Negotiating a family budget can be a real fire-starter for some couples. We may know we need a budget, and want to live within our means, but the fights that the discussions cause can be so painful, that it’s easier to avoid them. We want to change that today.

For Caleb and I, a lot of our own frustration about money in the past has been because we never got ourselves on the same page. He would get a raise and think he had more spending power – I thought we’d have more to save. Then we’d both be frustrated!

We’ve psycho-analyzed ourselves and have figured this out somewhat:

  1. Caleb had little to no visibility into our budget. It wasn’t because I was hiding it, but we had never made a point of really talking it through and figuring it out.
  2. We have different saving philosophies. Caleb believes he’ll create wealth through his career and end up ahead. I believe wealth is created by saving money regularly.
  3. On the budget we let the discussion be more about what you wanted vs. what I wanted instead of starting with the reality of what we could and couldn’t afford. Good financial management is not about winning certain arguments – it’s about making sure your outflows are less than your inflows. In our case, instead of going to the numbers, we’d just go to frustration between us.
  4. Our personalities: I feel best/most satisfied around finances when we’re saving. Caleb feels best when he is spending. He claims he’s a therapist and part of his self-care is retail therapy!
  5. It has taken us a while to be together on our money. It was never a critical issue but it’s been stressful more than most other issues so I think we’re typical.

Given that we understand how stressful negotiating finances can be, we want to give you some skills to negotiate this with your spouse.

The Psychology and Psychiatry Journal published some research by Capital One, a major North American credit card provider (which may be more than slightly biased!). Some quick facts from their research:

  1. 93% of those surveyed believe their spouse is open to discussing money issues
  2. 25% disagree with their spouse about money at least once a month
  3. Younger people are more prone o conflicts with their spouse about money
  4. 76% believe they share the same philosophy as their spouse when it comes to managing money, such as saving vs. spending. The younger the couple, the more this figure drops
  5. 65% of couples report having the recommended 3 to 6 months emergency savings fund. (We don’t believe this…)
  6. Most spouses spend independently of each other and only consult if it’s over a certain dollar amount.[i]

There are no real horror-stats around family budgeting except for the following from the Federal Reserve, a US government insitutation. As of Feburary 2015 there were:

  1. $4.5 billion in outstanding car loans
  2. $12 billion in consumer credit card debt
  3. Just under $10 billion in 24 month consumer debt loans.[ii]

Given these statistics, we can see that there must be more financial stress in marriages than Capital One is reporting.

Remember there are also gender differences when it comes to managing money. In 2002, 62% of households reported that savings and investment decisions were made jointly. Men were the primary decision makers for 26% of households and in 12% of households the female was the primary decision maker.[iii]

Bernasek & Bajtelsmit also found that women’s involvement in household financial decisions increased with their share of household income and their formal financial education implying that women are more likely to have an influence on financial decisions when they contribute a larger income share to the household.

These results support a bargaining approach to influencing the household. Power, in terms of involvement in making important financial decisions, is greater the more command an individual has over financial and education resources. (ie. If I make more than you, and I am more skilled financially than you, I have more power over the decision.)

This begs the question: If it’s common practice that whoever earns the most gets the most say in finances, is this a good way to go about it?

At this point, I’m sure there are a lot of guys saying, “Duh, yeah! I earn it, I get to spend it!”

Let’s stop for a moment, and flip that scenario on its head.

Say, you’re the husband. Something happens and you get a disability so you can’t work, but everything else is normal. You’re now a stay-at-home Dad, and your wife becomes the income earner for the family. The things you want to spend your money on are not going to change, but now, by virtue of the terms you’ve established already, you have the minority vote on where the money goes.

Does that make you squirm? The whole idea of whoever makes the most gets the most power is predicated on there’s a me and you in the context of marriage which needs to be predicated on a sense of ‘us’. You got married because you wanted to be together. You didn’t get married because you wanted someone to dominate.

But when it comes to money, that is exactly what you are doing. You’re violating your own value system. Hence, there is friction. Maybe your wife goes along with it now, but I ask you: does this approach make her feel safer or more secure? I think not!

To balance this a bit, in most couples, one spouse is the money manager. As in, that spouse pays the bills, keeps track of spending, creates and uses a budget. This can happen for a few reasons, such as one spouse having more experience or expertise, or even just more time available.

It is OK for one spouse to be the money manager. In fact, this probably makes the most sense. What works for us is Caleb shares power and control by giving me the money manager position even though he is the earner. We get concerned when we hear about the husband earning and controlling the money to the point where the wife is being treated like a child.

For most couples though, there are not significant power and control issues, but there are other struggles. The next most important factors as you consider how to negotiate finances are trust and communication.

Trust must be earned, between both spouses. Whether you do your accounts together or separate, having access to both and trusting in both directions is vital.

Communication is also essential. The spouse handling the finances must keep the other spouse informed and major purchases must be discussed.[iv]

At the end of the day, when it actually comes time to negotiate, discuss or just chat about financial matters in your marriage, the standard communication skills apply.

One very effective skill to use when discussing finances, and any other pain point in your marriage, is the soft start-up.

A harsh startup may be, when you’re reviewing the credit card bill and are like, “You blew the budget again! You are SO un-be-leev-able!”. When you begin with criticism or sarcasm you go from neutral to negative right away and are into a disagreement. You do not want to do that. Start softly so that you can work together on resolving the problem. You won’t accomplish anything by attacking.

The other side of the coin is this: researchers found that those who were more satisfied financially engaged in less harsh start-up.

Which came first? The financial satisfaction, or the good communication? We know that to solve any problem, the stronger your communication skills the better, so let’s look a little more closely at financial satisfaction.

These researchers found that there is a link – the more satisfied you are financially, the higher shared goals and values you have. Shared goals and values means that you have negotiated your way towards aligning goals and values around spending, saving and budgeting.

The more shared goals and values you have, the less likely you are to start any discussions harshly. And when you’re not starting your discussions harshly, you’ll have increased relationship satisfaction. It’s like a positive, upwards spiral!

When couples create shared meaning about money and autonomy, it makes sense then that they would be more satisfied with their financial situation.[v]

So, it’s not just a matter of great communication skills. You, as a couple, actually want to work towards aligning the meaning you give to all things financial and the goals you have related to finances.

For us, there was a turning point for Caleb when he realized that it put a big safety blanket around me if we had a clear retirement savings plan, so we began setting aside money for this monthly, and investing it wisely.

Here’s a big shout-out to our investment advisor, Edwin Palsma, from Raymond James. He’s licensed for BC and Saskatchewan, so if you live in either of these places, reach out, and we’ll give you his contact info. He is awesome!

Back to business here… When Caleb chose to align with this value (retirement savings) that I had, it helped our marriage because it made it a safer place for me. That was us sharing specific goals and values.

We’ve given you a lot of concepts, but here are some practical steps you can take.

First, turn towards each other. Maybe you’ve fought long and hard over certain things. Tell your spouse that you’re laying down your own weapons, ask him or her to lay theirs down too, and really get serious about the communication skill we mentioned today and in past episodes – the soft start.

Second, learn to come up with solutions together. Be supportive and look for areas you can reduce the strain on your spouse. Focus on both problems and emotions – couples that work on both parts do best with financial problems.

For example, Caleb was surprised that while he has the stress of earning the income, I have the stress of the budget. He never expected that at all and figured if he didn’t make enough, that was his problem. We do much better when we acknowledge each other’s concerns and devise solutions together.

Thirdly, own your personal spending and saving style. Recognize your Family of Origin effects and talk about it as it all plays together. The more understanding you have the more compassion you’ll develop.

Finally, work very hard on always being a trustworthy spouse. Be collaborative- don’t be selfish and controlling, and be stable in your spending rather than impulsive. This is a huge help towards being more together in financial problem solving as a couple.

Negotiating a budget is a complex issue because there is so much at play – very real stress goes with it!

Remember, if you need help negotiating this topic with your spouse, reach out. We’d love to assist you in helping you discuss and resolve your financial issues. Sometimes you just need a boost to get the ball rolling, and a coaching session can do just that.

Finance Series

This is Part 2 of 5. Make sure you view the rest of the series:


[i] “Capital One Survey Examines Money Management Practices of Couples.,” Psychology & Psychiatry Journal, December 12, 2009, http://www.highbeam.com/doc/1G1-213483651.html.

[ii] FRB: G. 19 Release– Consumer Credit, February 2015, http://www.federalreserve.gov/releases/g19/current/default.htm.

[iii] Alexandra Bernasek and Vickie Bajtelsmit, “Predictors of Women’s Involvement in Household Financial Decision Making,” Journal of Financial Counseling & Planning 13, no. 2 (2002): 39–47.

[iv] Linda Skogrand et al., “Financial Management Practices of Couples with Great Marriages,” Journal of Family and Economic Issues 32, no. 1 (April 1, 2010): 27–35, doi:10.1007/s10834-010-9195-2.

[v] Kristy Archuleta, John Grable, and Sonya Britt, “Financial and Relationship Satisfaction as a Function of Harsh Start-up and Shared Goals and Values,” Journal of Financial Counseling & Planning 24, no. 1 (2013): 3–14, 91–92.

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