One of the big milestones of most relationships is the almighty merging of the finances. If you’re married, it’s all but unavoidable (legally speaking, your assets are combined unless you have a serious prenup). Still, so many of the married couples I know avoid the work of merging finances. (If you’re one of them, go read Meg’s thoughts on marriage and money here. It totally changed how I think about money in a partnership, and it includes a few cases for keeping things separate.) Because you know what no one tells you? If you have any kid of hangups around money, merging finances can be a beast. It’s not just about switching from two bank accounts to one. It’s also the emotional work of figuring out what it takes to make your household run and how you want to prioritize your cash as a couple. Which is probably why it took Michael and me over ten years to finally work out our household budget. Because that kind of emotional work around money sounds like no fun, amiright?
For more than a decade, Michael and I operated on a fly by night budget. We knew (roughly) how much our monthly expenses cost, and we knew what we wanted to be spending each month, but we had zero ways of reconciling things after the fact—other than looking at our bank account statements and going, “Crap, that wasn’t what I thought it was going to be.” We got into debt. And we fought a lot. And then last year, in a last-ditch effort to pay down our $30,000 debt, we signed up for a free 34-day trial of the app You Need a Budget (which you can get right here). For the first time since joining our accounts, we had an actual working household budget. And it turns out, having a budget has been one of the most game-changing things we’ve ever done for our relationship. So today, in partnership with YNAB, here are are five reasons why a budget can be awesome for your relationship:
fewer surprises equals fewer fights: Do you know why Michael and I used to fight about money so much? Because of oil changes. And haircuts. And all those other expenses that are semi-regular, but not monthly, and therefore easy to forget when you’re doing the mental math of “What can we afford next month?” But once we set up YNAB, we had to take all those expenses into account (it’s rule two of the YNAB method. The first rule is you don’t talk about YNAB. Wait, no, that’s wrong). So instead of freaking out every four months over my $100 oil change bill, we now put $25 into our car maintenance budget each month so that it’s covered when the time comes. Which doesn’t mean there are no surprises (thanks for the back-to-back vet visits this month, puppy). It just means that there aren’t “surprises” we could totally anticipate popping up every other week. And fewer surprises means fewer fights.
It’s like a prenup for your money: Prenups are great, because they are about making decisions while you’re in your rational brain, before everything gets emotionally tangled. And a budget is kind of like that too. With a budget, you and your partner have to sit down and decide how to spend your money before your bills are due. Which means that if you need to have a big, relationship-defining conversation about your financial priorities (do we want to save for a house, or travel, or is our debt getting out of control?), you can pick a time and a place when you’ll both be level-headed and approach the conversation as partners, rather than adversaries. And the conversation is actionable. For example, before our budget, money talks went something like this:
Me: I really want to make sure we get to travel before we have kids. We need to go on vacation this year.
Partner: Yeah, but we have to pay down our debt before we do anything fun.
Both: Repeat ad nauseum.
With YNAB, they now go like this:
Me: I really want to make sure we go on vacation this year. What’s the budget look like?
Partner: Well, if we put X amount toward our credit cards to pay down our debt, well have Y amount left over by the end of the year, which we could use toward a vacation.
Me: Okay, but if we do that, we don’t have a ton of wiggle room to go home for the holidays, right? Are we cool with that?
Partner: I am if you are.
In short, a budget lets our conversations actually go somewhere, and we get to look at the whole picture and decide in advance what matters most to us.
Having a budget is like having another person in the room: When Michael and I got a puppy this year, one of the best things we did was hire a trainer when it became obvious we were out of our depth. And while we got our money’s worth from this investment on things like… our dog no longer jumps on every person she meets, the real reward was simply having a third person in the room to break ties when we couldn’t agree. And a budget is kind of like having that third person. So if you’re having a disagreement about, say, whether or not you should go out for dinner tonight, you can go back to the budget and let it make the decision for you. And with YNAB, specifically, having their method on hand was was kind of like having a personal trainer for our finances. It helped us figure out why we were having so much trouble managing our money (turns out we weren’t embracing our true expenses), and then told us how to fix it. And for what it’s worth, YNAB’s $5 a month fee is way cheaper than our dog trainer.
It’s much more egalitarian: Before we got married, Michael and I did what many couples do: we kept our finances separate, and each contributed an amount to our monthly bills that was congruent with how much money we made. The only problem? My partner made twice as much as I did. So I was always broke. And it created an unfair power balance in our relationship. But since merging our finances and creating our household budget, our respective income is irrelevant. What matters is how much we make as a unit, how much our collective expenditures add up to each month (including savings), and what our financial goals are together. Then we split up whatever is left over, even Steven.
We still get to do what we want: One of my biggest fears about merging finances and setting up a household budget is that I wouldn’t have any flexibility to do the things I want. I was afraid my budget would control me, and suddenly my marriage would just be one big restriction wherein I never get to go to Target or do anything fun. Except, setting up a household budget means we get to do exactly what we want, just within the confines of what we actually make. Michael and I each have discretionary accounts in YNAB that we call our “fun” money, and we can use it however we please. If Michael wants to spend $75 on another set of tiny troll figurines to go with his super nerdy boardgames? Ain’t no stopping him. If I want to spend $50 on a Bedazzler I may or may not ever use? Can’t tell me no. We actually have fewer restrictions now that we have a budget, because those accounts are built in. There’s no more panic at the register that I really shouldn’t be spending $30 on glitter flats this month, as long as YNAB tells me I still have money in the “glitter and sequins” (aka “fun”) account.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from these past seven years being married, it’s that if you’re finding yourself having the same argument or frustrations over and over again, or if something simply isn’t working for you, it’s unfair to expect your relationship to magically mend itself. Having the same fight over and over again? Get thee to therapy. Can’t figure out your finances? Find a tool or system that works for you. And for us, that tool has been YNAB.
I genuinely can’t remember the last time we fought about money. And that in itself is the best thing I could ask for my relationship.
This post was sponsored by You Need a Budget. YNAB is a powerful yet flexible tool for managing your finances. It has radically changed the way we approach our money, helped us get out of debt, and allowed us to prioritize our finances in a way we never could before. With the YNAB method, all of our regular and recurring expenses are budgeted in advance, so we’re able to see at a glance what kind of money we have for incidentals and make plans for a safety net. YNAB lets you manage your finances from your computer or your phone, plus sync up your bank accounts and credit cards for real-time updates to your budget. Click here to learn more about YNAB and access your free 34-day trial.