Realistic Budgeting: The Marriage Saver


Twelve years ago, a priest who did marriage counseling told me what he saw as the personal truth to marriages that stay together and marriages that break apart. “It’s about a little thing,” he said, “a little thing called money.” No way, I thought. Wouldn’t the big things be infidelity? Children? Big catastrophes? Nope. Divorce, he informed me, starts in the checkbook.

Fast forward two marriages and a mortgage later and darn it, if Father Peter wasn’t right. Our number one issue is always money---and little things about it. So how can we keep marriage together and keep ourselves moving forward out of debt and into prosperity? How come my purchase of a $20 shampoo seems justifiable to me but his $20 purchase of cardboard baseball cards does not? Why do I hide skeins of yarn behind the easy chair and how come I get angry when I find eBay print out receipts in the printer? How do we bring it together?

Nearly every couple I know hides purchases from each other or verbally decreases the expense when the partner asks how much it cost. I am guilty of rounding down. The new dress I’m wearing right now did not cost me $29.99 when I my husband inquires whether it’s new, it costs $25. Likewise the software he just downloaded was $9 not $15. If you can be honest about sex with each other, you should be, in theory, able to be honest about expenses. At least that's what we are working on.

First things, first: We swore an oath. No more rounding down. For my part, I'm trying to stick to it. But I'm also looking at purchases differently. If I'd round it down, then maybe it's not the price it should be for me to buy it in the first place. He assures me he's doing the same.

But how hard is that? When we get to the end of the month I start looking around the house and making mad dog eyes at newish purchases that were his, not mine. He thinks about my student loan. I think about his business ventures that seem to cost more than they make. If we didn’t still think each other the cutest things on the planet, I could see us both walking out the door and sticking the mortgage to the cats.

But cats don't like to work for a living, so saving marriages and sanity have to come down to other things: the Realistic Budget. We sat down with a spreadsheet and tallied up every last thing we spent money on in a six-month period. We did it together while we opened and drank a bottle of wine (I recommend the wine if it relaxes you as a couple, but not if it makes either of you too intense). Other than the wine, it was a pretty horrible experience. We realized our groceries were $300 above what we thought and that our credit cards were out of control with old debt not new. But we also realized that what we’d thought was each of us spending hundreds for ourselves was about $60 a piece per month of mad money. It wasn't however, as bad as what happened when my sister in law did the same thing. They discovered how much they spent on going out to eat. Ouch!

Next came negotiation. Most items had to stay: mortgage and utilties, etc. But also we realized that we'd go crazy if we weren't allowed a few indulgences. That's where the lying to each other always starts. We had to agree that mad money was a necessary aspect to the budget and our lives. What is mad money? Is that toys? We decided it meant any purchases only enjoyed by one of us not both. This also included esoteric food items that only one of us liked. His ice cream, my chocolate covered ginger, lunch out with a co-worker instead of brown bagging it. In reality, $60 wasn’t really all that much for each of us, though we agreed perhaps setting that at $50 each would help.

So that’s where we are now. Trying not to snoop, trying not to pry and coming to terms with our groceries and high interest credit cards. He’s trusting that my iTunes purchases of things he doesn’t like are hovering around $15 a month and I’m trusting that his eTopps collection grows by that same amount. We are hoping that going this route will mean that the financial aspect of the marital partnership will be more trusting and smarter about things. The new vegan raw foods diet we’re doing is taking out some of the groceries. Now if we just get to the last few credit cards, we’ll be set.

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Myscha Theriault's picture

Thought provoking post, Marcia. I'm sure you'll get a fair amount of discussion on this piece. In our house, we are very honest about money. That being said, I think it's because we are very much in agreement regarding the various issues surrounding it.

Also, now that things are flowing a little easier financially, it's way easier. We don't live extravagently, don't get me wrong. But there's a tad more wiggle room which allows us to sort of let each other have a bit of a "lead" so to speak. I'll be interested to see how this unfolds. I predict a fair amount of discussion on this post.

Guest's picture

I have another suggestion, which is instead of depending on just honesty (stuff eventually/still gets low-balled or sneaked into the house - then the issue of honesty in the marriage itself is challenged), designate a certain amount of money each person is allowed to spend on 'secret' stuff. They can buy on their own and are trusted to not go over their budget, but don't have to 'confess' each time it happens...

expanded more at

(I'm new at this blog thing, so I hope I'm doing it right :)

Guest's picture

My husband and I also agreed on an amount each month for each of us to spend, no questions asked. Each of us has things we like that the other doesn't and a different idea of what is useful or valuable-he likes hockey games, I like shoes. Generally speaking, he doesn't like to deal with money. So we keep things simple, such as having a food budget and an agreement to discuss any big items or non-budget items before purchase. So far, so good.

Guest's picture
Tanya Brown

I'm in agreement with the other posters who recommended that each person have personal funds which they can spend as wished. My husband and I use that system, and it works well for us. There are also joint funds which are spent only according to mutual agreement.

Of course, to get to this point couples have to be able to sit down and realistically discuss their goals and expenses. They also have to be ethical enough to not "rob" the joint account when they've used up their personal funds.

Guest's picture

While I'm single now, I've faced a similar situation when living with a long-term boyfriend, and we hit the same problem about resentment.

My question to you is how often you will be reviewing how well each of you stick to this agreement? Once a month? Every 3 months? Reviewing at all?

Everyone likes to think they can change once they make the decision to do so, but more often than not, it takes time and effort (and some slip-ups) to make it happen. What happens when you find out his eTopps budget is going beyond what is "allowed", or vice-versa on your iTunes purchases? What's then?

*I hope none of this sounds like a challenge--just curious to see how other people work this stuff out!

Guest's picture

My husband and I regularly talk and dream together about our current financial goals. (First it was getting rid of credit card debt, now it is saving for a down payment on a house) This REALLY avoids the temptation to overspend individually, because we have goals that we set together that we're both are highly- motivated to reach. We're on the same team, and our individual behaviors reflect that.

That said, if I want to go out to eat more with co-workers, or he wants new workout clothes, we look at the budget to see how that could be fit (and balanced) into the overall plan.

To sum up- work together to set and work toward the same financial goals.

(and port is our financial drink of choice (C:)

Guest's picture

It took two years for my wife and I to agree on a way of handling the finances that worked for both of us. We have always been good with money we just did it differently. She used a checkbook, I checked everything online. She hated spreadsheets, I loved them. We came into the marriage with very different perspectives.

We have finally settled on a modified cash budget. We use the debit card & bill pay for relatively static monthly costs (Mortgage, Insurance, Utilities, Gas, etc.) Everything else is done with cash through an envelope type system. This helps us control what were the out of control expenses like groceries and eating out and also gives us monthly "fun money" that we can spend however we want.

The thing that really keeps it flowing is meeting weekly to discuss it. We go over every transaction - debit card or cash and see how much we have left to spend in each envelope. If we need to reallocate we do it.

I think the key to success in personal finances as a married couple is open and honest communication - work to find what system fits you best then stick with it.

Guest's picture

Oh, this is good! I forwarded on to my wife because we have the "shampoo/baseball card" arguments frequently, although in our case it usually over makeup and an Xbox game! Look forward to reading more from you.

Guest's picture

In our relationship I handle the bills and taxes and seem to be the one sweating for kids college savings and retirement. My wife has fought for years to remain ignorant of the bills and only wants to talk about major purchases and vacations. Don't get me wrong, she doesn't buy two hundred dollar shoes or handbags or really throw the money away on big things. I think it's a difference in perception. For example I'll go to Barnes and Nobles and buy two paperbacks for $15 perhaps three times a year, and I'll hear about it for weeks because I paid full price for two books when I could have gone to a garage sale and bought dozens of paperbacks (forget that they were not ones I'd want to read) for what I paid new. But she'll spend $30 for six hardbacks because she joined book of the month club and only had to "buy" one book at $10 and got five "free" for only $20 in shipping and "handling". See, she saved money and got more and will read and keep the books (mine will typically be donated or sold). Oh, and she's committed to what, two or three more books over the year for another $60 total. She'll claim she's spending the money wiser, I'll claim that she's just spending more money. That's just one example of the kind of differences in perception that drive us both nuts. (We've solved this problem by finally agreeing to go to the library and stop spending on books). This kind of thing has led to both of us spending quietly, which much like the article, has led to some resentment. It's also led to me squirreling away savings and retirement money without really involving her in the decision other than to tell her I've openned a 529 for one of the kids or I'm uping the percentage to the 401K.

Every effort on my part over the years to budget has effectively been useless because she's resistant to working the program. She'll agree with the budget, but then the needs begin, like the need to buy the kids clothes and the sale was today so we couldn't wait until next month, or she needed a break and went to lunch or a movie with a friend, even though the entertainment budget was already spent. I tried the envelope system, but she'd just pull money from one category to to feed the other. When I say we've written two many checks for the month, she uses the credit cards. When I say we've got too much on the credit cards, the checks are used as cash. It's hard to argue when you can't tell how necessary the purchase was because there is always a reasonable justification. Part of the problem, is while she is frugal in the actual purchase, she fails to see that the purchases add up and because I'm not getting her honest input into our budget, I'm flying blind and more importantly, alone, in trying to estimate what we should be spending in a number of important categories.

I've finally gotten her to give me all of her receipts every month for the last couple of months and also write down what she's spent every day. Of course, I've had to "nag" her every couple of days for them, which hasn't been pleasant. I then went over what was spent in the past year, how much debt we had, how much we actually managed to pay off, etc. and created a little presentation. Boy, did she try to avoid sitting down and talking about it. I really focused on not making it about finger pointing. Just about, here's what we spent in this category, is it me or are we overboard here. Even as we spoke she wouldn't stay at the table and look at it, but puttered around the kitchen looking for other things to do. I really kept it focused on trying to work as a team using questions like, is this where we want to spend our money? Are these monthly spending numbers realistic? Do we want to buy anything big in the next year (car's getting old) that we can try to save for? What is a way we can track how we're doing? Sit down weekly? every two weeks? post it on the refrigerator?

I will say its been an eye opener for both of us. I've been grossly underestimating what we spend on groceries for example, and she's been underestimating how many times she goes out a month with friends for lunch. We were both surprised by the "gifts" category until you realize that between friends and our kids friends and relatives, you're looking at a minimum of two times a month for a card with money or present for a party one of the kids is going to. I think the real eye opener for her is that just in checks written to the credit cards over the last year we spent almost half our take home pay and don't really know where it's going. That and the fact that over the last year we've spent everything we brought home and then some, is finally getting her to pay attention.

One of my points of the tirade above is that if you are the "responsible" one, fair or not, like it or not, you are going to have to find some reasonable way to get them to the table and work it out (and it may not be just your way, be willing to listen), because the way they are living is obviously not bothering them. They are not likely to be reading this to better their finacial situation. In trying to keep things less stressful in our relationship, I've let it get way too far out of hand, and the only saving grace is that my wife is a frugal shopper. We would be out of debt and in a much better finacial position if I'd have found a way to get her to the table sooner.

Guest's picture

Hey Martin,

Just a general observation but it sounds like there are still some traces of resentment just in the phrasing of your story. I wonder if the two of you might benefit from counseling. I hate to mention this just because it's so public but the way you discuss things threw up some red flags.

Guest's picture

A friend told me about this little free online personal budgeting utility, and I have been using it for 2 month now, it is nothing short of amazing, a dream for those who like to be in control of their cash. Totally anonymous, safe, simple and easy to use and very functional.

It's called "Out Of The Dark" and it is available at:

Happy budgeting.

Guest's picture

Good points! Sad but true ... Finances and especially debt are definetly serious topics to talk about before marriage! Looking at statistics, a considerable number of bankruptcy cases are filed because of divorce, so taking measures before getting married would be a great idea!

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