Deciding you want to adopt a budget and start managing your money is a simple enough decision for one person to make. You don't have to decide on a common plan, you can change things up without discussing it with anyone, and your goals are, well, your goals. But what if you're one half of a couple? How can you best navigate that path together?
In our path to improving our personal finances, my husband and I have discovered some things you'll need to be aligned on, figured out who would do what, and we even learned a little more about ourselves in the process. We're not perfect, but I dare say we function better with money now than we have at any point in our past. But we did make some mistakes along the way. Hopefully your road will be smooth and easy (ha). At the very least, maybe these tips will help you get traction on busting debt and leaving money stress in the dust.
Here are our best tips for couples managing family finances together.
ID your spending habits.
Are you both savers? Is one of you a spender? An impulse buyer? A total penny pincher? A deal finder or someone that wants the "nicer things" in life?
Figure out what your natural (or learned) tendencies are. I know we're putting labels on things here, but if you know that you'll need to work hard to stay away from the Nordstrom card and your spouse has a tendency to toss the "shiny objects" that catch his eye into the cart, then you're in a better place for it. Be self aware and you have a chance to come up with some ways to combat any negative behavior. Likewise, you'll figure out who to put in charge of different tasks based on natural tendencies and talents.
What are your individual money goals?
Do you want to go on a dream vacation someday? Retire debt free and own your house free and clear? Send the kids to college without student loans? Buy a house, car, boat, or RV free and clear? Be totally debt free by (insert age here)? Knowing what you want to do and sharing that can help you start down the same path together. "Keep your eyes on the prize," so to speak.
Here's an activity to get you started: Each of you needs to sit down and create your individual goals. Maybe it's a vision board with pictures, maybe you're just writing a list on paper. If you're doing this together and it's a simple list on paper, give yourselves two to five minutes. Don't assign dollar amounts to these goals yet! Now identify your top three. When the time is up, share them with each other. What do you see? Do you have similarities? Do you have vastly different goals?
What's your personal budget "Red Zone?"
When do you start to feel nervous about spending and finances? What about your significant other? TELL EACH OTHER. Is it when there's $500 left in your checking account? Or is it when there's less than 1-2 months of savings remaining? Even if it's not the same for both of you, you should know so you can find some common ground and respect for each other's personal freak-out scenarios. Figure out a plan for working together and compromise if you've got different answers here.
What finance situation are you scared or nervous about?
This is different than the "Red Zone." Are you worried you're going to be living paycheck-to-paycheck forever? What will happen if there's a job loss? Not having enough to put the kids through college? Retirement? Caring for your parents? The student loans you still have after all these years? Lay it out on the table, so to speak. This will help you both get on the same page about avoiding or planning for these situations, depending on which one you're looking at.
Now that you've done the groundwork, decide on some common priorities.
Even if you don't have the same goals, it doesn't mean you can't do this. It just means you might have two top goals you're working toward.
It's vitally important for each of you to consider what's most important to your spouse as well as together. I once saw a quote that said marriage is about two things - finding the right person, and being the right person. This is one way you can be the right people for each other. How can you work together to achieve your one or two main goals? Which one can you achieve first? Having two goals doesn't necessarily mean you can't start on one until the other is finished. It also doesn't mean that one person will "win" and the other will "lose." You just need to figure out how to get to the end goal(s) together.
It's ok to seek out advice.
If your different goals reveals that you have some major differences or even spurs some arguments, don't be afraid of finding someone to talk to that's a neutral third party. This could be a marriage counselor, financial planner, etc. If you need help, ask. Don't be embarrassed! The worst thing you could do would be to let it fester or get worse, or for you to stay in the exact same place you are right now - without making any progress. If you're reading this, I'm going to go out on a limb and say that you want change. So be willing to make some changes.
Come together with open minds
Agree to come together with open minds and a problem-solving approach. Don't try to force your spouse to your point of view. Maybe you need a couple of days to brainstorm and then come back together to formulate a plan... together.
Remember, you've got this!