How Do We Budget As A Couple?

BearMoney Team

BearMoney Team

BearMoney is the balanced finance blog for new and old Canadians alike. We are a team of people living international that research, write, and share


Budgeting for We, not Me

For many, budgeting in general can be a pain. Even without the addition of a spouse living on a budget comes with a unique set of challenges. One of them is information overload.

There are an unlimited amount of budget strategies, and many different ways to go about them. When added to the fact that our personal finances are context dependent you can easily be convinced to adopt a system that is unsuitable for both you and your loved ones.

When your individual goals converge and become couple goals, everything from retirement, to housing, to crockpots becomes a more complex issue. While there are many different tips and tools the constant winning attributes of any budgeting couple are patience, discipline, and communication.

Whatever system you want to adopt, make sure that this trinity of attributes are your budget guide stones. When you do, it’s easy to stick to the following functional advice.

Note: Working 9 to 5

We have come a very long way as a society and although we have yet to achieve Gender Equity the probability that you are a dual-income household is high.

Following from this, normally one party will more make more than the other. This does not however give license to either person to move the budgeting power from a 50/50 split. Of course play to your strengths but in the decision making phase, you are equals. It’s fine if one person is put in charge of investments, but the decision to do it must be joint, equal, and respectful.

Following on from this it is absolutely imperative that you don’t fall into the trap of using one parties’ excess salary to fund discretionary expenditure. This leads to complicated power dynamics and lifestyle inflation.

When you are working and earning as a team, you should always aim to contribute fairly across the board. This means not signing entire categories of spending to one particular person as a standing rule. A common pot for core expenditure is the way to go.

Couple Goals in Field
Team Work Makes The Dream Work

Budgets Need To Be Written Down

It is great to want to save money. It is even greater to actually be saving money. It is a bona fide superpower to be saving money consistently. Do remember though that the devil is in the details.

All budgets needs to be ‘written down’. That doesn’t mean a massive plan, it just means that you need to have, somewhere, targets and numbers that don’t just exist in your head.

These can be explicit or ranges so long as it has a form that is impartial. Budgeting in your head means budgeting with your emotions, and that means arguments. Half of divorced people cite poor money management as a factor.

Couples that can’t talk and agree about money are doomed to fail.

Creating The Lowest Stress Budget

In order to avoid any complex systems the simplest budget has three figures: core expenses, discretionary expenses, and savings. The only thing you need to know before adopting any particular system is the last one, your saving goal.

When we put aside the rent, food, clothing budgets and just focus on saving we create a great yardstick that both parties can agree to. It is really as simple as looking at your combined monthly take home pay and writing down 20% of it.

That’s it, that is the written cornerstone of your couples budget. You may disagree about how to get there, but when you agree on where you’re going it is easier to put ego aside and cooperate.

Remember though, that this isn’t supposed to be easy because nothing worth having is. That 20% is likely to involve some form of sacrifice from you and your partner. How much and how often is up to you as a team to decide. The key takeaway is that both parties will need to sacrifice. You are, as we’ve heard so much recently, all in this together.

Setting achievable goals

We often make the mistake of focusing too much on the results before we consider the path. Our brains have evolved to crave the endorphins released after we complete tasks. But sometimes this can cause us to get too far ahead of ourselves.

This can lead to several disastrous outcomes. Without immediate results we may cheat, lose interest, get distracted, disheartened, or simply give up all together. This is why the word monthly is italicized above. $1,000 a month or ~$250 a week is a hell of lot more psychologically manageable than $12,000 a year even though they’re all the same thing.

It’s also important to recognize from this that the only relevant parties to this budget are you and your spouse. Your friends, families, and people you follow on Instagram are not important.

The path you set must be tailored to your team circumstances. When you make sure to set SMART goals without outside interference you drastically increase your long term changes of success.

Remember, this is a challenge that you’re going to beat together. It is not just ‘something you’re supposed to do’. There is risk and reward. Being smart and loyal will get you far.

You can not trade and/or swap

“Both the man who refuses to eat and the glutton harm their health. This is not virtuous behaviour. To eat moderately is”.Augusto Boal

Just like any other personal sacrifice it is easy to start swapping and trading once we get comfortable. How many times have you heard someone on a diet say, “Well, I am under my daily calorie intake so I can have a muffin”. Or, the opposite, “I had muffins yesterday. I’ll just take them out of tomorrow’s calories. 

This behavior is dangerous because it can be technically correct. Yes you cant eat 3,000 calories of muffins on Monday and eat 200 calories of salad on Tuesday. Your weight loss goal will only be marginally unaffected. Your health though? Forget about it. The same is true of your collective wealth.

Such behavior is a gateway to more bad habits. Just because you saved an extra $500 last month doesn’t mean you have more disposable income this month. Putting that $500 into your savings puts you in the green and ahead of your schedule. Don’t be tempted to veer off track just because you are doing better or worse than you anticipated.

The temptation is real. Something which you could resist in a normal month seems okay to buy because of that extra money. If your system allows that great! Many ‘reverse budgets’ would probably operate like this. The trouble is that with twice the savers come twice the temptations and twice the risk of significant failures.

It is unlikely that 100% of your extra spending is going to go on joint couple purchases. If this tips out of balance, congratulations, the integrity of your team is undermined.

Much like personal fitness, consistency equals results. If you can spread the extra more equitably consistently go ahead. If you can’t, prepare for trouble!

Eyes on The Budget Prize

It’s a fact of the universe that even with the best will in the world, your couple goals are going to face setbacks. The most strategic and exemplary budgeteer will have a bad day. Sometimes your bad days will overlap too, and there’s no way around it.

It’s important to remember the true goal though, freedom. Money is not a useful object itself. The freedom money gives you to pursue what you want in a secure way is the real value of this tool.

Yes you may have only saved 5% this month instead of 20, but you are closer than last time and further than every couple not working together. When things get rough it’s important to remember the dream work that is fueled by your team work.

Eyes on the Prize

If you have difficulty focusing on why you are on a budget, there are many things you can do. 

  1. Have regular talks with your partner about what you are going to do when you achieve your budgeting goal.
  2. Switch the wallpaper of your phone for a picture of the house, the car, or the holiday spot you are saving for.
  3. Visualise the conversations you may have in the future with friends and family who come to you for budgeting advice.
  4. Use your imagination. Imagine yourself decorating that house, driving that car, swimming in the pool, or sitting by the beach. When we imagine our successes we can temporarily make them our realities which spark relationships with them. And when we have a relationship with something we are more likely to commit to it.

Visualization is a much better tool that looking at numbers on a spreadsheet.

Couple INC – Team Meetings

You’re probably sick of zoom calls right now, and circling back to take the synergy offline? Time then to meet with the real dream team, you and your spouse.

Whoever said you can’t mix business with pleasure was obviously mistaken. Budgeting as a couple can be a tricky thing to navigate. One will consider certain things essential that the other will not. This is where adopting a business attitude can come in useful.

You are a team and your success means playing to your strengths. This takes openness, honesty, and that professional attitude you’re currently bringing to zoom bingo at work.

Setting up a monthly check-in to discuss the budget doesn’t have to be as boring as it sounds. All you really need to do is see if either of you are struggling. Or if either you have some extra costs coming up that need to be addressed and/or planned for. And check-in to see if there is room for improvements or if you are just killing it.

Business up your budgeting

If you have something to discuss that is causing some anxiety, try sending writing it down like a work problem, or addressing the issue in a business format. Taking the personal element out of the equation can be just the key for navigating tricking issues. Keep it professional, and treat the budget as a business venture and leave the drama at the door.

Stick to the plan

Stick to the plan

Unless you have had a discussion about changing the budget, stick to the one you both agreed on. Some are better than others when it comes to budgeting. But your partner may not have the same experience as you. They may not be able to make quick decisions and alter the budget on the spot like you can.

This is why it is very important that you are both on the same page. Be patient with your significant other, and modify your approach effectively when needed. After all no plan survives first contact with reality.

Tuning out the Noise

More and more we are constantly bombarded with advertisements. Advertisements that are specifically designed to make you spend your hard earned money. But aside from that we also have other triggers in our environments. These can be anything from specific locations, to particular people, including FOMO from social media. They all vary from person to person, but they pose the same threat when it comes to bad habits.

Therefore, it is important to identify these environmental triggers before or during your budgeting. It could be something as simple as shopping with someone who is not on a budget

Perhaps there is someone in your circle who encourages you and others to spend money. Or, simply walking by a “on sale” sign in the window of your favorite store. You definitely need to be aware of your saving mindset before starting, or as easily in the process as possible.

Red Button Budget Disaster

Actively avoiding these situations and locations is a very important step for budgeting success. It you can’t avoid you’ll need to learn how to cope as a team. Lean on your partner for support, that’s what they’re there for!

Clear communication

Some of us fall off the wagon now and then, it happens. But when we are budgeting as a couple it is immensely important to keep the lines of communication open. Sometimes we lose track and think, a coffee here, or a pint there, won’t be detrimental to our savings.

It may not hurt your bank statement, but it can have a bad impact on your relationship. Repressed anger, or guilt can be devastating to both you and your partner. This is why you should make an agreement at the start that if either of you mess up, you will tell one another and work it out. Every issue can be fixed unless one of you is hiding it.

The overall pot of money belong to both of you, so whenever it is spent it is both of you that are affected.

But Budgets Are Boring!

A lot of people find being a ‘responsible adult’ difficult and budget constraining. Although I’m a freak that enjoys budgets I can still empathize with people being affected by the stress.

So don’t be afraid to bring out your inner child. A very fun way to save extra money is to be creative. Bring back the swear jar for you and your partner. Or every time something negative is said about the budget you have to put money in the jar. Pocket change in a pot to buy ice cream or cocktails every weekend? Go ahead! Budgeting is an aspect of living and life is as dull or exciting as you make it.

Couple fun budget

Whatever the system, whatever the goal, you are more likely to succeed as a team. Working together with your partner will have teething problem, especially because money is an emotive issue. However, with the right mindset and a positive attitude you can easily find your own path on how to budget as a couple.


4 Responses

  1. Budgets need to be written down and intermediate progress needs to be looked at least a few times a month. People just plain don’t do because they know they can live with it. I think medical term is lazy bones.

  2. This was SO good! I’m feel pretty strongly about budgeting and combining finances when married. I love your idea about changing your phone screen to help visualize your money goals, too. You had too many good points to list here!

  3. One of things I really enjoyed is seeing the no swaps or trades. Even though, we may have saved $X amount of money last month doesn’t mean we can spend an extra $x amount this month. You have to stick with your budget and your goals. Communication is key to this as you had said. You have to communicated with your partner to make sure all is situated and everyone is on the same page.

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