys are really doing it right. We love the joint route as well, though I think there are multiple ways to handle things successfully. But I’m like you. I don’t often find that I have too many things I want to spend on just for myself.

  • Jim says:

    Great post, I cast my vote for separate accounts, I have been married for 9 years and I think this has been a lifesaver in our marriage. We have a joint savings account, but I think having separate checking accounts helps minimize the disagreements on small spending. If one spouse works and the other stays home, then having separate accounts may not be as desirable.

    • Matt Becker says:

      Thanks for the input Jim. I think this is an excellent example of finding the approach that works for you, and it’s why I would never say there’s one approach that’s best. I know plenty of people who swear by separate accounts and have very happy marriages. It’s all about finding what’s right for you.

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