Making Money Work in a Marriage

By Lyn Millner

In my marriage, I'm the one who balances the accounts to the penny and tracks every transaction in a software package. My husband phones his bank periodically and scribbles his balance on yellow stickie notes, which fall off his desk and onto the floor, where our dog picks them up, takes them under the bed and "processes them" by jawing on them a while. Clearly, the two of us have different financial styles. But somehow, we've found relative peace. If you and your husband have radically different methods for managing money, take heart. It's possible to build a healthy financial partnership.

Examine Your Attitudes
Your attitudes about money are much older than your marriage, and they run deep. What you believe about money and your style of spending and saving most likely was formed in childhood from watching your parents handle money. Understanding this about yourself and also knowing your partner's background will go a long way toward mutual financial success. The trick to a successful financial partnership is to separate financial issues from the emotional issues that surround them. Doing this allows you to sidestep many conflicts over money. An example: Every month when your husband reconciles the American Express bill, he becomes surly. If you recognize that he is being triggered by, say, deep-seated fear issues, you can keep the focus on paying the bill and therefore avoid an argument.

Air Your Expectations
How many times a month would you like to go out for a nice dinner? How often do you shop for new clothes? How about buying gifts for others? Do you consider a car to be a utilitarian tool or a status symbol? When is it OK to spend on credit? Is life insurance important to you? Answer these questions (and others like them) honestly. Share the answers with your partner, and ask him to share his with you. If you don't, the two of you may be carrying around very different financial expectations without realizing it. Unspoken financial expectations almost always pose nasty problems down the road.

Clarify Your Values and Set Goals
No two people share the same values. Your spending plan needs to be flexible enough to accommodate those differences. It begins with communication. Talk to your partner about what's important to you. Find out what's important to him. Is one of you contemplating a career change? Does the other want a vacation? Discuss and prioritize these goals. Then make a plan to achieve them.

Combine Goals, Not Accounts
As a couple, you should feel like a team working toward combined goals. However, it's important that each person has at least a little financial latitude. You shouldn't have to account to each other for every single penny you spend. Have at least some money that's yours to do with what you want.

The solution - separate checking accounts. Unless you are both sticklers for detail, sharing a checking account is asking for trouble. The likelihood is too great that one person will forget to record a withdrawal. One partner may feel resentment over always being the one to keep the books for the account. There's also the temptation to raid the account for an expense that wasn't agreed on.

It may make sense to have joint savings or other joint accounts where the volume of transactions is low, but day-to-day checking should be separate. This just may be the secret to a happy marriage.

Even if one partner handles most of the day-to-day finances, the other partner should be aware of where the money is, how it's spent and what the balances are. Both people need to know where the financial papers are kept and how much money is necessary each month to support the household. Someone who isn't aware of these things is less likely to care about common goals and therefore less likely to commit to them. An added advantage of mutual participation is that either spouse can step in and take over the money management duties from the other if it ever becomes necessary.

Respect Each Other
Why do more couples fight about money than anything else? Because it's tangible and it gives you something to attach the "real" argument to. As the lowest common denominator, money is both a medium of exchange and the currency for argument.

Truly evolved couples recognize that money issues are almost never about money. If the two of you often quarrel over money, look deeper. What is it that you really need to address? Financial cooperation has very little to do with money and everything to do with mutual respect and love, the same qualities that make a great marriage.

Recognize That There's No "Right" Way
Too often, we get caught up in being right rather than being loving. There's no one method for managing money. You have to find the plan that works for you. Maybe it's switching off duties - where each spouse tracks the bills during alternating months. Maybe one partner handles the day-to-day bills while the other plans and cooks the meals. Whatever you choose, your system should fit your natural aptitudes and shouldn't leave one partner feeling put out.

Know When to Get Help
There are times when, in spite of your best efforts, you need an expert opinion or an objective ear. If the two of you are at a financial impasse, recognize it and get help. Whether it's a practical issue like planning for retirement or an emotional one, such as constant anxiety over money, a non-profit credit counseling service or a financial planner can offer a great deal of support. Many financial planning firms even have psychologists on staff to assist clients with emotional issues surrounding money.

Also see:
Understanding your financial style
Open an online checking account
Recommended financial books
Estate planning checklist

Lyn Millner, CPA, has been a writer and editor since the age of eight, when she taped a note to the store window of a national beauty supply chain, calling the owners' attention to a grammatical error on the door. She writes marketing material and business plans and teaches entrepreneurs and employees how to write clearly. Contact Lyn at