Coping Mechanisms for a Spender-Saver Relationship

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Recently, my sister announced her engagement. She's the last of my siblings to marry and the youngest in our family. Her announcement, and her particular circumstances, made me think more and more about how important it is to discuss finances early on in a relationship. It also sparked my interest in how a spender and a saver can create an everlasting and healthy relationship.

I don't necessarily think a relationship where each person views money differently is ultimately destined to fail. However, if the people in a relationship have drastically different outlooks on budgeting and finances, then they might need to work a little harder at communicating about personal finance. I've set out on a mission, listing a few helpful tips, to help young couples openly discuss finances no matter what their spending habits may be.

Budgeting Basics

Today, there are more resources available than ever before to help couples budget and track their expenses. Whether a couple is web savvy, or likes sticking to pencil and paper, tracking everyday expenses is the first priority to figuring out a budget. Keeping track of where your money goes for one month is a good rule of thumb for nailing down expenses. One great online expense tracker is Mint. Everyday expenses can be entered and tracked and Mint also offers colorful charts to help those visual learners.

Quicken and Quickbooks are two software programs that I use. I enter my expenses on the checkbook register digitally, categorize each expense (I set up the categories when I first loaded the program), then at the end of the month I can pull a report that shows where my money is going. Seeing where most of my money goes (rent and utilities) allows me to decide if I'm paying too much for electricity, water, or phone service.  I usually delegate the task of calling companies for better rates to my husband. He gladly takes on the challenge and often can reduce our rates.

Tracking my expenses also helps me see where I can trim down my budget and save money. For instance, my Starbucks portion of the pie chart has gotten a little out of control. Using this as a guide, I can reevaluate my budget and decide if I need to cut back on certain expenses and opt out of that second daily drink. Tracking expenses and forming a budget can help guide a spender into reducing their spending habits, allowing the saver to feel a bit more in control.

Sharing Purchasing Power

Once a couple has a handle on their expenses and has a rough budget outlined, it's time to discuss purchasing habits. Discussing purchasing habits is extremely important when a couple is on opposite ends of the spender/saver spectrum. If the spender is secretly spending more than what the couple can afford, the saver will be beside themselves and may not be able to amicably resolve the issue. Open discussion is a must and can be done through various ways including:

  1. Deciding how much of the combined income will be set aside for frivolous or splurge purchases. Once that monthly limit has been met, the spender is asked to give up their credit or debit cards.
  2. On a white board or other visual aid, keep track of last minute purchases. This way, instead of having to verbalize what was spent, it is written down allowing the saver to vent a bit before an argument takes place.
  3. Put the spender on a cash-only diet. This tactic may help if the spender is out of control and cannot be trusted with credit.

Early on in our relationship my husband and I sat down and went through all our credit card expenses and monthly expenses, and came up with a system so there were no surprise purchases. Since I deem myself more of a saver than spender, I took control of all purchases through online banking. Our monthly budget is flexible enough to handle a little extra spending, but overall it keeps our purchases within the boundaries we initially set.

A No-Argument Approach

Most relationships find a happy medium between spending and saving their pennies. However, personal finance is one topic that can cause distress if either party is unwilling to compromise. Recently, I began creating a personal finance engagement gift that I though might help my newly-engaged sister, including how to start a budget and a list of topics that should be discussed. One reader, FinEngr from Engineer Your Finances, had a terrific addition: Financial Love Notes. An example of a Financial Love Note would be "I'm taking my lunch to work all this week. I'm saving $40 so that I can take you out to dinner!" The idea behind the notes is to encourage each other to save money towards a common goal and to open up conversations about money without being confrontational. Some ways the Love Notes can be useful:

  1. Curbing a spender's habit on particular purchases: "Today I walked right past Starbucks without entering. I saved $4.50 towards our emergency fund."
  2. Discussing a touchy subject: "I noticed Macy's was having a sale today. I'm so proud you didn't enter the mall. You saved us $60!"
  3. Working towards a common goal: "I saved $15 today by purchasing only soda instead of drinks with the guys. That's $15 that is going towards our house fund."

FinEngr's idea is a wonderful way to let your loved one know you're thinking about them all the time. He compared it to a mom putting a little love note in your lunchbox — a nostalgic feeling of love.

As my sister progresses with her wedding arrangements, I hope she and her fiancee take some time to talk about personal finances openly. A healthy relationship begins with open communication, including the topic of personal finance.

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Guest's picture

There are so many great ideas for improving one's personal financial situation. But that's just it. A lot of those tips are for "one." Jennifer, you're addressing a topic that is far too infrequently discussed or studied: finances in relationships. Thanks!

I particularly like your "Working toward a common goal" suggestion. I think if both partners would agree to written down goals that are then posted where they can be seen by both partners regularly, it would make it a lot easier to see finances as a team effort rather than a competition or 1 vs 1 match.


Guest's picture

The personal finance engagement gift is a nice idea, as are the financial love notes :)

Guest's picture

Oh man. I would be so annoyed at my boyfriend if he wrote me "financial love notes" such as these ones. They come across as very condescending, to me. I'd prefer we have a conversation up front: "Honey, I checked our numbers again and we are spending more than we have room for in the budget. New rule on the table for discussion: don't spend more than $100 without the other's input. What do you think?" Or: "I have an extra $40 this week, want to go out to dinner?" He doesn't need to explain how he has an extra $40. I trust him to follow the budget we set together.

Guest's picture

Yeah, I feel the same way. It does seem super condescending. I mean, perhaps some of them you could say in person and they would come across better, "Let's go out. I brought my lunch to work all week so that I could have enough to take you to dinner tonight." is much better than the way it would come across in that sanctimonious note.

Guest's picture

I think you've got wonderful ideas. I wish you were my sister. ;)

Guest's picture

Isn't generally the case where one spouse just makes all the money, and the other just spend all the money?

I'd have some different type of content during mid day financial love notes!

Guest's picture

Hi Jennifer, I love your writing style - your articles are so enjoyable to read. Would it be too basic to say: talk to each other, not only about money, but about everything? Do not be afraid to bring up any subject, it's a good habit to get into early. The worst thing that will happen will be a fight, and of course no marriage survives without a fight once in a while. Good luck to your sis, Barb Friedberg

Guest's picture

Marriage is new phase of life for couples to learn sharing and caring not only in term of relationship, but also financial matters. I've seen couples who separate their finances, and also couples who combine everything including bank accounts and bills. No matter how, most of them turn up doing well as long as the bonding love is strong.
Great article!

Guest's picture

Great ideas! Congrats to you sister. It's very nice of you to think of such great ideas for her.

Guest's picture

I think openness and pledging to meet in the middle are the only ways to make this kind of relationship really workout!

Great article.