All aboard: How to win the budget battle with a reluctant spouse
A good marriage doesn't mean the spouses agree on everything, but different views on budgeting can lead to problems that a husband and wife might not expect.
Matt Becker, a certified financial planner in Pensacola, Florida, who writes the blog Mom and Dad Money, says disagreements on budgeting can make it difficult for couples to work toward long-term financial goals and stability.
"You need to know what (money) is coming in and where it is going," he says. "What kind of life are you trying to build? Being purposeful is very difficult to do if you are not tracking your spending in any way."
But failure to budget and its resulting tension is common in today's family life. A recent poll by Gallup found that Americans are not managing their economic lives to reduce stress and increase security. According to the survey, 23 percent of Americans are "suffering" financially and 38 percent are "struggling." Only 39 percent say they are "thriving."
Experts say budgets can go a long way toward bringing couples and families together into the thriving category. Only 1 in 3 Americans (32 percent) currently "prepare a detailed written or computerized household budget each month that tracks their income and expenditures," another Gallup survey from last year found, but experts say families don't have to start with a complex budget to begin seeing results.
Even if a person is the only one in the family interested in keeping a budget, there are things he or she can do to improve finances and maybe even involve a reluctant partner.
Big life changes can often bring couples to the budgeting bargaining table — things like a new job, a baby on the way or a move. But if life-changing events don't make people consider altering their ways, sometimes the condition of living the unbudgeted life brings its own pains and realization that changes need to be made.
Amanda H. Christensen, a Utah State University extension family and consumer science faculty member, says without a budget there is a lack of control. "And that means our ability to control life is taken away," she says. "We are being controlled by our money instead of us telling money where to go. There is tension in the home. Kids are unhappy when they are told 'no.' Spouses are unhappy when they are not financially where they want to be."
This cumulative type of pain causes some people to learn how to budget, certified financial planner Kate Holmes in Las Vegas says. "They realize something is not working," she says.
But, unlike the motivation that can come from a big and mutually life-shifting change, cumulative pain may not hit both spouses at the same time nor to the same level.
That's because, Holmes says, opposites attract. "Usually one person is a spender and the other is a saver," she says. "Spenders can be resistant to budgeting."
On your own
Holmes says the saver should never call out the spender on how the money is being spent. That only makes people defensive, and the couple will not come together on a budget.
A more effective method, Becker says, is to find areas to reduce spending without the other spouse's direct participation. For example, he says, in tracking expenses "maybe you will notice that you spend a lot on cable."
This doesn't mean cancelling the cable and upsetting the other spouse. But it could mean calling the cable company and trying to negotiate a lower price.
Other suggestions could involve the budget-conscious spouse taking a lunch to work rather than eating out.
"You don't have to change everyone in your family," he says. "You can change on your own, leading by example."
Christensen says finding common ground about how and why money is spent can make a big difference in coming to agreement on a budget. "If we take a step back and understand our values," she says, "we can understand our budget."
She says a non-threatening exercise to learn each spouse's values is to list the top five things each would buy if they had the money.
"Then talk about the similarities and differences," she says. "Hopefully you will find some commonality."
In addition to highlighting different and similar values, the exercise can identify goals and make it easier to look at a budget as a tool to reach those goals.
Another way to take the sting out of a budgeting conversation is to focus on the positives, Holmes says. Couples should set aside a discretionary fund for fun, and discussing how to spend it can make the process more pleasant as couples talk about what can be done rather than what can't.
To avoid negative conversations such as arguing over one spouse's spending habits, Becker advises asking each other for help. "Asking for support (to accomplish a spouse's financial needs) is less threatening," he says. "You can evolve from there. It is about keeping open a line of communication."
Part of that open communication includes talking about each other's money history, Christensen says. "For someone who grew up in a home where the dad constantly said, 'No. No. No,' that can affect how a person responds when told, 'No' (about something in a budget)."
Being aware of a spouse's personal money history may go a long way toward explaining differences and bring harmony. Again, Christensen says, "Budgets are just a reflection of people's values."
Even kids can learn about budgeting and start their own money history off right. Christensen likes playing a game where kids are given the equivalent of a family's income in play money and then have to pay the bills. At the end, they might have $10 left over. "All of a sudden the kids say, 'Wow,'" she says. "It puts things into perspective (for them.)"
A budgeted family
Christensen says just taking budgeting baby steps can make a difference. It can be as simple as a conversation or tracking spending. But each small step is a step toward better control over the family's resources.
"The peace that comes with feeling you are in financial control, even if things are tight, is something that money can't buy," she says.
Becker says just having a family and kids is enough stress on its own. Getting into that place of financial control means less stress. "Then, what you are doing with your kids — you can enjoy it," he says.
When Josh Duvall and his wife Lisa married about two years ago, they didn't bother with a budget. They both worked and had few financial responsibilities.
But then came some big changes. "We found out we were pregnant," says Josh Duvall, who does financial planning and marketing for Capital Financial Services in Glenville, New York. "We wanted a stay-at-home mom, and I got a new job."
They realized they needed to look more carefully at their saving and spending habits if they were going to achieve their financial goals of saving more than 20 percent of their gross income and buying a home next year.
"It's amazing," Duvall says, "what a little bit of focused effort can accomplish in your finances."
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