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Financial interdependence is usually something we slowly back into over time.
You meet someone, fall in love, your lives begin to intertwine, and there isn’t really a clear moment when it feels appropriate to stop and assess the details of your shared finances.
When do you transition from paying for dinner to splitting the bill? And when do you transition from being private about your personal finances (debt, savings, inheritance, income, etc.) to openly sharing your finances with your spouse?
In the realm of romance, there is a lot of public discourse around planning and saving for a wonderful engagement or the ideal wedding, but the day to day reality of sharing finances isn’t really discussed.
Why? I mean, we know why. It’s really hard. It’s hard because it’s not just a discussion about money, it’s about expectations, habits, insecurities, social class, values, comfort, fear, and power.
Personal finances is a loaded topic, even within longterm partnerships, but we have 10 steps you can follow to make it easier for you to share your finances with your spouse.
1. Define Your Expenses
Whether you own a home, rent, or travel for a living, there are set expenses to your lifestyle. Anything that you pay for on a weekly, monthly, or yearly basis is an expense.
Weekly expenses might include groceries, house cleaning services, dining out, dry-cleaning, and transportation (gas, Lyft/Uber, Metro pass).
The most typical monthly expenses are rent, phone bill, health insurance, gym membership, car insurance, pet care, and Netflix. Yearly expenses can include renters insurance, Amazon Prime membership, car registration, and taxes.
Some of these expenses are flexible, meaning they can fluctuate, such as how much you spend dining out every week. Other expenses, like rent, are set, meaning you can’t do anything to increase or decrease them.
While couples will have differing opinions about how much to spend on certain expenses or which ones are truly necessary, the most important first step is to clearly define the current reality of your individual and shared expenses.
This isn’t a memory game or an opportunity to reinvent yourself –– you’re collecting solid, honest data points. First step? Grab a pen and paper and log into your online banking.
Look at the activity of your checking, savings, and credit cards over the past 12 months. What do you notice? What patterns do you see? Taking the time to list your expenses on paper puts distance between you and the subject you’ll be discussing with your loving partner.
Clearly defining your expenses also makes talking to your partner about your personal finances easier because it’s honestly harder and more scary to talk about something when the details aren’t clear in your own head.
If you’re not totally sure how much you spend on groceries each month or what percentage the interest is on your student loans, it’s going to feel overwhelming to talk about.
Defining expenses is hard not only because it’s the first step but because it forces you to face the reality of your spending habits and we don’t always like what we see. But the good news is that it’s only going to get better from here so don’t shy away from this step!
2. Define Your Income
Now, usually this is easier, but in the gig-economy, it can still be a challenge. Whatever income you’re bringing in, you want to clearly define your gross income (what’s on your paycheck or invoice) and your net income (the in-your-pocket-after-tax total).
For many freelancers and independent contractors, the thrill of receiving an invoice payment is immediately met with the stressful question of “How much of this do I need to set aside for taxes?”
A safe assumption is 20% of every dollar you earn needs to be set aside for taxes. However, a smarter solution is to talk with a tax professional so you know you’re operating from a place of informed financial knowledge, not financial fear.
If your work generates a steady paycheck it can still be very helpful to clarify for yourself and your partner when you get paid (Daily? Weekly? Bi-weekly?) because this can influence budgeting and spending habits.
Sometimes knowing that you’re getting paid next week convinces you that splurging this week is fine. Or knowing that your paycheck won’t be available in your account until the 4th of each month will help you set-up auto-payments for bills on the 6th of each month.
The clearer you are about the reality of your income the easier talking about finances with your partner will be.
3. Share Your Intentions
With your income and expenses clearly in front of you, it’s time to make a pot of tea and sit down with your partner (who has also clearly defined their income and expenses and brought their info to the table too).
Each couple is different and the needs and opportunities you and your partner have will differ wildly from your friends, family, and colleagues.
This is probably the biggest financial challenge spouses face –– they don’t have clear examples of appropriate financial behaviors to model so they don’t know how to move forward in communicating. So, where to begin?
Start by sharing your intentions. Usually, tensions are high during financial discussions –– blame and judgment can get tossed around in subtle ways even by the sweetest of spouses –– so setting a clear intention for the discussion can help assuage this tension.
You don’t have to share the same intention but make sure you each understand each other’s goals and intentions before you begin.
A possible intention could be “I want to feel less anxiety about paying our mortgage each month” or “I want us to split our living expenses more equally than we have been” or “I want to travel around California with you for three weeks next summer and I want to figure out how we can save for that trip.”
If you have a clear goal, you’re more likely to reach it.
Another point to remember about intentions is that they may change over time –– even during your first conversation! Don’t feel like you need to stay consistent with past versions of yourself.
It’s not only okay to change your mind, but it’s also essential for personal growth. Hopefully sharing your intentions together will influence each other and create more interesting and fulfilling intentions.
The goal here is clarity and communication, so don’t hold back.
5. Define Your Values
Even if one partner is the main financial earner, it’s important for both partners to feel like they have power and equality within the financial relationship.
Building a budget together sets clear guidelines and objectives of what you value as a unit. While some couples value the ability to dine out several times a week, others might value attending the latest gallery openings, or traveling together, or saving for retirement.
If you and your partner value different experiences the important point is to support them in creating the experiences they value. Going fly fishing in Cuba might not be an experience you value but if that’s what sparks joy for your partner it’s important to respect that.
Supporting your partner in pursuing what they value is certainly something you value and that’s what you can focus on.
And the honest truth is that you might both value the financial freedom to dine out regularly but currently you don’t have the financial means to do so, and that’s okay.
You’re not simply defining monetary value, you’re clarifying your shared emotional values too. What activities bring you happiness as a couple?
What future experiences are you both excited to create together? What immediate experiences are worth investing in? Look at where you currently are financially, where you want to be as a couple, and how your values can best be represented in the future you build together.
6. Build a Budget, Together
Now that you know your expenses, income, intentions, and values, it’s time to set a budget. The micro view of your budget is the zoomed-out big goals version –– think “save for a house” or “pay off my student debt.”
The macro-view of your budget is the day to day spending that creates the success of those big goals.
The macro-view can look like making yourself a nice mocha at home instead of going to the cafe on your way to the office or opting for a walk with friends instead of going out for drinks and appetizers on Fridays.
Spending too much time on the macro-details will drive you nuts but only thinking of the micro-view will cause you to lose focus on what makes that dream a reality. Keep a healthy balance of both to remain happy while staying focused.
Using your current spending habits as guideposts which you already have clearly defined, decide how you want to steer your weekly spending. If you’re spending $10 every weekday on coffee and treats while you’re out of the house, that’s $2,400 a year.
Ask yourself if you could cut that spending in half and put the $1,200 you’ll save toward a shared value? Could that money go towards retirement? A vacation? An espresso machine at home? A car?
Budgeting for the sake of budgeting is nonsense and will be extremely hard to stick to so make sure you have a goal in mind that your shared budget is working towards.
Remember, no one is going to be perfect at sticking to a new budget, so be patient with your partner and yourself as you work to make these new habits your new normal.
7. Let Technology Be Your Boss
Once you have your budget set, it’s time to take it for a test run. No one wants to be the bossy financial disciplinarian in the relationship or the spouse who is always being disciplined for their financial decisions.
Thankfully technology can lend a helping hand in budgeting. Apps like Mint can track your personal spending and automatically organize it by category.
Mint will even give you colorful pie charts and line graphs to see your spending in action and it will quickly show spending progress and habit changes from month to month so you have some third party accountability outside the relationship.
All you have to do is link your bank accounts to the app and it will crunch the numbers for you at no additional cost.
If you want a more hands-on budgeting app, Splitwise makes sharing expenses with partners clear and easy.
Splitwise does everything you’d expect like organizing your purchases by category and date but the real value Splitwise offers is the running tally at the top of the screen with a clear and easy total showing how much you owe, how much you’re owed, and the total balance.
This can be especially helpful for couples who live with roommates and share expenses like utilities and household supplies.
It can be awkward to ask for little amounts of money for random shared purchases like dish soap –– who wants to Venmo their roommate $3.15?
But those little expenses do add up, and with Splitwise you can track each shared purchase and make sure one person isn’t doing all the financial heavy lifting.
And if one person always restocks the cleaning supplies first, you can settle up through the Cash app or Venmo once the balance reaches a larger total so you’re not paying little bits of money back and forth.
The goal of using these apps is to take the guesswork and stress out of managing the details of your shared expenses.
8. Hire Help
Sometimes you need more than an app –– you need to hire professional financial help. Talking to an expert, even for an hour, can bring clarity and focus to your financial partnership.
There is sometimes a stigma about hiring outside financial help, especially in our world of endless information at your fingertips.
It’s normal to feel like you should be able to find all the answers you need online (you’re here looking for answers right now!) but sometimes a face to face consultation can benefit your relationship immensely.
Financial professionals know how to navigate the confusing landscape of investments, interest rates, and IRA contributions without breaking a sweat and they can save you a lot of time and stress.
Working with a local CPA (certified public accountant) who can show you how to take advantages of tax breaks and write-offs can save you a lot of money in the long run.
It might cost you $300 to work with them the first year but they can help set you both up to file quarterly and write-off depreciating investments for years to come which will save you loads of money.
Another great option is to hire a professional mediator who can help you and your partner work through any financial topics you’ve been unable to resolve together.
No matter what financial issues you’re struggling with, a professional mediator has seen it before and has helped others just like you find a successful solution. There is no rule saying you have to figure it all out on your own, so don’t be afraid to hire a guide along the way.
9. Schedule Accountability M̶e̶e̶t̶i̶n̶g̶s̶ Parties
The word “party” is way more fun than “meeting” so keep that rebranding trick in mind while schedule regular times with your partner to check-in and hold each other accountable to your financial goals.
This isn’t a time to blame or attack anyone for mistakes they’ve made but it’s equally important to not make excuses for poor financial behavior, especially when it’s being repeated frequently.
While each couple can decide how and when is best to schedule an accountability meeting (*ahem* party), once a month is a good starting point.
Set aside 30-min to an hour, sit in a comfy area, put on some nice music, open a peach-pear Le Croix (maybe best to stay away from the alcoholic libations until the financial talk is complete), and review your financial records together of the past month.
Remember to frame everything in the context of the financial intentions and goals you set for yourselves and your relationship. Look at the purchasing choices made over the past month and see if they are aligned with your goals.
Similarly, look at your income. Did you meet your income goals for the month? Did you generate some extra income through a side hustle? Did you set-up automatic deposits from your checking to your savings account?
Some months it might look like no significant progress is being made but don’t get discouraged. Remind each other why you’re doing this financial work.
Focus on the strength of your love and commitment to each other and your shared future. The first few accountability parties will be the most difficult but after you mark it on your calendars and make it a regular habit, it will become easier.
Keeping your finger on the pulse of your financial reality reduces stress. It may even be something you both look forward to!
10. Celebrate Your Successes
Every little success counts! Even saving an extra $20 a month adds up so don’t let the opportunity to thank each other or celebrate yourself pass by. Celebrating your successes is a great way to end your accountability party but it can also be a fun daily practice as well.
Positive reinforcement is a powerful incentive, so harness that energy to your advantage. Find ways to celebrate that bring you joy (without spending that extra money you just saved).
Expressing gratitude for each other’s accomplishments can go a long way in building a strong financial partnership that can weather any storm and achieve any goals.
Positive reinforcement and celebration will look different to each partner. Some people are visual learners.
If you’re more visual, you might find it helpful to place a big, glass jar in the kitchen and every day you make yourself coffee instead of grabbing a lavender latte on your way to work you place $5 in the jar.
The visual representation of the money you’re saving literally piling up in front of you can create a huge incentive to keep going. Other people are experiential learners.
These couples might find it helpful to take the time to visit open houses for homes that are in the price range or neighborhood they are saving for.
Being able to touch those granite countertops and see the morning light through the skylights can reinforce the purpose of why they are saving together.
Even if buying a house is years in the future this experiential practice can provide a taste of future success and can be a powerful motivator.
Other couples might benefit from seeing clear data points. Like the ever-rising thermometer in a televised fund drive, seeing the progress you’re both making on a chart may be just the reality check you need to know you’re doing an excellent job.
There are no one-size-fits-all solutions to sharing finances with your partner, that’s what makes it so challenging.
But knowing that you care enough about your financial future to do the research and read through this whole list means you’re already leaps and bounds ahead of the crowd (even if you feel totally left behind).
If you’re struggling with how to even broach the topic with your partner may we offer one final tip: share this article with them!
Send a link, take a screenshot, print it out, read it to them over the phone, copy the entire article on paper with quill and ink –– whatever you feel comfortable doing, use this as the icebreaker.
Once you get the subject out in the open it will be easier to get going and you’ll both truly be happier. And you have all the steps you need right here in front of you! Talking about finances with the person you love can be difficult but it is totally worth it.