Handling your financial business is hard enough on your own. But when it comes time to combine money matters with your spouse, things can get uncomfortable quickly. My husband and I have been together for almost a decade. Though we always manage to land on our feet, neither one of us is a naturally gifted accountant. We’ve had to learn the hard way—sometimes over and over—that it’s not just about how much you make or how much you spend. Getting on the same page financially often means cultivating values like patience, forgiveness, and self-control. Sometimes it means being willing to compassionately work through your spouse’s money woes without judgment. And it often means being honest about your own issues, and being willing to talk about them without getting defensive.
I tend to spend more freely than my husband and I have felt a lot of shame because of that. We both came into the relationship with a lot of student loan debt. And since I was handling all of our bills, it weighed heavily on my shoulders. To cope, I would buy things, which was embarrassingly cliché. The hole got deeper and deeper.
Less than a year after we got married, my husband lost his job. We scraped by on unemployment as I finished my last year of college, living with friends and going without anything that wasn’t an absolute necessity. After a painful year-long job search, he ultimately decided to enlist in the Army. It was not his dream job, and it meant long hours and sometimes months away from me and our two kids. But it supplied a steady paycheck and solid health insurance.
Seven years later, with the help of therapy, kindness, thoughtful sacrifices, and often plain old trial and error, we have learned to talk about our money problems and come up with viable solutions. In the eight years we have been managing money as a couple, we have learned a few timeless truths that have saved our bank accounts and, honestly, our marriage, more than once. Here are 3 tips to help you talk to your spouse about money.
1) Track every single purchase.
My husband is tech savvy, so he created a spreadsheet using Google Sheets that helps us track all our money coming in and going out. But if technology is not your thing, plain old pen and paper will do. Like a food journal, document every nickel you both spend so you can see where your money is going and use that as a jumping off point for talking about where you want your money to go. Knowing how each of you spends money in advance will help avoid conflicts that can arise when someone is surprised by their spouse’s spending habits.
2) Plan a Date to Talk Finances.
Set aside a specific day and time to talk about your finances. Tell her how much money you spent at Target. Ask him why there’s a $42 charge you don’t recognize. But—here’s the important part—remain compassionate. Truly listen and try to understand where your spouse is coming from. These talks won’t always be easy. You may end up disagreeing. You may have to seek professional help to get through the conversations. That’s okay. Communicating well is a learned skill. Eventually, after listening to each other has to say and honestly expressing how you feel, it will get easier. And you might end up with a stronger, more connected relationship than the one you had when you first got started.
3) Read Financial Books Together.
Building intentional habits is the silver bullet. Almost all financial articles tell you to spend less and save more. It’s not rocket science. But it is science. Because how you do that has everything to do with your habits. In The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg outlines a study published by a Duke University researcher which found that over 40% our daily actions were not actually decisions. Rather, they were developed habits, cultivated over weeks, months, and years. Examine your financial habits using helpful financial books and articles you read together and see how your habits relate to your spouse. When do you go grocery shopping? How often do you eat out? Are those trips planned or spontaneous?
After you’ve looked at the habits you have built, you can start to figure out which ones you want to keep and which ones you want to change, add, or remove. Start small, with one or two habits. Trust the process. With time and effort, the stress you feel around money will begin to dissipate and you’ll start to feel like you and your spouse are a good financial team.