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How to Financially Succeed as a Couple

This article was written by in Family and Life, Personal Finance. 19 comments.


This is a guest article by Elle, the author of the blog Couple Money.

Handling personal finances can be an intriguing, challenging, and rewarding process. Being married and handling finances can double those effects. My husband and I have learned through the years that working together can be powerfully effective and motivating. While every couple is different, I thought it might be helpful to share some tips and tricks that have helped us through the years. I hope you’ll share your own stories and advice in the comments after the article.

Merging two spending styles

My husband is a conservative saver. He can live on a shoestring budget and hardly deviate from it. My husband dislikes debt and paid off his small student loan a few months after he graduated.

While I enjoy saving, I know that if I’m going to succeed with my goals, I have to automate the process. I started investing while at one of my first office jobs while in college. I also grew to enjoy earning income from different jobs during my college years.

We could either try to change one another or we could try to use our specific strengths to our advantage. To do that, though, we need to have some goals to share between us to keep us on track.

Defining goals together

For us, being on the same page as far as goals has been a huge help with keeping communication open. When we got engaged we sat down and shared our assets and debts with one another. Once we were married, we decided to set up some general goals, such as establishing a small emergency fund together. As the years passed we’ve created more goals, including:

  • Paying off the car loan and staying away from car payments afterwards.
  • Buying a home that is well within our budget and paying off the mortgage within 15 years.
  • Going on debt-free vacations.

To do this we used own complementary skills to set up our system. My husband created the foundation for our family’s budget as he’s naturally frugal. I made sure our bill payments and savings transfers were all automated. We started small, but we set aside automatic deductions for our retirement savings and we created a plan to reduce our debt.

Creating a financial system that works for us

With our goals in mind and duties divvied up, we had to find a banking system that worked for us. We originally banked with a national bank, but we found their customer service lacking and their interest rates disappointing. We then switched to ING Direct to handle our family’s finances.

Most of our money goes into our joint checking and joint saving accounts. We do have separate accounts for minor personal spending, but for the most part, we find that combining our finances makes things much easier for us.

We currently have a few savings sub-accounts at ING Direct for general and specific goals:

  • Joint Savings
  • Car Replacement Fund
  • Vacation Fund

Since we’ve been married we’ve focused on having a system where we try to keep our necessary expenses under one income and use the second income to reach our financial and personal goals. With the majority of our spending and savings automated, we’ve managed to cut back on the time used for keeping tabs on the accounts. However, we knew we need something to help us stay on top of our money.

Using Mint to track spending

To keep us on track we use Mint to send ourselves email alerts if we go off budget in certain spending categories. Mint is wonderful because you can automatically sync all of your financial accounts, such as checking, savings, credit card, and investment accounts. However, if you only want to track your joint checking account, you can do that as well.

We don’t have to keep every single receipt and enter it into Mint. Instead, Mint pulls our spending data and organizes it. It’s fairly accurate as well — about 80-85% of the time it categorizes the expenses correctly. The only problem I noticed with this system is that certain bill payments have to be sent out as paper checks from our joint checking account.

We’ve had some discussions based on our spending notifications due to some bills that pop up time to time. In the past we’ve talked about moving expenses and then home improvement tweaks that we wanted to make. If we started spending more than we planned to spend, we talked it over and tried to reach a compromise.

I’d like to say that once a system is in place, you’ll just set it and forget it, but that’s not the case with family and finances. It’s constantly changing as our circumstances change. Right now, we’re expecting our first child in July, so as the due draws closer, more spending has been occurring for the baby. We’ve had to talk about what a realistic timetable would be for the both of us and our budget.

Using Google Docs for our family budget

My husband and I are both fans of spreadsheets. When we were working on our budget, my husband decided to set up a spreadsheet in Google Docs to help us manage the information easier than emailing one another back and forth. He’s done a wonderful job on creating something realistic that we can use.

A big advantage of using Google Docs is how easy it is to share changes. It’s a wonderful feature to have one of us update the budget and the other spouse get a notification of the change. We usually don’t make drastic changes to the document, but even being kept up-to-date on minor adjustments is helpful.

Blogging offers us a financial snapshot

When I blog over at Couple Money, I share our financial situation to help others build their net worth together, but also as a way for us to be accountable to one another. I had blogged before at another site when I was a college student and found that writing about what I was learning (from books and life) helped me to easily keep to my goals.

Every month I review the previous month’s income and expenses on the site and share if we’ve increased or decreased our family’s net worth. Some readers believe that focusing on the numbers isn’t too helpful, as things come up and can lower our progress, but that’s not the main benefit of the net worth updates.

To prepare for the post, my husband and I will look at the big picture once each month and see if we could’ve improved our spending or savings. It’s a chance for us to chat with one another about our finances without pressure. We look at the numbers and we celebrate the good that we did and try to fine tune anything that we don’t like.

Thoughts on couples and money

I’ve shared how we handle our spending as a couple, but I know it’s not the only way. I’d love to hear how you do it. How do you handle your finances in your family? What has been the easiest part? What has been the worst? Are there any tools that you use to keep your finances in shape?

Published or updated April 16, 2011. If you enjoyed this article, subscribe to the RSS feed or receive daily emails. Follow @ConsumerismComm on Twitter and visit our Facebook page for more updates.

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About the author

Elle is the author of the blog Couple Money. She and her husband and determined to live on one income and have fun with the second. Please chat with her on Twitter. View all articles by .

{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Kathryn C

Hey Elle! just had this convo with a friend who recently merged finances with her husband. She went to starbucks about 4 times in one day and her husband called her at work to see if she was “ok” because she went to bucks so many times (he saw it on their statement online). She said she’s going to start using cash :)
Merging finances with someone sounds scarey to me…….I would feel like someone is watching me, maybe that’s a good thing though.

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avatar Elle ♦136 (Cent)

I have friends who have only joint checking and savings accounts and I have friends who use separate accounts. We’re 90/10 on joint and separate accounts. Everything major is shared and small personal expenses go into our individual accounts.

Having joint accounts was an adjustment, but it’s nice to have two pairs of eyes keeping track of the accounts.

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avatar shellye ♦107 (Cent)

It can be just as hard to save money when you both have good incomes. My husband has a great income, but loves his toys (car, motorcycle, computers, electronics, etc), and to him, blowing a few hundred bucks on any or all of the above-mentioned toys is no big deal. I make fairly good money myself, but love the challenge of coupon shopping, and never pay full price for anything if I can help it. Sometimes that drives him nuts, but he’s coming around and at least will use coupons for oil changes and tire rotations- LOL! We don’t nickel and dime each other but he does use a spreadsheet to see what expenses we need to pull back on. We also have a “mad money” account for each of us that we can spend on anything we like. I think couples need to give each other some room to breathe when it comes to finances and not micro-manage each other or make each other feel guilty about their spending. Both need agree on saving and spending goals, and have a little money of their own.

All that works very well when times are good financially; if a couple is paying off serious debt, there should be complete agreement on how they’ll attack the debt and work together to get it paid off.

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avatar Ceecee ♦53 (Newbie)

Luckily me and my guy are on the same page with money. That makes it so much easier. I know women who hide new purchases in the trunk of the car. Then when they bring it into the house a month later they can honestly say it isn’t “new.” Wouldn’t want to live this way.

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avatar Elle ♦136 (Cent)

Glad to hear that you two are on the same page. Sneaking around purchases can be a problem for couples. Either there’s a financial problem (overspending), a communication problem (fear of sharing), or a respecting each other’s choices issue. Many times it’s a combination.

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avatar skylog ♦368 (Nickel)

there are certainly many “problems.” i am not at a point in my life where i am in a serious (engaged/married) relationship, but i have had several realtionships that were just below that status, i suppose one could say. in just about every one, i have experienced one of these “problems.” in just about every one, it was one of the contributing factors in the ending of the relationship.

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avatar nimrodel ♦42 (Newbie)

My boyfriend and I aren’t married yet; we are engaged, and I don’t expect the way we handle our financial situation to change much once we are married.

We don’t really ever plan on combining accounts. What we do is simply ‘even out’ our accounts every few months. We make no secret about what we’re spending our money on. We discuss anything that’s not a minor purchase. If either of us were wasting money somehow, it’d be fairly obvious rather quickly.

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avatar Jenna, Adaptu Community Manager

We have a bunch of families using Adaptu to manage their finances. Plus a community just for families, where people can talk about how their money decisions affect how their families.

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avatar Pat S

Great article! I enjoy your work over at Couple Money as well!

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avatar Elle

Thanks Pat – I love meeting Couple Money readers!

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avatar krantcents

Money is only one of many things that couples should discuss and agree. There are various strategies that will work for people. Whether you combine your finances or not, it will only work if your goals are clearly stated. The process must follow those goals. Personally I believe in joint accounts, if I can not trust my spouse with money there are bigger issues in the relationship.

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avatar Cejay ♦1,521 (Half-Dollar)

We have a joint checking account and after a few years we managed to carve out a system that works for us. We each get a spending allowance each week for lunches out, hobbies, and misc. use. We will not buy anything out of the checking account or use the credit card for anything over $100.00 without talking it out. We get together each month and talk out where we are and things that we know are coming up. We ended up with this plan since I was a saver and my husband was a spender. We have since managed to gravitate to where we are in the middle.

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avatar Super Frugalette

The easiest part was setting the grocery budget a bit larger to include “misc” items so that we did not have a “misc” account. The best choice was increasing personal spending accounts even when we were going without other things. It allowed us to make more independent choices and took some of the stress out of the budget.

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avatar tbork84 ♦1,867 (Half-Dollar)

Great post. My girlfriend of five years and I are still keeping everything separate, but we are open and work together to plan and budget our finances. Maybe down the road there will be a joint account, but so far our system works out pretty well. The real key is communication.

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avatar MacroCheese

No doubt, the greatest variable in determining personal financial success is your spouse/partner.

Being on the exact same wavelength is almost impossible, but it’s best to keep the margin of error low!

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avatar tigernicole86 ♦55 (Newbie)

My boyfriend and I of 6 years still have most everything separate but we do have a joint checking account and a vacation fund. Right now, we’re lucky because we don’t pay rent just utilities and to fix up the house. We have completely different spending styles and we both like to spend on whatever we want. With me, it’s little things and for him, it’s gadgets he has to save up for.

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avatar qixx ♦1,895 (Half-Dollar)

We have defined goals, budget before each month starts, track via Mint.com. The only thing seems to be getting my wife more involved. For instance instead of checking Mint to see if we have money for item x she will wait for me to get home from work to ask me if we still have any money left. Merging seemed easy enough. Now we are working on adding some independence back into our finances.

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avatar Bucksome Boomer ♦236 (Cent)

Good point that each couple has to find what works for them. My husband and I have kept our money separate but that was because I brought two kids to the marriage and their expenses.

Now they’re gone and we’re preparing for retirement so it’s time to think about bringing it together for less complexity.

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avatar lynn ♦155 (Cent)

We had an account for the household, separate cc and savings. It worked well for us. This is a joint decision that may be unique to each relationship.

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