How to stop fighting about money

It’s no secret that one of the main things couples fight about is money. It doesn’t matter if you have none or have a ton, the amount of money doesn’t change the tension around it. The reasons for this are numerous stemming from societal pressures, misaligned value assignments, childhood learning, etc. Those are all interesting but won’t get the fights to stop. It’s no different in my house, except for the 12 years we went without fighting about money. I thought I had the solution. Turns out, I was only ½ right. I’ll rewind back to when we first started living together. We had our first jobs and those paychecks were so awesome. We were so happy to be independent, to be making a living, and to be sharing expenses. It’s so much cheaper to live with someone! Soon that happiness turned to constant bickering. I swore if I saw him come home with one more case of beer, I was going to lose it. It felt like we were working to buy booze. And not the $11 a case cheap crappy booze we drank in college, but $20/case beer. Why are you buying fancy beer? WHY do you HAVE to buy bottles? WHY do we have to have so much beer! It wasn’t like we had filled a room full of booze and were wasting all our money, but from my perspective, it seemed that way. Take that same inner dialogue and switch out beer with clothes and you had Bryan’s constant tirade around my shopping habits. The problem wasn’t the amount of money we were spending, or the things we were spending it on, the problem was that we didn’t have shared goals. In my mind, I had a very specific plan for money, savings, future purchases, and long term financial goals. Everything Bryan did that didn’t align with those goals launched me into raging lunatic status complaining about every little thing. He had no idea about my goals and I didn’t know about his. Unfortunately, we weren’t self-aware enough at 22 to have a mature conversation about these things, so this went on for quite some time. The turning point came after we both decided to quit our jobs and move across the state to where we grew up. That somewhat reckless major life decision started a series of events (dual unemployment, a home that took a year to sell, and paying mortgage and rent at the same time!) that forced us to sit down and dive into our finances and figure out shared goals. Out of it came a 4 tab excel budget spreadsheet and the basis for the next 12 years of financial kumbaya.

We learned so much from that time, but hopefully we can save you the depleted savings accounts and years of stress and arguing to get there. There were a few key things that set us on the right path.

Household Financial Checklist

Budget

Prioritize

Agree on personal limits.

  1. Set an overall budget. Make sure you know how much you’re bringing in, what your expenses are, and what’s left over. It seems simple, but if you don’t add in that quarterly trash bill, or yearly homeowner’s insurance bump, you’re going to be sorry!
  2. Don’t lie to yourself about the things that are important to you. After expenses, we prioritized eating out and personal spending because that was where we were in life. That changed many times through the years as life changed, but it was a fundamental we had to agree on.
  3. Set a spending amount and then stop judging. This is major. Once we decided how much we wanted to save each month, what we were saving for, and how much we would allow each other to spend each month, the rest of the fighting went away. If I knew he wasn’t going over his allotted amount each month, then I could let go of the fact that he was using his budget to buy things that seemed wasteful to me. Oh, and I didn’t have to come home waiting to be criticized for that 15th grey scarf that I just HAD to have. The budget kept us accountable to our shared goals, personally responsible for how we were spending our own money and gave us the ability to identify our own bad habits or room for improvement. It’s much different if I see that I’m wasting $100 a month on eating lunch out. If my husband told me that, I’d be less than willing to change my behavior. I don’t need a parent, I want a partner. This helped.

This also gave us a starting place for future conversations. When we got promotions or bonuses, it forced us to talk about what to do with them. When we had kids, we had a platform to discuss work vs stay at home, and costs and options for childcare. The budget spreadsheet was like a financial mediator fairy that kept our arguments minimal and our conversation open.

We’re set for life, right? Well, as we recently found out, no. The budget helped us through a good amount of life changes, but what we didn’t realize was that when we reached one of our large financial goals, the game changed. At the beginning of the summer, we paid off our house. This was something we had at the top of our goal list. The freedom we knew we’d have without that large debt hanging over our heads was something we both really wanted. Life throws curve balls, so being financially flexible each month was a clear shared goal. I think we may have high-fived, googled what to do next, and went out to dinner to celebrate. What did we do after that? Nothing. So, what started happening? Fights. What do you mean you want to buy a new car? What do you mean you want to put that money in the college savings instead of the retirement savings? It sounds like first world problems, I know, but it’s all relative. Instead of beer and clothes, it was retirement and college planning and personal spending at another level.

I had spent all this time giving credit to the budget spreadsheet, when really it was our shared financial goals that were they key. Somewhere in one of our fights, we got to the root of our disagreements and realized that we each were carrying around some hopes and fears about the future and this mortgage-free life had awoken them. Our ideas about paying for our kids’ college were not aligned. Our ideas of how much we needed to retire were different. When we wanted to retire didn’t match. Bryan saw opportunity to do things he never thought he could as a kid. I saw risk and was fearful that if we didn’t take advantage of our income and our ages, we would regret it later in life. Somewhere in the middle, there were shared goals, and once we locked those down, we addressed our budget spreadsheet and it became a tool for good again.

So go back to our household financial checklist above and add: 1A. Discuss, understand, and agree on shared goals. You must be willing to compromise a little here so go ahead and put all of your cards on the table. There is freedom in understanding, and less fighting down the road.

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