Financial opposites: A saver marries a spender

Amy Fontinelle picture

My husband and I are celebrating our eighth Valentine's Day together.

When we got married and merged our finances, the transition wasn't easy.

I'm a budgeter. My husband was not. Nor was he a saver.

From the moment I graduated college, I wrote down every expense and made sure I spent less than I earned, with plenty of money left over to save.

My husband hung on to his receipts and his bank and credit card statements, but he had no idea how much he was spending, and he had nothing in savings until I convinced him to sign up for his employer's 401(k) plan while we were dating.

He also had credit card debt.

The good news is, I knew what I was getting into when we merged our finances. He never hid anything from me.

But transitioning from budgeting for just myself to budgeting for both of us, and working together to clean up his debt while also saving for our future, took years to figure out (and we're still learning).

Here's how we learned to manage our different money philosophies:

Smart move 1. We created a system to track our spending.

Marriage by the numbers

Source: U.S. Census Bureau

29.0 Median age men first get married
26.6 Median age women first get married
52.7% Percentage of adults married
2.1 million Number of marriages that occurred in 2011
6.2% Percentage of women who had been married for at least 50 years

While I had long written down each of my expenses, I had to convince my husband that it was worth his trouble to do so as well, because his system of mental accounting was far from accurate. Now we track all of our expenses using a spreadsheet, with some help from Mint’s free online budgeting software.

Smart move 2. We established a budget.

Because of our irregular income and expenses, we don’t have a consistent pile of money from which to pay our bills and fund our savings each month. So I categorized a full year of our expenses and used this information to decide how much we should allocate each month toward groceries, medical expenses, retirement, home improvement, cars, travel and so on.

I then created separate savings accounts for each category. In months when we don’t spend in a particular category, like travel, I set aside money in our travel savings account. In months when we spend more than our monthly allotment, I take money out of our travel savings account.

We always know whether we’re spending too much in a particular area, and there’s money in reserve for months with higher expenses and/or less income. Some months I can’t put the designated amounts into these accounts because our income is too low, but I catch up on missed contributions in months when our income is high.

Smart move 3. We created accountability.

Neither of us makes a major financial decision or major purchase without the other’s approval. However, we each get an allotment of "fun money" every month, which we can spend on whatever we want as long as we keep track of it and don’t go over budget. If I want to buy a $100 kitchen gadget or my husband wants to buy a $100 vintage comic book, we can do so. It just means we have $100 less to spend on restaurants, movies, books and other nonessentials.

Smart move 4. We review our income and expenses monthly.

This step is the most tedious, even with Mint’s help. Mint aggregates every transaction from our bank and credit card accounts. I then copy the transaction list to a spreadsheet and categorize each expense. I add the totals in each spending category, then compare them to what we intended to spend or save.

Smart move 5. We communicate.

There’s no way you can have a household budget that you both agree on if you don’t talk to each other about your priorities. What’s important to you in life should dictate what’s important to you financially.

Do you want to retire early? Do you want to tithe 10% of your gross income to your church? Will your parents need financial assistance when they’re older? My husband and I regularly talk about our current and future plans and what we need to do with our money to make those things happen.

Budgeting may not sound romantic, and it can be mind-numbing.

But if you’re having tense conversations or arguments over money, you’ll find that implementing a system to manage your finances is a lot more enjoyable than fighting. And working together toward a shared goal not only will make you feel like your partner truly loves you, it will mean you’ll eventually have more free cash for date nights or relaxing vacations.