Book Review: How to Debt-Proof Your Marriage

Since my twin victories of paying off our last credit card and funding a summer of travel, my husband has begun to show interest in personal finance.

It's not that he wasn't supportive of my efforts before — he just preferred to support them from a safe, ignorant distance. A distance from which I handed him an envelope of cash each week to do the grocery shopping, he didn't ask too many questions, and somehow we were climbing out of debt. How to Debt-Proof Your MarriageHe was more than happy to adopt any frugal-living strategy I suggested, as long as he didn't have to think about the Big Picture.

That system worked, but I longed for more active participation from him. Not only because I wanted us to share equally in the journey toward financial freedom — I do want that — but also for a selfish reason. I wanted him to participate because he's better at this stuff than I am. He's a whiz at spreadsheets. The man has a Ph.d in Physical Chemistry. You don't get one of those without doing a few math problems.

Lately, I've been getting my wish. My husband has been talking with a financial advisor at the university he works for, and having clear, honest conversations with me about our money.

This seemed like the perfect time for me to read Mary Hunt's How to Debt-Proof Your Marriage.

Relationship first
Hunt's book covers the basics of personal finance and debt destruction, with a special focus on doing it as a couple. Before she even begins talking about financial management, Hunt talks about strengthening the foundations of your marriage. You can't have financial harmony without emotional intimacy, she says.

I couldn't agree more. It's clear in my own marriage that spending time relaxing together on vacation helped my husband and me both chill out and have better conversations during our family finance meetings too.

Hunt and I part ways in the chapters about how to achieve that emotional intimacy, though. She bases her prescription for marital bliss on traditional gender roles. She includes chapters for each sex on how to make deposits in the other's Love Bank — a metaphorical bank of goodwill made of small, loving gestures.

The Love Bank is an adorable idea, one I'm tempted to put into practice here in my own home. I'm pretty sure I won't be making my deposits to my husband's Love Bank by biting my tongue when I disagree with him, though. Likewise, I don't expect him to express his love for me by bringing me flowers and handling all the tough decisions for me like the natural leader of our family should.

Hunt is a generation (or two) older than I am, and what works for her marriage is so foreign to my young, feminist mind that it was actually a little hard to read. But leaving aside the details of how you get to an intimate marriage, though, she and I agree wholeheartedly that it's important to get your emotional needs met before you can effectively work together with your spouse to manage your finances.

Money second
The personal-finance half of the book will be familiar to most GRS readers. Hunt advocates an approach similar to Your Money or Your Life and Dave Ramsey's Total Money Makeover, one that begins with calculating your net worth and tracking your expenses. From there, she covers the basics of setting up an emergency fund, creating a spending plan, and starting a debt snowball (though she uses different terms for these steps).

Like her ideal of a healthy relationship, Hunt's financial advice seems a little dated in places. A lot of it has to do with how to organize your three-ring binders, or how to painstakingly accomplish by-hand calculations that Mint can do for you in a few minutes. If you're a devotee of the pen-and-paper approach, though, her chapters on how to track and plan your spending are rock solid and detailed enough to easily follow.

The one thing in this book that made me want to put it down, run to my office, and implement it on the spot was, in fact, her filing system. Hunt takes a few pages to go over exactly what personal records you should be keeping, and outlines an elegant effective way to organize them. I spent an hour tearing apart my filing cabinet yesterday as soon as I read those pages. I may not want my marriage to look much like hers, but I'm delighted to have made over my filing cabinet in Mary Hunt's image.

Different views
There are a few areas where Mary's financial advice deviates from the usual Get Rich Slowly formula. One is the matter of the debt snowball. She encourages readers to start saving 10% of their income towards an emergency fund immediately, while still paying the minimums on their credit cards. Only after saving up a fully funded six-month emergency fund would Hunt advise you to roll those savings into your credit card payments.

Given the relative interest rates on credit cards and savings accounts, this approach will almost certainly cost you money. If it works for you psychologically, though, by all means pursue it. No matter what order you do them in, the key steps of tracking your spending, creating an emergency fund, and snowballing your debt payments will lead you to financial security.

Another place where she breaks with conventional wisdom is in her savings and spending ratios. GRS readers are familiar with the Balanced Money Formula that encourages us to use 50% of our money for living expenses, 30% for fun and 20% for savings. Hunt advises 10% for giving, 10% for saving and 80% for spending.

The order of those percentages is vital to her. A devout Christian, Hunt feels that all the money that comes into your life is a blessing from God, and promptly giving 10% of it back to God shows you can be trusted with this blessing, and more of it will come your way.

I'm not a Christian, but I admire Mary's faith and devotion to charitable giving. It's a goal of mine to give 10% of my income. I've written about that here before, and readers made a persuasive case for waiting until my debts were paid before giving so much away. For now, I give a modest amount and look forward to giving more in the future.

I think that for Hunt, the psychological benefits of giving 10% and saving 10% before you make any spending decisions at all outweigh the financial benefits of paying off your debts as fast as possible and then beginning to accumulate and donate wealth.

It's an interesting approach, and one that might work for a lot of people. Particularly if you're a devoted Christian and looking for a personal-finance book that reflects your values, you'll find a lot of good in How to Debt-Proof Your Marriage. If you're looking for a book that's totally focused on financial savvy and relationship skills, though, this might not be your best bet.

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Antti-Juhani Kaijanaho
Antti-Juhani Kaijanaho
9 years ago

For me personally, setting up a small emergency fund first is an important way to break the habit of taking on debt. Without even a modest emergency fund, any emergency spending requires taking on new debt. Of course, with the fund first approach, I am effectively putting borrowed money to a savings account, but it does not require me to make the explicit action of increasing my debt. For me, this is worth the extra interest expense.

Susan F
Susan F
9 years ago

I’d recommend ‘His Needs Her Needs’ by Willard Harley for more on the ‘Love Bank.’ It breaks down the traditional needs of men and women and how to meet each others needs to build a strong relationship, but points out that they can be reversed.

Everyday Tips
Everyday Tips
9 years ago

Yikes, I am surprised she suggests only 10 percent for savings. I would think that spending needs to be cut to at least 70 percent then, put 20 percent into savings and then give the 10 percent as that seems paramount to her.

I do agree though that it is very important for both the husband and wife to be on board with any budget plan. I cannot imagine the fights my husband and I would have if he was a spender and breaking our budget every week.

Nicole
Nicole
9 years ago

Great review! I’m glad your husband is getting into things. Mine read YMoYL and that perked his interest.

And yeah, spending money on forgive-me-flowers seems counter-productive when you’re in debt. How about forgive-me-doing-extra-dishes?

Chris
Chris
9 years ago

Well, the bit of information about your husband’s role in Getting Out of Debt until recently also helps to explain why you had difficulty this summer. You got off track, and that can happen to everyone (including me), but it sounds like you didn’t have a strong accountability partner. I’m glad to hear that it seems he’s becoming more active.

KP
KP
9 years ago

Congratulations on paying off your last credit card and being on the path toward financial freedom! Thanks for sharing your review of Hunt’s book – I have to agree that organization is one of the biggest keys to financial success.

This post on money and marriage has perfect timing, because there are many couples struggling with personal finance. Working together, communicating and striving to reach your goals builds financial harmony in a marriage.

Greg
Greg
9 years ago

I’d like to second agreement with “emergency fund first.” This prevents you from taking on new debt and indirectly, but more importantly, gets you used to the idea of not using debt to fund emergency expenditures. Without an emergency fund, when stuff happens, and it will, you have to take on new debt. This gets you back into the habit of buying with credit. If you have an emergency fund, you get into the habit of paying for emergencies with money you have already saved. Once you start doing that you realize that you CAN live debt free, even if… Read more »

lil
lil
9 years ago

I’m a newer reader and just beginning my journey. You allude to Mint as an easier way to keep up with finances. I’m not familiar with any programs, but my dh LOVES very complicated spreadsheets which are too difficult to keep up with. Is Mint the way to go or are there other safe online resources to use? If there is a prior post on the subject, a link to that would be very useful. Thanks so much for the review!

Kevin
Kevin
9 years ago

J.D., is there a reason the title of this article omitted the customary “Book Review:” prefix that accompanies your other book reviews? When I saw the title of this article, I though to myself, “Oh that sounds interesting, an article on debt-proofing my marriage.” Then part way through the article, I noticed Sierra was going to reference a book. Then I realized this wasn’t an article at all, but rather a book review (with, of course, the obligatory money-making affiliate link to Amazon). I felt a little lied-to, to be honest. I mean, it’s a good review, don’t get me… Read more »

Techbud
Techbud
9 years ago

Having both Husband and wife on the same page is so key in paying off debt, and building a budget. It helps build or strengthen the fundamentals of the relationship trust, communication.

My wife and I have been working on our debt repayment plan for the last 3 month and we have never communicated as often and better then over that time. 🙂

Meg
Meg
9 years ago

DH and I are trying to get ourselves out of debt. I don’t know how I’d do it on my own if he wasn’t entirely on board. You can’t just go through the motions with getting out of debt – you both need to be active in your financial goals.

And Sierra’s right. It’s hard to be the Minister of Finance in your own household – you need someone to help out and shoulder some of that burden.

Dr Dale rathgeber
Dr Dale rathgeber
9 years ago

Getting hub and wife on the same page is also of paramount importance in retirement planning. Good post.

J.D. Roth
J.D. Roth
9 years ago

@Kevin (#9)
I don’t have any standard practice regarding the titles of my book reviews. Sometimes I include “book review” before the book title; sometimes I include it after; sometimes I don’t include it at all! This is called “not having a system”, and it creates all sorts of woe! 🙂

I see your point, though, and can see why it would be helpful for you to know that this is a book review, so I’ve changed the title.

Nick
Nick
9 years ago

My wife and I are on board w/ budgeting/saving but certainly have “micro” disagreements. We each have our “wants” that the other doesn’t understand. Hers are “fancy” vacations if you ask me, “nice” vacations if you ask her (can you feel our struggle…). Mine are sporting events tickets. I’ve given mine up temporarily (unless the tickets are corporate and not paid for my me, of course) to save up enough to buy Ms. Sallie Mae a one-way ticket out of town. But I like the relationship-first approach. Many of people get caught up in “the math” when the root of… Read more »

Kris
Kris
9 years ago

The same things that make a marriage successful will help the finances of that marriage, like TechBud said – trust & communication.

Robin
Robin
9 years ago

Hi, just want to say “Thumbs up!” to Sierra on a very open-minded review of what is obviously a faith-based finance book. The spirit of looking for what works and not being critical of the author’s faith, even though it disagrees with your views, is so so so refreshing! I am interested in the filing information, as that is a major roadblock for me, and so far I’ve found no particularly good information anywhere (I’ve looked in sort of a halfhearted way). Finally, just to shed some light on the notion of tithing and giving ten percent: That practice dates… Read more »

Paul Williams
Paul Williams
9 years ago

I’m in the “emergency fund first” group as well, Sierra. It’s a huge relief for people to know they won’t have to go to their credit cards if an emergency comes up. It’s also a big step for many who are used to spending everything they get. This change can beget other changes that grow into something powerful. However, I don’t think your emergency fund should be finished before you start paying off debt. My advice is to get one month’s worth of expenses saved up first. Then continue to save some in your emergency fund while paying off debt.… Read more »

Jacque
Jacque
9 years ago

Regarding the “love bank” concept, I would highly recommend The Five Love Languages. It breaks the communication of love down into five basic styles and encourages couples to understand the other’s love language and communicate in that way (aka nothing to do with gender roles).

Des
Des
9 years ago

My husband and I were in the same place as Sierra – that is, I managed the debt repayment while DH “let me” make the decisions with the finances. I wanted him to play a bigger part, and he wanted to, too, but we weren’t quite sure how to do that. What worked for us was going to the Dave Ramsey classes. It wasn’t any new information, and I had already read the books, but sitting through the class together put us on the same page. I imagine it would have been a similar experience in any financial class. I… Read more »

Red
Red
9 years ago

Yikes! No offense to Hunt, but I won’t be reading a book that encourages women to bite their tongues when they disagree with their husbands in order to create “emotional intimacy.” Yes, we should all (men and women) choose our battles wisely, but you’re operating on the ILLUSION of emotional intimacy if every potential argument is stifled to inflate your husband’s ego. GEEZ!

Naomi Baughman
Naomi Baughman
9 years ago

I do agree it is better for both of you to work on your finces then just one of you. In my houes I am the one that pays the bills and keeps track of our money. My husband does not want to talke about it and it is ok sometimes I wish he would.

For anyone that is trying to get out of debt come check out my site at debttowealth.weebly.com

JenK | Sex & Money
JenK | Sex & Money
9 years ago

Yes, we should all (men and women) choose our battles wisely, but you’re operating on the ILLUSION of emotional intimacy if every potential argument is stifled to inflate your husband’s ego. GEEZ!

Yeah. Something tells me that Hunt’s book is setup along the idea that the husband earns more money than the wife and therefore gets more perks/coddling at home, too.

(I make more, but we try not to make it about who earns more. OTOH, he’s working part-time, so he often does the grocery shopping on his day off.)

Steve R
Steve R
9 years ago

Two words: Mandatory PreNup.

Jil
Jil
9 years ago

This is my first time commenting but I’ve been a long time reader. I’m on the lookout for PF books geared towards couples. Does anyone have suggestions for books geared towards couples that aren’t married but cohabiting. My boyfriend and I just moved in together and have semi-combined finances and bills. For the first time, he is seeing how much more together my finances are (even just out of undergrad and him having a 2 year jump on me) and is starting to get interested in PF. I still feel like I’m just blindly figuring this out and am certainly… Read more »

Pam
Pam
9 years ago

@Jil: Money without Matrimony is quite good. I think J.D. mentioned it at one point.

J.D. Roth
J.D. Roth
9 years ago

@Jill (#24)
As Pam says, Money Without Matrimony is awesome. (That link leads to my review.) It’s my favorite book on money and relationships. It’s geared toward unmarried couples, but I think married folks should read it too.

Trina
Trina
9 years ago

Sierra — Can you share more about the filing system without feeling like you’re plagiarizing? I’m drowning in paperwork and would love to find a better system. This book does not sound like it’s for me, though. If you don’t feel comfortable sharing the filing information, I may get this book from the library just for the filing information.
Thanks!

Veronique H.
Veronique H.
9 years ago

Mary Hunt’s “Debt Proof Living” and “Live your Life for Half the Price” really helped our household. I’m 22 and my boyfriend is 23. By February of 2011 We’ll have paid off $15,000 in debt. Though Hunt is a little old fashioned, I urge you to read “Tiptionary 2”. It is a compilation of THOUSANDS of tips to reduce spending or make your own items. Health, beauty, kitchen, cleaning and even automotive to name a few categories. We love Mary Hunt, and I read her free newsletter, Everyday Cheapskate, every morning.

sandra
sandra
9 years ago

I am also married to a scientist (college professor) who HATES to talk about money, which seems to be my favorite subject of late. We have been making progress with our debt (with a small amount of necessary talking). We are on the envelope system now, seems to be working – so far!

mike
mike
9 years ago

@ 20 and 22, who said “Yes, we should all (men and women) choose our battles wisely, but you’re operating on the ILLUSION of emotional intimacy if every potential argument is stifled to inflate your husband’s ego. GEEZ!” and “Yeah. Something tells me that Hunt’s book is setup along the idea that the husband earns more money than the wife and therefore gets more perks/coddling at home, too.” I didn’t get that from the book review at all, I think that was just Sierra’s own personal thoughts (though I admit I haven’t read the book at all). Seems to me… Read more »

David/MoneyCrashers
David/MoneyCrashers
9 years ago

I wonder if she mentions having the “money talk” before getting married.

Better to get it all out on the table before you tie the knot.

The disucssion could be tense, but it could save you lots of heartache and wallet-ache further on down the road

Kelly J
Kelly J
9 years ago

Money is a huge hurdle here too. My husband is type B and spontaneous while I’m type A and want everything planned out. Our differences tend to work for us except when it comes to money. He sees extra money to be spent on something fun, while I see extra money to be set aside so we can obtain larger goals. So I’m definitely going to check this book out. At the very least my filing cabinet could use a rehaul too!

Jill
Jill
9 years ago

I second Jacque’s plug for The Five Love Languages. Faith-based, yes, but didn’t cause me to have a mad feminist hissy fit because it’s gender-neutral, and about finding how you and your significant other give and receive love, not telling you what ways you Should.

I don’t think I’ll be buying Mary Hunt’s book, but the newsletter does sound intriguing…

Sam
Sam
9 years ago

Re emergency fund – I think most financial gurus recommend at least a small emergency fund before hitting debt repayment hard core. Ramsey suggests $1000. It sounds like the difference with this book is that it suggests saving up a 6 mo. emergency fund first, which would take most people a very long time. Re passive personal finance husband – I’ve got one of those too. Mr. Sam was completely on board with the idea that we pay off all our non-mortgage debt, he just also happened to think I was crazy. But he did adjust to the “rules” and… Read more »

S Duray
S Duray
9 years ago

I like Mary Hunt’s books, and though some info may be slightly outdated, the concepts are not. And learning how to crunch the numbers is important (sometimes by doing it yourself, the results are more meaningful than when a program/website does so).

Matt
Matt
9 years ago

As someone who used Mary Hunt’s original “Debt Proof Living” book to to reach that sometimes elusive 3rd stage, I admit I’m somewhat biased. Having said that, I mostly agree with Sierra’s review. The book is a bit too churchy for my taste, and the tone of the book is a bit dated sometimes. (Mary Hunt is around 60 I think) But the value of the book is in getting your significant other on board with the plan, not in financial management savvy. This book works better when it is implemented in concert with a book like Ramsey’s Money Makeover… Read more »

Lakshmi Subramaniam
Lakshmi Subramaniam
9 years ago

I downloaded this book to my IPAD, it was $5 and some change after reading the review. If we start on the premise of when the book was written, and figure out Mary’s age, you can understand why things seem a little dated. I am a wife who is supporting my husband through school, and work a full time job and do most of the housework. It is very hard for me to follow Mary’s suggestion of giving the husband the respect of sole provider and be the wife who takes care of the household. I am doing both. I… Read more »

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