The (Comprehensive) Couple's Guide To Budgeting
It takes two to tango—and it'll take both you and your partner communicating with each other to create (and stick to) a workable joint budget.
Sorry singles, but this guide isn’t for you. That being said, you’re free to read it anyway. While being part of a couple may be less lonely, it also comes with its own set of unique of challenges, especially in the financial realm.
There are many factors that might lead to arguments between couples, but money is one of the most frequent culprits. This is why we spoke to the experts and compiled a guide just for you and your significant other. Or significant others, we don’t judge.
Contrary to the opening sentence, there might even be tips the singletons can use! But we can only guarantee that all of these tips are applicable to two-person relationship units. It’s all the warranty allows. OK, let’s get to it!
Communication is key.
The first thing to remember when it comes to budgeting as a couple is to maintain open communication. After all, if you’re not communicating, then you aren’t actually budgeting AS a couple.
“People come into a relationship with different money habits and ideas,” Julia Carlson, founder of Financial Freedom Wealth Management Group and author of Fit Money, told us. “We all spend, save, and deal with money in different ways. These differences can cause real friction in a relationship. If you don’t want this friction to break your relationship apart, it’s important to talk to your partner about money.
Make a money date.
“One great way to make sure you are communicating about your budget is to have a monthly financial date,” says Carlson. “Within a couple, there is usually one person who is more inclined to deal with the money. This is fine, you each should be using your strengths, just be sure that both people give their input. And remember, this is the perfect opportunity to have spirited financial discussions where you can deal with concerns before they turn into arguments.”
Take feelings into account.
And you should never forget to take each other’s feelings into account.
“Talking about financial issues is one of the major stressors that faces many couples,” advised Raffi Bilek, couples counselor and director of the Baltimore Therapy Center. “When attempting to do so it is critical to be aware of the feelings that such a discussion raises in you but not to let those feelings control the discussion.”
Experiencing fear or insecurity about the future is normal; sharing this with your partner can help them understand where you are coming from and what your needs are. However, if you don’t identify and express what is going on for you, it can seriously derail the discussion as your feelings leak out and affect how you deal with the financial situation at hand.
“If you find that you and your partner are not able to have a calm and productive discussion about finances, it can be helpful to get in front of a third party such as a financial counselor or a couples counselor who can help bring some objectivity to the discussion and help you work through it.”
Set goals for each conversation.
Brad Ruttenberg, co-creator of The Money Twins, offered his own set of things not to do when it comes to your couple-based budgeting: “Don’t go into a joint budget without first discussing what it is you’re both trying to accomplish. Budgeting for the sake of budgeting is very difficult. Your goals (and joint goals) are what will keep you motivated.
“Don’t forget that it’s a two-way street. Your personal goals are no more important than their personal goals. Support your spouse/partner just like you want them to support you.
“Don’t ever stop communicating,” said Ruttenberg. “When this stops, the budget stops. Track the expenses together. When only one of the two is ‘keeping the budget’ on track, it can go south, quick. Nobody wants to be told how much and what they can spend money on. You’re not their father or mother, you’re a partner.”
Set some rules—then follow them.
Communication is essential. But at some point, you’ll have to start putting that communication into action.
Try multiple accounts.
“One strategy is to have three different checking accounts; ‘mine,’ ‘yours,’ and ‘ours,’” suggested Derek Hagen, founder of Hagen Financial. “The amounts that go into each account will have to be discussed but once that is done, neither person has to ask permission to spend the money in his or her own account.
Focus on big purchases.
“Another version,” said Hagen, “is to set up a dollar amount under which nobody owes any accountability for it. For example, if you set $100 as the number, both people can buy whatever they want under this amount. Purchases over $100 will have to be discussed as a couple.
“These two strategies will help keep financial infidelity—keeping money secrets from each other —out of your relationship.”
Everyone gets a vote.
Kalen Omo, of Omo Financial Coaching, offered another ruleset: “Everyone gets a say on the final budget for the month. In most marriages, there is a numbers person and a feelings person. Regardless of which one you are, you get an equal vote. No one person can override the other and an at the end of the meeting, an agreement must be made on how every dollar will be directed towards a goal.
Stick to the plan.
“Stick to the agreed-to budget,” said Omo. “Once you agree to it, you stick to it. If needed, put a signature area at the bottom and have both of you sign it if that’s what it takes. Now things will come up where you will need to re-evaluate the budget. That’s ok, as long as you both agree to review it and make necessary changes to ensure you agree to the update.”
Moving in together.
Moving in together with your significant other is a big decision, but it can be a major money saver. That being said, it comes with its own issues that you’ll need to work through as a couple.
Most of the advice that applies to generally budgeting as a couple will also apply to how you should budget when living together.
Don’t hide what you make—or spend.
“Before making decisions regarding finances, first, you need to have an honest discussion,” advised Amanda Raimondi, relationship expert and writer for Grapevine.
“Talking about money is very personal, which makes it a difficult conversation. But now that you’re living together, this has to happen. You need to be clear about how much you make each month after taxes. Once you have a number in mind, then you can split up the cost of groceries, bills, and other expenses.”
And that honesty will have to go beyond just raw numbers.
Talk about your future.
“Moving in with a partner primarily for financial reasons can be emotionally risky,” warned marriage and family therapist Jill Whitney. “Although you may save money by sharing expenses, you also want to be honest with yourself and each other about your goals and expectations for the relationship.
“Are you moving in together mostly because it’s economical or convenient? Or because you think you’ll be together for the long run and living together is the next stage of your relationship?
“Your plans for the future affect your budgeting. If you’re pretty sure you’ll be together for many years, it makes sense to save together for that great couch or carpet. If you’re not as sure, you might be better off each paying for some items individually, so there’s less to argue about if you end up going separate ways. You can always increase your joint saving if the relationship becomes more committed.”
Figure out the bills.
“Some great things to discuss,” according to empowerment coach Joyce Blue, are:
“Will we have a joint account and each contribute everything to it? Will we split the bills and each of us pay different bills from our own separate accounts? Will we open a new joint account and each contribute our half of all the bills to the account and pay our bills out of that account, but keep our ‘extra’ money separate?”
Take the time to sort out your multiple accounts.
Whitney gave us her take on the account dilemma:
“I generally recommend that all couples, whether long married or newly living together, have His, Hers, and Ours accounts. The Ours account covers some or all of the general household expenses. Couples need to talk about what’s included in Ours: just the rent or mortgage? Some or all of the utilities? Pet care and vet bills?
“What about subscriptions and services that benefit both people, but one person more than the other? There’s lots to negotiate. Allow plenty of time to talk it through, over the course of days or weeks, so both people can mentally try on what a given arrangement would look and feel like. Try to strike a balance between fairness and generosity.
Give yourself some individual financial freedom.
“The individual accounts give each person money they can control, for things like gifts, clothes, and small indulgences,” said Whitney. “I suggest that the individual money can be used for any purpose whatsoever, as long as it doesn’t damage the relationship. (So partners can buy all the shoes or golf clubs or whatever they want, without complaint from the significant other.)
The amount in the individual accounts might be as small as $20 or as large as many thousands a month, depending on overall resources. In couples who are less committed, the amount each person has to spend may depend on their individual income.
But in long, committed partnerships, each person should get the same amount, to reflect that both are equal partners regardless of relative earnings.”
Different bills require different splits.
Cal Cook, the consumer finance investigator at ConsumerSafety.org, offered some additional thoughts to take into account:
“Rent budget should be based on a percentage of salary. It’s unfair if one partner makes significantly more to have them paying 5% of their salary while the other is paying 35%. Find the percentage between the two salaries that adds up to the total rent amount.
“Make your discretionary spending budget split right down the middle. Unlike rent, this spending isn’t necessary, so it can put a strain on a relationship when one partner is spending much more on this category than the other.
“Each partner should spend fully out of pocket for the furniture they want. Usually, furniture is an incredibly individual choice in terms of aesthetic. If one partner really wants a couch but the other doesn’t, it’s only fair that they pay for it fully.”
Family stuff: then and now.
Your family situations will also have a big impact on the kinds of conversations you’ll have to have when it comes to moving in together.
You learned about money from your parents.
“The family you grew up in shapes an amazing amount of your prejudices, unconscious behavior, values and reactions regarding money,” explained Tina B. Tessina, PhD, psychotherapist and author of How to Be Happy Partners: Working It Out Together.
“Discuss each of your family attitudes regarding money. Does someone’s family resent rich people, or think being poor indicates a character flaw? Did one family use money as a reward? Were they extravagant with gifts? Did they emphasize saving? It’s important to know if you have vastly different backgrounds regarding money.”
What are your familial obligations?
But it’s not just how your past with your family shaped the present. It’s also important to consider what your current family realities are, as Dr. Tessina also outlined to us in a series of questions that should be answered before moving in:
“If there are children from another marriage, that can strongly affect your joint finances. Is there child support to pay? What about travel, medical, school and other expenses for those children? Will you have to have a bigger home to accommodate visits from the children?
The kid (or pet) conversation.
“Even though it may be a few years down the road, this is the time to consider whether both of you want children. They are a major investment, and you need to know how you feel about public or private education, college, medical insurance, clothes, toys, and electronics for the kids, and other child-related expenses.
Pets can be almost as big a deal as kids. If you have or want pets, talk about costs such as vet bills for annual shots, license fees, and what happens if the animal gets really sick.
Consider your financial boundaries with family.
“If one or both of your families are far away, visiting (or hosting them) will cost money,” said Tessina. “What expenses other than travel will you encounter to stay in touch with family? Also, how do you feel about family financial help? Would you take help buying a house or with medical expenses if they offered? Would there be strings attached? What if someone’s family member needs financial help?”
Our experts have probably left you with a bunch of questions to answer while deciding how you’re going to handle the “moving in” situation. Take a break if you need it, and then we’re moving on to the wedding section!
How to budget your wedding.
Marriage isn’t for everyone. Many people maintain happy, healthy, long-term relationships without ever considering marriage. But there are financial benefits to marriage, and it’s still considered the ultimate outcome for tons of romantic relationships. Even so, you may be inclined to just get an easy courthouse marriage and call it a day.
But if you want anything bigger than that, you and your partner are going to have to some budget talks. And, as is our way, we’ve spoken to some experts to give you a sense of how to have those talks.
Talk “must haves.”
“When putting together your budget, the very best thing you can do is to prioritize your three ‘must haves’ with your partner,” advised Joan Wyndrum, Vice President of Blooms by the Box.
“As soon as you start researching online, you’re going to find countless ways to allocate your budget but at the end of the day, your top line items should be what matters most to you.”
Don’t pay for what you can do yourself.
“Now more than ever, with so many resources and tutorials online, you can consider DIY projects for your Big Day,” said Wyndrum. “This is especially the case if your engagement is at least 9-to-12 months out as you’ll have plenty of time to map out your projects and allocate time to them.
“With this route, you can save big on decor, florals, favors, and stationery (among other things!). By getting organized early in the process, you cannot only spread out the projects, but you can count the savings into your budget early on.”
Avoid overspending on flowers.
Wyndrum offers this floral-specific advice:
“The average wedding runs over $30,000 and almost 10% of that budget goes to flowers. But you can slash costs by DIY-ing your florals. Consider purchasing them online and then having your bridesmaids help you the day before the wedding to arrange them.
“Some of the most popular flowers like peonies and garden roses can have a hefty price tag, but that doesn’t mean you can’t use them. If they are must-have blooms for your Big Day, just cut down on the amount of them you will use. Consider single bud vases to place on your reception tables, or for a bouquet, use just a few to start and then fill with less expensive greenery.”
Start simple and build out from there.
Janessa White, co-founder of Simply Eloped, also suggested starting out with just what’s absolutely vital: “Couples need to remember that in order to get married, all they really need is a marriage license and an officiant. That’s it! They can secure both of these things for a few hundred dollars.
“I suggest you start budgeting by choosing their essential items and then adding on additional services from there. While doing so, only add services that are truly essential to your wedding’s vision.
“Many couples do the exact opposite – start with a long list of traditional services they think they need. This mentality just ends up adding lots of expense. So, start with the essentials and build up from that point!”
Stick. To. Your. Wedding. Budget.
Once you know what your wedding needs and wedding wants are, it’s time to get down to budget brass tacks.
“Make sure you agree on the budget and stick with it!” required Jessica Chen, an editor and wedding expert for WeddingDresses.com. “After you’ve figured out where to lavish your funds, you and your partner need to decide what ballpark your overall budget is.
“Once you’ve settled on a reasonable number, you and your partner must stick to it faithfully, even if you find that perfect dress and it’s totally out of your price range! Firmly establishing your budget shows your partner that you respect his/her wishes and proves your integrity, which will only make your relationship stronger.”
Checklists are a bride’s (and groom’s) best friend.
“Keep a checklist: Using a wedding budget checklist is a great way to keep things transparent and help the couple stay on top of their wedding finances. As soon as you spend any of your funds, log it into the sheet and now both of you know where the money is going and how much you have left to spend on your wedding deal breakers.
“Not only is this excellent practice for balancing a budget when you’re married, it’s a great way to keep your expenditures in perspective and avoid any spending surprises.”
Stay tuned for “The Marital Guide to Budgeting.”
As the rhyme goes, first comes love, then comes marriage, then comes … a topic for a future guide.
Money relationship expert and self-empowerment coach, Joyce Blue is a certified Rapid Results coach. Joyce is passionate about empowering others to master their relationship with money, so all of their relationships thrive, they step into their power and fall in love with their lives. Contact Joyce at email@example.com or on Facebook and Instagram @EmpoweringYouLEC.
Julia M. Carlson is the founder of Financial Freedom Wealth Management Group, LLC (@FinancialFWMG). She has been practicing financial planning for more than 20 years and specializes in helping people who are either retired or close to retirement. Julia is recognized as being especially knowledgeable on topics relating to tax strategies for retirement and distribution planning. The Business Enterprise Institute (BEI) recognizes her qualifications to provide comprehensive exit planning services to business owners.
Derek Hagen is the founder of Hagen Financial, LLC, a financial coaching and counseling firm that helps clients develop a healthy relationship with money and find the motivation to change their behavior. He is the founder of the Money Health blog which helps readers increase their financial health. Derek holds the Certified Financial Planner™ and Chartered Financial Analyst designations. In his free time, he enjoys all things outdoors, especially camping, hiking, and running.
Kalen Omo is the founder and owner of Omo Financial Coaching. Kalen has been in the world of personal finance since 2010 and has earned the title of Ramsey Solutions Master Financial Coach in 2017, after completing training with Ramsey Solutions, the company owned by National Best Selling Author and Financial Expert, Dave Ramsey. Kalen works with people’s personal finance issues and pain points ranging from budgeting to dealing with debt collectors to bankruptcy to estate planning to retirement. In his spare time, he enjoys spending time with his family, playing music, and is an avid musician.
Janessa White is co-founder of Simply Eloped, a company that’s produced over 1,000 destination elopements in New York City, New Orleans, Hawaii, Colorado, Idaho, Asheville, Gatlinburg, and San Diego.
Andrew Tavin is a writer, comedian, and a full-time content manager for OppLoans. He graduated with a BFA in TV Writing from Tisch School of the Arts in New York City, worked as a writer for BrainPOP, and created a branded comedy video series for the National Retail Federation called “Interview Day.” He performs around the country and his writing has also appeared on Collegehumor, Funny or Die, and Sparklife.
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