We asked married couples nationwide to share their most pressing money issues and how they overcame them. Below is a sampling of the responses, along with strategies from experts to help you better handle the situation. Result: a happier—and more profitable—union.
The Problem: Deciding who should be in charge of the household finances
Jehan and Seth Chase
Ages: 44 and 40
Location: Alexandria, Va.
Professions: Government attorney, nonprofit advocate
How they solved it: Both Jehan and Seth were used to taking charge of their own finances before they married two years ago. Since then, Jehan has taken the lead—in part because Seth already has a full plate helping his disabled mother and sister manage their money and partly because she’d grown attached to the role. “I realized I was doing all the right things and that I would have had trouble handing that control over,” Jehan says. I like knowing what’s going on, and I feel confident when managing our household finances.”
Experts say: One spouse is usually more interested in tackling financial tasks or has more time to do so. And that’s fine. Just make sure you both agree on who should handle what money chores, such as paying bills, and make the bigger decisions together so no one is single-handedly setting the family’s goals. For Seth, the current arrangement is working well: “My wife really likes doing the finances—and she’s better at it than I am.”
The Problem: Not feeling like a team
Astrid and Fred Walker
Ages: 31 and 35
Location: Upper Marlboro, Md.
Professions: Business analyst, police officer
How they solved it: Astrid and Fred take home roughly the same salary and split all household expenses down the middle. Each pays half from a separate checking account, and they also have separate savings and investment accounts. “When we lived together before we got married, everything was separate and that was acceptable, and now we need to revisit the matter,” says Astrid. She is working on persuading Fred to open some joint accounts to pay for household expenses and handle their investments, to make transactions easier and make them feel more like a unit. “Having all of our finances completely separate has become a source of contention.”
Experts say: A “yours, mine, and ours” system of money management often works best for couples. Having joint checking and savings accounts for expenses you incur and goals you’d like to achieve as a household makes it easier to pay bills, see where your money is going, and plan together—and helps make a couple feel they’re working as a team. Meanwhile, separate accounts for personal expenses helps preserve some financial autonomy (and avoid arguments).
The Problem: Conflicting financial styles and goals
Lucinda and Karl Harms
Ages: Both 54
Location: West Liberty, Iowa
Professions: Pharmacist, design draftsman
How they solved it: After years of being at odds over bill paying and budgeting, Karl and Lucinda decided to attend a financial workshop together last year. “My wife is a budget person. I am not,” Karl says. Taking the course helped the couple to realize that paying off debt was their top priority and to craft a plan to reach that goal, primarily by cutting back on spending. Now that Karl’s a convert, he’s been adhering more closely to their budget. “We don’t have as many disagreements about where we’re going to spend our money,” says Lucinda. Their only regret? Says Karl: “I wish we’d done this 30 years ago.”
Experts say: Are you and your spouse arguing in circles about money? Ask for help. A neutral third party, such as a financial adviser or money seminar, can help you work through differences and create a plan to reach your goals that both of you can get behind.
The Problem: Not acting as equals
Roopal and John Carbo
Ages: 40 and 41
Location: Yorktown Heights, N.Y.
Professions: Pharmacist, stay-at-home dad
How they solved it: When John first became a stay-at-home parent 12 years ago, he felt as if he shouldn’t be part of money decisions because he wasn’t earning any income. Roopal saw things differently. “Just because I go out and earn the money doesn’t mean he’s not playing an important role in the family and that he doesn’t have just as much a right to voice concerns about various expenses.” Now the pair discuss financial decisions together, and John says each year these conversations get easier to have.
Experts say: Acknowledge and appreciate what each of you contributes to the household, even if one of those roles doesn’t carry a monetary value. Higher earners should empower their spouses to feel like equal contributors in the relationship, and not let their income justify a power imbalance.
The Problem: Spending that one spouse calls “frivolous”
Melissa and Shaun VanDoren
Ages: 30 and 35
Location: Hellertown, Pa.
Professions: Project coordinator for civil engineering firm, commercial manager for energy company
How they solved it: For their eight years of marriage, Shaun is been the household’s primary money manager and, as the higher earner, has paid for the larger expenses. He dutifully tracks those bills as well as their spending in a spreadsheet—and often pushes Melissa to be frugal. “If I want to spend my money on something he thinks is frivolous, he encourages me to be more careful, and we have a discussion about whether I really need to buy that item,” says Melissa. To limit such discussions and prevent arguments about her purchases, Melissa has set herself a max spending limit of $200 per item and pays for extraneous items with money from her own separate account.
Experts say: Give your relationship some financial freedom by agreeing on a monthly amount each of you can spend on whatever you want, no questions asked.
The Problem: Miscommunication over financial goals
Claudia and Rich Klein
Ages: 38 and 40
Location: Madison, N.J.
Professions: IT for healthcare company, client service for life insurance business
How they solved it: About a year ago Rich’s position was reduced from full- to part-time, and his salary was cut commensurately. The shift has actually worked well in terms of the couple’s child-care needs—they have two daughters, 4 months and 3 years old—but Rich worried that Claudia would be unhappy reining in their comfortable lifestyle. “I don’t need a lot of extras, but I was worried that cutting back on things like eating out and ‘Music Together’ classes for our older daughter might mean more to her,” Rich says. When he and Claudia drafted a new budget, Rich realized the lifestyle changes didn’t bother her as much as he thought they would. “She’s been really great about our situation,” he says, “and hasn’t pressured me to go out and earn more.”
Experts say: We often misjudge what financial goals matter most to our spouses. Both sexes tend to overestimate their spouse’s desire for a certain kind of lifestyle, while underestimating how much importance they attach to, say, having adequate emergency savings or paying off debt. To figure out what really matters to you and your partner, separately jot down a list of your top near- and long-term goals, then compare lists to guide you to your top priorities.
The Problem: Disagreements over spending priorities
Erica and Nicholas Woulf
Ages: 41 and 34
Professions: IT manager, manager of hospital patient financial services
How they solved it: “We disagree sometimes about where we’re spending money,” says Nick, who wants to use extra funds on home improvements, while Erica would prefer to use some discretionary income on fun. “She thinks it may be more worthwhile to spend money on a date night,” says Nick. “I appreciate what that does for our relationship, but it doesn’t keep the roof from leaking.” The pair are in the process of deciding how to optimize their saving so they can satisfy both desires, instead of making the goals an either-or proposition.
Experts say: We tend to marry our financial opposite—savers often marry spenders, for example—which can make it challenging to see the value in what your partner wants to do with your money. Head off friction by working off facts, not assumptions. In this case, the first step would be to run the numbers and assess whether an occasional date night would really interfere with the ability to make essential repairs to the house. If it would, frame the discussion around how you can change financial habits to meet both goals, instead of focusing on what’s problematic about your spouse’s financial behavior.