This is the first in a two-part series that will explore how to navigate a couple's finances when one person handles everything. Up first: how to handle the pitfalls, and next: how to make sure there's a plan for the other person to take over if needed.
The texts my husband must hate seeing the most are a string of “what was this charge?” along with screenshots of our online banking account. When that happens, I'm going through our checking account to make sure we're sticking with our budget. And when I see a hundred bucks to ESPN here, 30 bucks to an app there, and surely all those Amazon charges aren't mine (are they?!), I start firing off a bunch of questions. It stresses me out and I can only imagine it's not fun for him either.
I've been handling all our finances for several years, since we figured out I'm the one who does a better job keeping track. He does the dishes and dog pick-up duty and we call it even. But the emotional strain of having sole responsibility for our household budget can be tough.
And we're not alone. I turned to certified financial planner and host of Millennial Money Podcast Shannah Compton Game for insights, and besides crunching numbers with couples, she said, she often ends up serving essentially as a couples' counselor. Stress, resentment, and other negative feelings can flare up when couples don't have a clear plan in place for how they handle joint finances.
These feelings are totally normal, especially when it comes to dealing with money, Game said. “We tend to think we got the raw end of the deal when all [the other person] has to do is xyz chores.” Part of her role, she said, is getting the person who does the money to recognize it's their strength. She handles the money in her own relationship, and “it's recognizing, my husband cooks, grocery shops, and does laundry. Those things are worth value to me.”
While we project that our responsibility is more stressful, she said, if you're in a good partnership you're each doing things to your strength.
But it can still absolutely get stressful if one person shoulders the entire burden. Because in many ways it's easier if I just do it myself, I don't bring my husband in until and unless there's a big event like a mortgage refinance, or vacation to budget for. And not letting the other person play a role creates tension in addition to undue stress on the money person, Game said.
Establish your roles
So how do you resolve that tension? Game counsels clients to let one person be the day-to-day money person while the other checks in once a week or once a month. She prefers doing weekly check-ins, she said, holding them at the same time each week to make the habit easier to stick with. “If I wait a whole month I won't have seen things,” she said, “and I'll get stressed and it just becomes overwhelming.”
Game monitors how much is in their checking account and knows what's going in and out. But because her husband has cards, they came up with “kind of like a handshake deal,” she said, to prevent surprises like the ones that cause the dreaded barrage of texts I send my husband.
Agree on on expenses that demand a conversation
“If you have an expense or something you're going to spend money on — for us it's over $100 a week but it could be $20, whatever number would make you uncomfortable if you saw that charge from your partner — 'just send me a text and let me know,'” Game said. “So six years in, he's got in his head: 'I gotta buy this stuff that's not a normal expense so I'm just going to shoot her a message.' And if I say we can't get that right now, [then for him it's] 'thanks for letting me know.' Then when I look at the account that week I'm not stressed.”
With this arrangement they both have a role, she said. His? “To make sure she doesn't have those surprises.”
With a lot of couples, Game said, she finds they haven't set that amount one would be uncomfortable with the other spending. “They haven't put any rules in places so the person doing the money has these freak-out moments when they have these conversations and then it goes into full blown argument.”
It may not be fun at first, she acknowledges, but “as much as you can communicate it helps take away some of that tension.” And it goes both ways, she said. “You still have to have a partnership with money ... because [without accountability both ways] then you have an unfair advantage.” As in, one could drop a couple hundred bucks on something and the other person wouldn't know.
Remember, you're the CFO
So how do you deal with feeling like the bad guy if you say no to a spending request? Especially if the other partner knows how much is in the account? At our house we both get daily texts from our bank with our checking balance. When you're not the one tracking how much is coming out every month, it could look like there's plenty available and your partner is just clutching the purse strings. At least that's how I feel when I say no.
While that's only natural, look at it like you're a CFO and your business is your family, Game said. “I try to always turn it into a positive thing.” So say the expense is not doable right now. Have a conversation about how to set aside the needed money, she said. Your partner may suggest skipping dinner out, or Starbucks, for example, to put toward the expense. That makes them an active participant, she said. “It's not perfect but it's involving the other person as well so it's not like you're just saying no.”
It comes down to “figuring out the communication flow, those partnership nuances,” she said. “For the person handling the money if they feel like the other person is participating in some way, even being cognizant of their spending it takes stress off so it's not like he's just out there swiping the card.”
And while it might sound counterintuitive to keep one partner in the dark, it may actually be best, Game said, to take the non-money person off those bank balance texts. Instead, she suggested, stick with those regular updates when you're looking at the whole picture, not just today's balance.
If the other person does keep tabs on the bank balance, it's important to keep it in perspective, she said. Especially in cases where there's an ebb and flow like when one or both partners are self-employed or have fluctuating incomes. “I call it a foundation budget,” she said, “so how much money do we need every month just to pay our bills.” Her husband knows that number and every month Game lets him know how things are looking — will they have only a little bit over, or a good amount? That helps her relax, she said.
Her other relaxation tip (and my favorite)? When she's working on finances, “I have to have a glass of wine and music going on,” she said. “I almost swear by it.”
So maybe that's the new date night — banking and a bottle of wine. I can get behind that.
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