“Always remember that you are a team. God has made you to work together. By combining your individual perspectives and respecting your partner’s strengths, God will use you in ways that you could never imagine and you will achieve goals that often seem impossible.”
For decades, I have written this paragraph (or something closely resembling it) on every card that I give to newlyweds. The advice is hard won, through years of making mistakes in my own marriage – mistakes which all began with money.
My experience with disastrous money discussions began early in my marriage. In August of 1988, I had been married for ten, short weeks. Arriving home from work, I gathered the mail from the mailbox as I entered our apartment. Our monthly bank statement stared at me from the pile of assorted magazines, advertisements, and bills.
I opened it, never expecting what met my eyes. I glanced down the row of cancelled checks. Everything seemed in order.
Then, I saw it – the total at the bottom of the page. Our account balance was nearly zero!
We were broke!
How could this be possible? We weren’t living extravagantly (at least it didn’t seem that way).
Numbers don’t lie.
I realized that I needed to do something – and do it quickly – if we were to avoid disaster.
A month later, I had written a budget, detailing exactly how we were going to spend our money. My husband arrived home from work and I announced unceremoniously, “We are out of money. I have come up with a plan. We need to move to a cheaper apartment. Oh, and I need you to get on board!”
Predictably, this conversation did not go well.
Clearly, I had a thing (or two) to learn about money conversations (and communication, in general) in a marriage.
That was over thirty years ago. Since that time, Larry and I have learned to work together as a team. We have lived debt free, paid cash for cars, and bought a home with cash – all while raising four sons on an income which was consistently under the US national average.
How did we do it?
We followed these three “rules of money engagement”.
1. Respect Your Partner
Every good partnership begins with mutual respect. Clearly, when I took it upon myself to determine how we would spend money as a couple (without even consulting my husband), I was disrespecting his position as my life partner.
You are not autonomous in a marriage. When the pastor said, “You are now one”, it meant that you no longer had to navigate life alone. Your spouse is your team mate.
In sports, a good coach never leaves a vital player on the sidelines – and certainly doesn’t fail to share the playbook with him.
Larry and I often tell couples whom we are counseling, “If you aim at nothing, you are sure to hit it.”
A budget is your roadmap, allowing both of you to know the game plan. It lays out the steps that you are both committed to taking to reach your goals. When it comes to money, if you refuse to involve your spouse in the process, then you’ll find it difficult to make headway.
Mutual respect equates to mutual decisions.
2. Appoint a “Designated Driver”
My husband is a last born. He lived at home until we married, paying his parents a moderate amount of rent. I am a middle-born, who moved out of my mother’s home at the age of twenty, lived with roommates, and figured out how to navigate life on a low income.
Not only were our experiences different, so were our perspectives on money.
Despite the fact that we were both making just $5/hour, my husband and I had exactly zero conversations about budgeting before we married.
Three weeks after we wed, I freaked out when he came home and announced that he was headed over to Radio Shack to spend $50 on some sort of electronic stereo component that (in my opinion) we absolutely did not need.
I “calmly” (okay, not calmly at all) shouted at him that unless he intended to eat that pricey toy, he’d better not leave the apartment. I needed that money for groceries.
He was stunned. “Why not? I looked at our checking account. We have the money in the bank.” It had, simply, not occurred to him that there was another purpose for that cash.
I showed him the nearly empty cupboards. Suddenly, Larry completely understood that his decisions impacted our family. He was no longer a free agent. He was a member of a team.
That night, we agreed that neither of us would spend over $10 without first checking with the other and I was appointed the family budget guru. No, I didn’t have complete control. I could not unilaterally begin making monetary decisions. I tracked the expenses, totaled up the budget columns every month, and set the agenda for our monthly budget meeting.
If you’ve ever heard the saying, “Too many cooks spoil the broth,” it’s true. The more hands dipping in and out of the family coffers, the greater the confusion (and possibility for errors).
Figure out which of you is best at tracking the numbers, and let them do the driving. (They will, seriously, enjoy it.) However, all the family financial decisions are talked about and agreed upon during a monthly budget meeting.
3. Recognize (and Embrace) Your Differences
There is some truth in the old saying that “opposites attract.” Most likely, you were attracted to your partner because you recognized something in them that was lacking in yourself.
When you meld these differences into a single plan of action, you can make amazing headway on goals.
My husband is a spender and I am a saver.
As the “budget nerd,” I become so obsessed with counting nickels and dimes, that I forget how to enjoy spending the money after we reach a goal. Alternately, my free-spending spouse has learned to check in with me before making a purchase.
Half way through a recent, weekend getaway to Madison, Wisconsin, I began to feel guilty about the money we were spending.
Larry took my hand and reminded me gently, “Honey, you did a great job planning this trip. You got us a deal on the hotel. You researched the cost of every attraction and restaurant. We saved up money for this trip. Every penny that we are spending is coming out of that fund. I need you to relax, be in the moment with me, and enjoy yourself. You have earned it.”
He was right.
Here’s the bottom line when it comes to money and marriage: When you each lean into the other’s strengths, your life becomes more balanced, more stable, and more peaceful. As a couple, you’ll be able to grab great, big goals with both hands and refuse to let go.
It all begins with freely admitting and embracing that you are stronger together, working as a team, and respecting your partner.
About the Author
Hope Ware has been a writer and public speaker for 35 years. Married to Larry since 1988, she has four sons and has homeschooled for 20 years.
Hope and her husband raised their sons debt-free, including paying cash for their home, on an income which was consistently under the US national average. They discovered the secrets of spending less, saving more, and living with a spirit of joy and abundance.
When she’s not speaking or writing, you’ll find her speed walking while humming songs of the 70’s, creating vegan versions of classic American comfort food, or singing jazz and spirituals with her friends and fellow musicians in the Heritage Ensemble.