Before getting married, my budgeting strategy went something like this: Try to avoid unnecessary spending, occasionally splurge and hope for the best when I check my account balance.
My husband, Brian, on the other hand, keeps a multi-tabbed spreadsheet that tracks virtually every penny he spends, broken down into categories like groceries, entertainment and transportation.
When we got married, we knew managing our money together was going to be a challenge, even if we were compatible in every other way. Here are the four major lessons I learned after combining finances with my husband.
MERGING MONEY REQUIRES TEAMWORK
My husband is much more financially savvy than I am. And because of that, I let him run the financial show for a while. I assumed he wanted to be in charge of it, and it’s not like I had some genius investment strategy to contribute.
But, it turns out, he felt burdened by having to make all the financial decisions and handle our accounts by himself. He wanted us to work as a team, making decisions together, reminding each other to move that money into that account, figuring out which credit card would give us the most cash back. I felt awful that I’d basically told him, "Here, you handle this because you’re better at it and I don’t really want to."
Since that conversation, I’ve gotten more involved and educated myself on things like credit card options and our different types of accounts. Our marriage is about teamwork, and that includes working on our financial future together.
YOU GOTTA FIGHT FOR YOUR RIGHT… TO SPEND
Before we opened joint accounts, I’d give my then-fiancé my monthly debit and credit card statements so he could do our budgeting. His initial response was not exactly, "Great job on your spending — keep it up!" For context, I’m obsessed with skincare products, and my regular Sephora trips alarmed him. And the money I spent on snacks — Smartfood popcorn is life! — also raised a red flag.
Initially I was defensive. But then I remembered that he spends money on things I never would. Prime example: He has a private pilot’s license, and renting a plane for a couple of hours is *not cheap*. Plus, his comments weren't coming from an accusatory place — he was just trying to get a sense of how I spend my money.
It eventually led to a good, and ongoing, conversation about spending. Now we communicate when we’re going to buy personal things and why — with no judgment. We also speak up when we think the other should rein in the spending because it's impacting a shared goal.
HIS DEBT IS MY DEBT
I'm incredibly fortunate that my parents paid for my college education. My husband’s parents did too, but he footed the bill for a master's degree. Hence, his student loans. Also, now my student loans, because, marriage.
We’re aggressive savers, and if we wanted to pay the entire debt off now, we could. At first, I wondered why we weren’t doing that. I was new to student loan debt, and it seemed to me that we’d be better off writing one really big check and being done with it.
I now understand the value of paying them down steadily and using our money in other ways, like saving for a down payment. Our accountant also told us that given our short-term financial goals (like homeownership), our strategy makes sense.
PLANNING MEANS GETTING SERIOUS ABOUT RETIREMENT
Until recently, my husband and I would have conversations about our 401(k)s and IRAs where I’d just kind of nod along. That’s because for a long time, I didn’t make enough money to contribute to a retirement account while still, you know, housing, clothing and feeding myself. So I didn’t make an effort to learn much about them.
But even when I started making enough to start saving for retirement, I did the bare minimum — I didn’t know what funds my 401(k) or IRA were invested in. I just figured, "Well, they’re administered by legit companies and advisors, so best to leave the details to them."
Now that retirement isn't just a plan for my own future — but ours — I've gotten more serious about saving for it. I made a point to learn why my IRA is in the funds it’s in and speak up during meetings with our accountant when I don’t understand something. Being informed means I’m playing an active role in our financial future.