How to talk with your spouse about money

This is a guest post from Sierra Black, a long-time GRS reader and the author of ChildWild, a blog where she writes about frugality, sustainable living, and getting her kids to eat kale.

Talking about money is one of the great taboos of our culture. I know more about my friends' sex lives than I do about their bank statements. Many of us find it hard to discuss finances under the best circumstances. When we're stressed about money, we tend to clam up even more.

If you're married (or living with a partner), you don't have that luxury. Financial success is not a private affair. You need to talk to your spouse or partner about your money. This is vital for both the health of your relationship and the health of your bank balance.

You don't have to take my word for this. This week, I had the pleasure of interviewing Lou Scatigna, a.k.a. The Financial Physician. An entire chapter of his new book is devoted to “lack of spousal communication”.

How big a problem is failing to talk to your spouse about money? “If you have money conflict, your marriage is doomed,” Scatigna says.

OUCH! My husband and I have our share of differences when it comes to handling our dollars, and I'd like to stay married. In addition to genuinely liking the guy I married, divorce is expensive.

The Monthly Family Finance Meeting

Scatigna's prescription for this ailment? Have a monthly family finance meeting. Scatigna says its vital for both partners to sit down together once a month and pay all their bills together. Even if you've automated many of your monthly bills with an electronic bill pay system, you need to be looking at them each month. Doing this together has a lot of advantages:

  • You both know the real cost of living in your household. When only one partner handles the finances, the other can be genuinely unaware of how much credit card debt your family is carrying, or how high the winter heating bills are. This is information you both need to have.
  • You can hold each other accountable to shared financial goals. It's harder to justify an extra latte when you know you have to own up to your spending at the end of the month.
  • Working together can make it fun. Instead of a tiresome chore, handling the finances can become something you do together. Finding ways to save can become something of a game, and as you get better at it you'll both reap the rewards.
  • Having both partners fully up to speed on the household management protects you both from being left in the lurch should the other suddenly not be available. People die or suffer sudden illnesses, and the business of life goes on. You don't want to have to learn how to pay your home's monthly bills while you're handling a family crisis.

I'm a long-standing believer in the theory of a monthly household finance meeting, but I also know it's a lot harder to practice than it is to theorize about. Scatigna says it's the rare couple that actually sits down and talks about finances every month.

Making the Time to Talk

Managing finances together sounds simple, but there are a lot of stumbling blocks. People are busy. You've got a career, a family, maybe kids of your own, plus friends and hobbies. Spending an evening a month on a boring chore can seem like a lot to ask.

Plus, money pushes a lot of buttons for people. It brings up fear, anxiety, guilt, anger. A lot of negative emotions most of us like to avoid. So we avoid talking about money with our spouses until it explodes in a financial disaster or a relationship meltdown.

Even when we do sit down to talk, it can be hard to make good use of the time. Should you discuss long-term goals or just go over this month's bills? How can you avoid spiraling into a fight?

My husband and I have been in a groove with this lately. To get started, we sat down and worked out a master list of financial goals. We also made a huge spreadsheet of our fixed and flexible expenses. We use these as guides when we're looking at how cash flowed in and out during the month.

Here's a list of do's and don'ts that are working for us:

  • Don't spring a big money talk on your spouse by surprise.

While cooking dinner or getting ready for work is not the time to have this conversation.

  • Don't talk about it when you're already angry. Just got a surprise overdue notice for that parking ticket your honey forgot to tell you about? Don't call her up at work to complain about it.
  • Don't talk about it after midnight. My husband and I tend to leave money talks for the end of the day, and wind up trying to deal with it when we're both exhausted and edgy.
  • Do set a specific time to sit down and discuss your finances. If you expect the conversation to be difficult, try scheduling two dates at once: one to talk about money, and another one a few days later to do something fun you both enjoy.
  • Do have an agenda. We've wasted many household money talks staring at each other over a pile of bills and not knowing what to do. Now we have a pretty clear routine: go over each spending category on our spreadsheet, look at how much we spent, figure out if we can cut back on it at all in the coming month, and check in about how that fits into our big-picture money goals.
  • Do be gentle with each other. Scatigna warns that in households where one spouse pays the bills, that partner can become resentful for having to carry all the weight. That was certainly the case in our house, but once I learned to control my temper about it, my husband became much more willing to come to the table and get involved.

Talking about money really has eased tensions between us. It's also helped with our cash flow. We're on the same page a lot more often. We're both paying more attention to the kinds of details that used to cost us a lot in mistakes or careless spending. We feel like a real team, and we're actually saving money.

Previously at Get Rich Slowly, Sierra told us about sweating the big stuff, described the pitfalls of buying in bulk, and made an argument for a secular tithe. As you might guess, I like her writing.

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Writer's Coin
Writer's Coin
10 years ago

My wife and I have a budget run through twice a month. One halfway through to see how we’re stacking up and one at the end to see if we’ve met our saving goals. But a co-worker of mine does something even more important: once a month he shows his wife how to log into every account and shows her where all the money is, how they’re doing, what’s happened, etc. His wife isn’t interested in the details, but once a month they sit down and run through it anyway so she has a general sense of what’s going on… Read more »

trb
trb
10 years ago

Yes, we’re on this train! We do a quarterly, 2-3 hour long update, and after a few years we’ve developed a nice rhythm. Here’s our basic agenda: 1. Philosophy – “How are you feeling about our money situation and our financial life?” (I realized this one was important to start with, to get my spouse engaged on an emotional level, before crunching numbers) 2. Goals – “Why is our money important to us?” We discuss our long-term financial goals, and our upcoming plans next few months, including any travel or big gifts we need to be aware of. 3. Current… Read more »

Jason
Jason
10 years ago

When we started doing the Total Money Makeover, one of the main tenets is a monthly budget meeting. What it does is force you to talk about money every month, which is a great thing. You stop having big money arguments because you have to talk about things once a month, and they can’t fester for months or years.

This article could also be very easily made into a sex advice column, since many of the same points are very applicable to that realm, as well! Ditto for child rearing and household chores!

Alexandra
Alexandra
10 years ago

My husbands finances are so complicated compared to mine – he likes to have separate accounts for business, separate accounts for real estate, etc. while I have just one for savings and one for every day stuff. I asked him to write down all of his accounts so that if something should happen to him, I know where everything is. We don’t have a formal sit down talk once a month to talk about money. We had a talk a long time ago, and then each time we have moved or anything major has happened, we have re-evaluated the situation.… Read more »

Hannah
Hannah
10 years ago

This article seemed very shallow to me. It presumed that all couples fight about money (which isn’t true). I would argue that if you have to walk on eggshells and schedule the monthly meeting (with your own spouse?) at a time when neither of you are cranky, then the meetings aren’t solving anything. If you don’t share the same goals, then meetings about your finances aren’t going to fix the tension, because you’re not really fighting about the money. “It’s harder to justify an extra latte when you know you have to own up to your spending at the end… Read more »

Roblynn
Roblynn
10 years ago

I have to agree with Alexandra. After 30 years we have found that a split, I pay mine you pay yours is much better for us. We tried all the meetings, dates, locking hubby in the office to pay bills, etc. and it did not work for us. It seemed to breed more resentment for both of us having to be accountable to anyone for the money we were making and spending. If anything big comes up we talk and decide what to do about it and do it.

Mike
Mike
10 years ago

As I read over some of these comments, I agree and disagree with a lot of them. Comment 4 seems like you are living 2 separate lives. I understand keeping things separate, but writing your husband a check every month? That just seems like you are almost paying him rent or something. Almost like you have a business relationship moreso than a marriage. Comment 5, I don’t think the author was presuming that at all, but it is a fact that couples fight most about money. It is nearly impossible in the daily hustle if both people are working and… Read more »

Jackie
Jackie
10 years ago

My husband and I don’t schedule monthly talks about money, but we do talk about it regularly — probably more often than once a month. We talk about goals, our progress, suggest ideas, etc. I think a lot of it has to do with personality, interests, and outlook, but for us talking about money is as normal as say talking about our plans for the weekend.

Kate
Kate
10 years ago

As a newlywed, we’re still transitioning from co-habitators (where he wrote me a check each month for his half of household expenses and I paid all bills) to a system where we have both individual and a joint account.

While this article isn’t ground-breaking, it’s a good reminder for me to do the following : 1. make sure my husband and I continue having regular conversations about our long term goals and short term strategies; 2. make sure that we have all our account information in a shared location just in case.

Shalom
Shalom
10 years ago

We get by a lot more casually than this post recommends, and I think what we do works just fine. I keep a monthly net worth sheet, and once I’ve updated it I print it out and show it to hubby. If there’s anything weird in it, we may say a couple or three sentences about it (“Hey, look, our retirement fund went up a lot! Hooray, the market!” or “Credit card charges were really high this month, but that was the car repair and the tuition bill, and I moved money out of short-term savings to cover it”). We… Read more »

Dustin | Engaged Marriage
Dustin | Engaged Marriage
10 years ago

As you might imagine, this is a favorite topic of mine. Not only am I a financial geek who is married to a free-spirited spender type of gal, but I write about marriage on a regular basis. In our house, I handle the details and keep my wife informed and seek her input on major decisions. While we don’t have a “lock down” time, this conversation does occur on a monthly basis when I create a new budget for us to talk about. One thing I have found fascinating is how almost every article I’ve written or read about marriage… Read more »

Kim
Kim
10 years ago

Sierra, another GREAT post! Your writing is a pleasure to read, and this is chock-full of applicable information.

This one goes into the permanent file.

THANKS!

GayleRN
GayleRN
10 years ago

I also recommend including teenagers in this conversation at some point when they are mature enough not to inform all their friends about your situation. It is amazing to them to see just how much you have to pay out in bills. Our children quit asking for so much stuff when they saw how much we were spending on just feeding them. They also get much more realistic ideas on stuff like colleges and how much it costs to live on their own. They get a big dose of reality from this exercise.

Shara
Shara
10 years ago

Yeah, talking about money is not a problem for us. In fact some days I feel like I talk about money TOO much. I will consciously avoid talking about money for a week or something just to change things up a little. I think the most interesting thing about this article was that as a society we are more comfortable talking about sex than money. I mean what does that say about us? I am the complete opposite. I still don’t share a lot of specifics about my financial life, but I share a lot more than I do details… Read more »

Edward - Entry Level Dilemma
Edward - Entry Level Dilemma
10 years ago

When we first got married, our finances were almost undoing. I moved into the apartment she already had, so she was already aware of all the bills and the cash flow and I was completely in the dark. Now I keep track of our finances with Quicken (I had used MS Money in the past, but I wanted to jump ship before Microsoft pulled the plug. RIP Money. You’re cash-flow analysis was much better than Quicken’s). This way, we are both away of how much money is coming in and going out. Each week, we sit down and review the… Read more »

HollyP
HollyP
10 years ago

I enjoyed this post, even though my husband and I don’t fight about money. It is a great idea, and I”ll be e-mailing him the article to see what he thinks about monthly meetings.

Meg
Meg
10 years ago

I like the idea of both of us sitting down and knowing how to access each other’s accounts. It’s not a pleasant thought, but Writer’s Coin (#1) is right – what if something happens to you? Your spouse needs to know where the money is.

I think having both halves looking over the acount keeps you both accountable, and creates a sort of “checks and balances.” You can – and should – question each other on expenses – “What was this expense?” “When did you pay the mortgage, again?”

Tazdollars
Tazdollars
10 years ago

My wife and I have everything on Mint and we each look at it daily. We always have casual conversations like “we’re doing great sticking to our eating out budget this month” or “we’ve got to get our grocery bill under control.” We sat down and created the budget jointly and since everything we do is transparent, there are no secrets or guilt about how each of us spend money. The only thing we have that is separate are my “Blow Money” account and her “Blow Money” account which is budgeted every month. If either of stay under our budgeted… Read more »

Sean O'Dwyer
Sean O'Dwyer
10 years ago

Married 14 years and only in the last year or so have we learned to discuss finances in a calm and productive way. Such a relief. We settled our 2010 budget over two meetings, both of which were amicable and, more importantly, SHORT! The above guidelines are excellent. If I could make one suggestion it would be that monthly meetings may not be enough, especially if you’re just starting to pull yourself out of trouble. Even just for a while, it can be helpful to meet once or twice a week, especially if you need to get on top of… Read more »

Steve
Steve
10 years ago

I talk with my wife about our finances when needed. She leaves it to me to handle the details – she’s just not that interested. We have more than enough income to meet our needs and save for the future, so we don’t have to fight or be stressed about money.

The biggest hole is what would happen if something happened to me. I keep meaning to make a list of our accounts so she would at least know what banks/brokerages/etc to contact to start looking information up.

kaitlyn
kaitlyn
10 years ago

The good thing about my fiance getting laid off is it forced us to have one of these conversations. We’ve kinda-sorta had them before in a general sense, but this was the first time we’ve pulled our cc statements and worked out the numbers.

Let me tell you, that was an eye-opener. “You spend HOW MUCH on going out to lunch?!” “That card was paid off! How come it has $1500 on it now??” Plus we learned that even budgeting $400/mo for food, we still have $800 left over that we have no idea where it goes. Oi.

Debbie M
Debbie M
10 years ago

Knowing how to access accounts is even more important now that many times you do not get statements in the mail. I also agree with the idea of including your children. Even if you don’t get into specifics, just talking about whether the finances are going well or not and what changes in spending you’re going to try in response to changes in income. Even if you just got laid off and are genuinely scared, I would think that talking to your kids could help because in reassuring them, you are reassuring yourself. Plus kids, especially little kids, really like… Read more »

Debbie M
Debbie M
10 years ago

One strategy that can help with early talks is to just show off some of your own financial information. When you reach a new milestone–good or bad–talk about that. Or when you’re thinking of making a change like stop making charges to a credit card or start investing or paying down the mortgage. And do it some place where you can get to your data (credit card statements or your financial spreadsheets or your budget) in case you want to go into more detail. Your partner may or may not volunteer information right away, to show you “Well, this is… Read more »

Sam
Sam
10 years ago

When we first got married and decided to pay off all our debt (except the mortgage) we had a big annual meeting to come up with a plan for the year, we met every month and we talked about finances just about every other day. We also had a big annual meeting to prepare our taxes. Mr. Sam created the Excel spreadsheet to track our debt snowball and I sent it to him twice a month. Mr. Sam did not sit down with me twice a month to watch me pay the bills, balance the check book and tweak the… Read more »

MichaelM
MichaelM
10 years ago

Google Docs and Mint.com our our best friends. Docs keeps track of debt snowball, ideal monthly budget and savings goals Mint.com keeps track of where our money is going (we use CCs almost exclusively — and pay them off each month, of course) and helps us keep tabs on all our accounts at once. We’re kind of at the long-slog stage of debt payoff and saving for goals so we don’t talk about things each month. Instead whenever something significant happens* I’ll show her on Mint or Google Docs and we discuss it as it happens. * eg. Odd spending,… Read more »

Tyler Karaszewski
Tyler Karaszewski
10 years ago

I do all the finances in our house. I give my wife an allowance of $150/week to do whatever she wants with. I pay all the bills. We set savings goals together, but I actually do the saving and keep her updated on its progress. If she needs more than her allowance any week, she can just ask and I’ll give her more. If we need to make any special plans (for instance, flying to see her sister) she can let me know in advance so I can plan on having enough set aside for plane tickets in a couple… Read more »

E
E
10 years ago

Always a great topic. We’re one of those couples that fought about money, as we relate to it in completely different ways. Currently I make decent money and am building up some savings for us, while he is still struggling with old debt and uncontrolled spending. He rarely pays a bill on time, so I am in charge of the mortgage, utilities, and taxes. I always send him emails to keep him in the loop – conversations get emotionally charged so easily, and they’re harder to rememeber. He pays his own bills and gives me some money for the joint… Read more »

E
E
10 years ago

@ Debbie M, that’s what I did. I talked about paying off cc’s, starting my ira, how much bills were month to month etc., without making any demands on him. I think that has helped him come around. 🙂

schmei
schmei
10 years ago

My husband and I had a big sit-down meeting with an agenda and everything a few weeks after we got married, but since then I’d say our money conversations actually _do_ happen at times like when we’re making dinner, etc – however, they’re mostly little check-in chats, and we do this about once a week or so. We do our taxes together every year, though, and I’d say that is always the most formal finance meeting we have: we sit down with all our paperwork and talk through the whole process. This article does seem to presume that money discussions… Read more »

Rosa
Rosa
10 years ago

I think it’s funny when people say “it’s like you have a business partnership, not a marriage.” Marriage is a legal contract where, instead of making a personalized commitment and signing on after reading all of it, you’re subject to the laws of the state you live in. LOTS of those laws are financial, and people need to keep that in mind – I know way too many people who discover secret debts they co-own, because they wanted to step out in trust or not have to worry about financial details. My partner has a lot of anxiety about money… Read more »

guinness416
guinness416
10 years ago

I couldn’t agree more with Schmei and Shalom (six sigma, ha!). We do this fairly casually and on a while-getting-ready-for-bed or while-waiting-for-the-subway basis, even if it’s about renewing cellphone contracts or something. Almost everything’s automated anyway and I guess I’m one of the few who has a spouse who actually knows how to log into our accounts.

Edited to note that obviously there are people who have massive debts hanging over their head or just lost a source of income or something which would make regular meetings more useful; but I don’t accept that everyone needs them.

Ben
Ben
10 years ago

I struggle with this one.

I have tried to include my spouse in financial decisions but she is not interested and trust me to make the right decisions. On the whole, I am fine with this accept as it relates to estate planning.

How do I talk to my wife about wills, advance directives, etc. when she becomes upset when this topic is brought up?

E
E
10 years ago

I’m a little creeped out by the guy who says he gives his wife an “allowance” and she asks him for more if she wants to go over her “allowance.” She’s your wife, not your child. It’s joint money, not your money that you dole out to her.

LiveCheap.com
LiveCheap.com
10 years ago

Monthly may not be enough for some people and I would say a mid month check in is often desirable. One issue that happens is when you are doing really well and the assets are building up, there’s not much to talk about. The bills are all easily manageable and the only question is what to invest money in and whether you want to pay the mortgage off early or invest it. More attention gets paid when things are tighter and you have to decide which bills to pay and when and how to get them paid. So it’s different… Read more »

Ronnie
Ronnie
10 years ago

Steve #19:

PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE move from the “keep meaning to” to the “I’ve done it” phase of making a list. My father-in-law passed away so unexpectedly last year, and his wife had NO CLUE how to access the accounts, what bills were where, how much was in retirement, ANYTHING. My brother-in-law and I have spent the past year making sure that her finances are straight (hubby handles medical issues) and that she knows how to and can access her money. He left her so well provided for, but until she could find all the money, she was understandably hysterical.

Tyler Karaszewski
Tyler Karaszewski
10 years ago

@E

Ok, it’s not an “allowance” then. It’s $150/weekly that gets automatically transferred to her account. Be creeped out if you want, then come up with a better system and suggest it. We agreed mutually on the $150/week number, it’s not like she has no input in this system at all.

E
E
10 years ago

hey there are 2 E’s! This one has no allowance issues, my parents did the same thing. Mom was a sahm so dad transferred so much per week for groceries, kid stuff, and fun. I was never privy to their discussions but I don’t remember them EVER fighting about money.
Now I kinda wish I had eavesdropped or something; it might have helped me discuss money with my husband. Mom was a spender like him and dad’s a worrier like me. 🙂

J.D.
J.D.
10 years ago

Kris and I don’t do any sort of formal financial meetings. Once a year or so, we talk about our general direction, but that’s it. Because our finances are separate, we trust each other to take care of certain bailiwicks. That said, we both think things have gotten a little complicated lately, so we too intend to sit down and go over the Big Picture, share lists, and so on. Maybe once the book is published…

Mrs. Money
Mrs. Money
10 years ago

Funny story- before we got married I found this shoebox full of collections notices. I freaked out and thought that he was horrible with money and I couldn’t marry him. Needless to say, he ended up doing a 180 and we’ve bought a house and paid off all our debt except one car loan!

Jaime Karaszewski
Jaime Karaszewski
10 years ago

@E I’m Tyler’s wife. Regarding the “allowance” issue – we’ve decided to call it a “stipend.” It works for us. It’s not degrading or offensive, it’s just our alternative to having a joint account. We don’t have monthly money talks – but we do talk about money when important financial issues arise, and I’m well aware of what gets spent each month. He takes care of setting up automatic monthly payments because his paycheck goes into his checking account, and I’m not currently working (though hopefully I will be soon). I think a lot of it comes down to trust… Read more »

Nicole
Nicole
10 years ago

Tyler K– In our household we call that, “My husband gives himself an allowance.” The wording seems to calm people down and not think I’m a horrible shrew. Though honestly I can’t say what his allowance is off the top of my head, so it really is him apportioning it out. Now that JD and others have admitted to not having monthly meetings, I feel comfortable saying we don’t either! We’re a lot like the other people above who don’t have or no longer have trouble with money. Money isn’t emotional with us, we have enough. We do big picture… Read more »

Natalie
Natalie
10 years ago

We don’t have monthly meetings but we often have weekly email checkins — “hey, did you see this come out, is that reimbursement check in yet,” etc.

I would rather talk about it — but I am realizing that our time together is precious, so these email check ins work. And if it is something bigger, we’ll talk about it at home.

Daphne
Daphne
10 years ago

It’s not just spouses either. I have been unable to discuss any finances/debts with my mother and when I’ve tried, she blows up and says that spending money is her only pleasure (even though she CONSTANTLY complains about her debts!) We’ve come to an “agreement” that “we” (I’m not the one with a problem discussing money) will not discuss money any more and I’ve come to the conclusion that her debts will most likely be settled when she dies. Dave Ramsey calls this the “powdered butt syndrome” – you absolutely cannot talk about money with anyone who has powdered your… Read more »

Illsa
Illsa
10 years ago

It seems important for couples to find what works for them and not try to adhere to some cultural notion about what being married must mean or entail (unless of course, those notions work best for them). I learned in a prior relationship that keeping finances/expenses separate and independent is what works best for me. If there are big expenses (new appliances, etc.) then we go 50/50. The two benefits for me from this system is that 1) I maintain my financial independence and 2) we do not fight about money.

Sam
Sam
10 years ago

We use an allowance system in our house for both of us. We each get the same amount each pay period even though I earn more than my husband. The allowance goes for day to day expenses which for us covers grocery shopping, eating out, entertainment, gas, dry-cleaning, etc. If you are good with your allowance you can save a bit of it up for some cool shoes, in my case, or car parts, in his case.

The allowance system works pretty well for us and yes we call it an allowance.

Shara
Shara
10 years ago

I don’t mind the term ‘allowance’. I mind when DH’s stupid friends and coworkers say I put him on one, so to avoid complaints like the one here we call it ‘lunch money’, ‘personal money’, or simply ‘cash’ because that’s primarily what it is. This post kinda dovetails with a question I asked previously of those of you that have separate finances: What do you do with a spouse that is awful with money? Not just now to talk to them, but how do you structure your life so that the other person doesn’t endanger your financial well being? Do… Read more »

Kelley
Kelley
10 years ago

You want to know what’s worse than fighting about money…not fighting about it. For years my mother enabled my father’s spending to keep him pacified. She paid bills as best as she could but nothing ever got through to him and she allowed it to continue. So they filed bankruptcy, and seven years later ended up back in the same place. Finally after being introduced to Dave Ramsey through me 😉 (there’s still hope Daphne) they have started discussing their finances. 30 years they have been married and they finally figured it out. Anyhow, my husband and I do the… Read more »

AB
AB
10 years ago

We don’t have monthly meetings either. We talk about money whenever one of us feels that there’s something to discuss, usually around the time my husband gets paid and we’re divvying up money to various bills and accounts. He makes the money, but really hates dealing with it, so I run all the finances that aren’t automated (I set up most things to automate so that neither of us has to deal with it).

I do give myself an allowance. Until I start bringing in regular income, it’s just easier that way.

TosaJen
TosaJen
10 years ago

I could see the planning being helpful if a couple needs to start talking productively about money. I know we borrowed some ideas from YMOYL and a few other personal finance experts when we decided to start accumulating money instead of spending it all and more. We’ve been married 16+ years, and have been out of debt for quite a while (aside from mortgages), so we don’t plan regular talks about money. Most of our discussions come up spontaneously during our limited time alone and awake together when: — we notice a pattern that’s not working well — we see… Read more »

STL Mom
STL Mom
10 years ago

My husband and I don’t have meetings. We dated for seven years before we got married, so we knew our attitudes towards money were similar — and obviously neither of us is impulsive.

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