How to share finances with your partner (without losing your marriage or your mind)

Pull up a chair and pour yourself a glass of wine, because we’re going to talk about how to handle money with a partner without losing your marriage or your mind.

OK – here’s the first and most important thing you need to know. Your relationship with money isn’t about money (and neither is your partner's). Wait...what?

Personal finance tips || How to share finances with your partner (without losing your marriage or your mind) by The Wiser Miser. This is how to talk about finances in marriage.

Managing money is in essence just allocating a finite resource, the way you do already with your time, your energy, your mental space, or your spoons. The major difference between planning your money and planning your time is your level of emotional involvement. Even though you’re just deciding what to do with something you only have so much of, we have a lot of internal and external pressure and views on how money is managed. This is extra true in a relationship with shared money. Keeping in mind that the only life you can save is your own, and the only relationship with money that you can change is your own, there are ways to make shared finances a lot easier. Acknowledging that this is not just about money goes a long way.

There are 3 things you need to do to change your relationship with money (and your relationship’s relationship with money – say that five times fast!):

  1. Bring your attention & your intention to your money

  2. Change your habits

  3. Talk about it (a lot)

Let’s dive in, shall we?

1) Bring your attention and intention to your money

In order to change your relationship with money, you have to understand your relationship with money.

One of the simplest, most powerful ways to start that work is to track your spending. [Check out my free Mind Over Money 5-day challenge all about this!] I recommend starting by using a small notebook. Carry it around with you and write down every time you spend money. When you’re starting, I want you to think very basic; just the date, the amount, and what you spent it on. August 30, $8.75, lunch. Your goal here is to train yourself to start paying attention to when money leaves your life.

The attitude you bring to this is crucial – you’re looking for the mindset of an impartial witness, like the one you’re supposed to have when you meditate. You’re observing what’s happening, not trying to judge or change it in any meaningful way. Do this for at least a week (every penny). Two weeks or more is better. This will allow you to start building a habit and for some patterns to start to emerge. You might start noting some context (are there places, people, times of day, etc. that seem to correlate with what feels like unwanted spending?) as you get going, but it’s not necessary. The habit and the mindset are the keys here.

Encourage your partner to do this alongside you. Resist the urge to judge their spending, or even to compare notes too closely. Feel free to talk about things like how it’s feeling to pay more attention to your money, or patterns you’ve noticed, but try to keep your eyes on your own paper.  

Once you have brought your attention to your money, the next piece is to bring your intention to it. Bringing your intentions to your money refers to asking yourself what you need and want your money to do for you. The best way to do this is to have a budget. Specifically, I recommend and use You Need a Budget which is essentially digital envelope budgeting. I could gush about it for weeks but trust that I’ve tried a lot of things with a lot of people and this is the best way, and the best tool.

Having a shared budget with your partner has a lot of benefits:

  • It gives you both a single financial dashboard to look at, rather than several different bank accounts and two different brains

  • It gives you a place to put your wishes and dreams in addition to all your bills, so that you don’t ignore the stuff that keeps you going

  • It gives you a bad guy to point fingers at when you’re feeling tense about the money. Having this neutral third party of the budget as the bad guy is huge when budgeting with a partner. It gets the frustration off each other and onto something else.

Your budget has two primary purposes: first, to reflect back to you the financial decisions you’ve already made (i.e. how much did we decide to put into savings this month? When is your car registration due again?) and second, to give you the right information at the right time so that you can make better decisions in the future.  

A budget doesn’t have to feel like a diet – it’s more like a decision to be more observant of how you’re consuming food and to try to be intentional about it going forward, with the addition of some more data, like tracking what you’re eating so you can make the best decisions based on science instead of shame.

OK. You can see why you need a budget, but it’s not like you haven’t tried something like that before. How do you get it to stick?  

2) Change your habits

Habits rule our world. Studies show that 40% of what we do in any given day is due to habits. Your brain has been trained to do certain things, in certain ways, triggered by other events, visual cues, or behaviors.

Habits are a really important part of money management because they a) are driving a lot of our behavior, and recognizing that allows us to be more compassionate with ourselves and our partners, and b) are driving a lot of our behavior, so if we want to change our behavior, we gotta change our habits!

Habits are made up of 3 parts. Trigger, routine, reward. The trigger is the unconscious or subconscious cue that reminds your brain to start the routine. Wake up in the morning (trigger), brush your teeth (routine), feel better (reward).

To change a habit, the key is to keep the trigger and reward as close to the same for the new habit as the old. If you always stop for coffee on the way to work because it helps you wake up, but you don’t want to spend the money, you can drink coffee that you made at home in the car instead. This allows your brain to continue seeing the same trigger (the car ride to work) and get the same reward (caffeine! energy!) without having the behavior that you want to change (spending money, spending time, spending energy). Your brain doesn’t actually care what the behavior is as long as it gets the same reward, but it will go into auto-pilot when it sees that trigger.

To start a brand new habit, try using a technique known as habit stacking, which is a fancy way of saying using an existing habit as a trigger for a new one. If you wanted to start flossing your teeth, you start by doing it right after you brush your teeth. BONUS: add a visual cue – put the floss next to your toothbrush. If, instead, you wanted to start tracking your spending, keep your tracking notebook with your wallet and when you put your wallet away, take out the notebook.

Both changing habits and adding new habits require one crucial thing: ease. Do not make this too complicated or you’ll fail. The change or new habit should be tiny and simple to start out with. You can always keep changing or keep adding later, but in order to retrain your brain you need to keep it easy to start with.

3) Talk about it (a lot)

OK, so we’ve talked about the gist of what to do and the attitude to bring to it, and we’ve talked about how and why to change habits. The last – and arguably the most important – step, especially when doing this with a partner, is talking about it.  A lot.

Communication about your money and your budget is going to be part logistics (“we’ve got $X left in the dining out budget”, “I need some new sneakers, let’s adjust the budget”) and part more like the normal, difficult emotional communication work that happens in a relationship. The nice thing about having a budget is that it gives you facts to talk about, instead of feelings. “$X was our budget, but we spent $Y” is a fact. “You waste all of our money” is a feeling. Focus on the facts.

Remember that what you’re really talking about is just how you’d like to allocate a finite resource that you share. How would you talk about planning your weekend? You’d probably start with something like this:

Partner:     “Well, we’ve got brunch plans with my mother”

You:       “Ugh, your mother?”

Partner:     “I knowww, but then we can go to the beach.”

Money is like that. Savings and debt are your mother-in-law, the rest is the beach.

A good way to make sure that you keep the conversation going all the time (not just when one of you decides something has gone awry) is to hold regular budget meetings. I know. Being an adult is so FUN sometimes! Make them better by giving yourself a reward for them – ice cream budget Sundays, anyone?

Both of you should come prepared to talk about anything that has changed (like: all these ice cream budget Sundays mean I need some new shorts this summer) and should start with your wins. What’s going well? What big bill did you pay without sweating for the first time? Did you come in under budget on anything? Are you finally able to put some money towards a dream vacation you’ve talked about for years?

Then, talk about anything else that’s come up. Are there any areas of your spending that feel like they’re slipping away from you (ahem: groceries)? Go over the budget together and talk about what’s changed. Some change is unavoidable – you forgot about something, you had an unexpected bill, etc. A lot of it isn’t, and that’s where pointing to the budget can be ever-so-helpful. It’s not you saying what you or your partner can spend – it’s the budget. The budget that you made, together, in a rational state of mind, using the best information available to you at the time. Just the facts.

But what if you just can’t talk about money with your partner? What if it triggers a breakdown for one of you, or a fight, or even just tense feelings you don’t know what to do with? First, know this is so normal, and that you can improve it. How?

By understanding your values.

Both you and your partner have deep-seated personal values that drive your behavior, whether you are conscious of them or not. This often shows up in statements like “I’m a saver and my partner is a spender” or “I’m just not as comfortable with risk as my partner is”. To have constructive and, dare I say it, loving conversations about money with your partner is about understanding your values, your partner’s values, and how they overlap.

How do you identify the values that are driving your behavior? SAM has a great quiz that’s specifically tailored to money behavior and backed by research, but you can keep it really simple and just take a look at a list of personal values, pick 10 that resonate with you, and then put them in order (ask yourself: If I had to choose one of these, which would I choose? And keep going down the list until you’ve got them sorted). BONUS: Pick 5 that absolutely do not resonate with you or which actively repel you.

Once you understand what values are driving your behavior and your partner’s behavior, it will be much easier to be compassionate and understanding when it feels like you’re on different wavelengths money wise. Are there any values that are on both of your top 10 lists? Are any of your “no” values on their “yes” list? From here, you can draw on that part of you (I know it exists!) that wants your partner’s dreams to come true, for them to feel like they are well taken care of, for them to feel like they are being seen and heard. That might look like compromise, but simply understanding where they’re coming from and having compassion for that will help you in huge ways.

I hope that you had a few lightbulb moments reading this, and that if you’ve got questions you’ll pop em into the comments, or contact me about it!