How to Navigate Finances in Marriage

I’ve read a number of articles claiming to know the number one reason for divorce: selfishness, social media, infidelity, etc. I don’t claim to know what the right answer is, but one that comes up a lot as a main problem in marriage is money. And rightfully so. There you are, minding your own business, making your own money, spending your own money, and then all of a sudden, you get married and all that money (or lack thereof) is pooled together. Now your debt is his debt and his debt is your debt and your earnings are his earnings. It’s a tricky situation to navigate. Here are some ways to successfully navigate finances in marriage:

Introduction: We are a biking family. Every summer, the kids make a chart we put on the wall that marks how many miles we plan to bike that summer. Three years ago, we biked 100 miles in a summer. Last year, it was 83 (they ran out of space on the paper when making the chart). Mr. T hauls Lui and Florin in the trailer (they’re getting too big to be in there together, but don’t tell them that) and Penny and I are on the kid version of a tandem bike. It’s basically a half a bike attached to the back of my bike. (Since Mr. T’s bike was stolen last week, his need to finish the chart increased significantly because he decided he wanted to get a win. So we’re working hard on one of his old bikes to get this chart done before the snow arrives!) As we were riding last weekend, I thought how fun it would be for Mr. T and I to get a tandem bike after the kids leave home. I realized it would probably be more fun for me than him because he would have to help haul me up the hills rather than speed through them and wait for me at the top. Then I started thinking about finances in marriage, and the tandem bike analogy is perfect.

  1. Make a plan – Before you set out on any bike ride, you make a plan. Maybe you’re the kind of people that plan the exact destination as well as the exact route you plan to take. Maybe you just decide you’ll head in one general direction. Either way, you don’t leave without having some idea of where you’re going. In marriage, you need to do this right away with your money. If you haven’t done it yet, do it now. Again, maybe this means mapping out exact financial goals and the exact steps you’ll take to get there. Or maybe you just establish the main financial goals. Even a vague plan is better than no plan. What are your financial goals? A house? Kids? Retirement? An anniversary trip? A new car? Write them down. Figure out how much each will cost and how long until you’ll need that money. Plan your savings accordingly.
  2. Know your strengths and weaknesses – I can tell you that I do not sign up for bike rides that are primarily uphill. I don’t enjoy those. And I know that going more than 17-20 miles with our kids is too much, so we plan our rides to accommodate our capabilities. A budget is what will do this for your finances in marriage. You need to write down every single purchase you make. If you don’t know where the money is going, you don’t know how to help yourself save more of it. The budget is based on the simple principle of spending less than you earn and saving the rest. When we first got married and we were still figuring things out, we wrote the amount we made on the top of a grocery list on the fridge. We subtracted 10% to save. Then every single purchase we made (rent, utilities, food, a pencil), we subtracted the amount on that shopping list. It was a good starter exercise that allowed us to figure out how we spent money, where we needed to improve, and be able to come up with a plan that worked for us (and ended with us saving more than 10%).
  3. Check the condition of the bike – Before a bike ride, we also make sure our tires are pumped, and our water bottles are full. When you approach your plan together, be clear about the condition of your finances. If you have debt, be honest and clear about it. Dishonesty in finances is never a solution to the problem. If we started out on a tandem bike ride and I knew the tire had a hole in it, but failed to fix it before the ride or mention it to Mr. T, we would find ourselves stranded with a flat tire and no pump. If we’re prepared, we would fix the tire, or at least bring a pump to top off every few miles. Your financial problems can be solved together. You’re a team now. I have also read several articles about bank accounts people keep secret from their spouses. (I keep telling Mr. T now is the time to reveal all his secret money to me!) If you don’t know what you’re working with, you won’t be able to make the best decisions as a team.
  4. Don’t be the one pedaling backwards – On one ride with Penny on the tandem attachment, a gentleman rolled down his window as he drove past and yelled: “Your helper is pedaling backwards!” On a tandem bike, both people are useful. Even though Penny is not the strongest one of the two of us on the bike, if she pedals, it helps get us up those hills (her screaming: “All we need is momentum and motivation! We can do this!” really helps as well). If she pedals backwards, she’s nothing but dead weight. It’s okay if one of you is stronger financially or more interested in the climb. Just make sure both of you are working toward the same thing. Don’t be the one that goes against the plans for your own, individual desires. Mr. T doesn’t geek out about spreadsheets like I do. He doesn’t enjoy discussing asset allocation or compound interest. But he is on board with the plan we made together and doesn’t pedal backwards. He sticks to the budget we set as a couple and he does his part on the uphill climbs.

    Mr. T and I on the wedding day watching my sister's first dance. (We happened to have a double wedding.)

    Mr. T and I on the wedding day. We happened to have a double wedding with my sister and (now) brother-in-law.

  5. Don’t be afraid to shift gears – On the uphill, I naturally try to power pedal up the hill on the same gear. Mr. T downshifts incrementally so he is always pedaling at the same basic speed. His method works much better than mine. If I don’t follow his lead, I burn out pretty quickly and don’t make it up the hill. Mr. T and I have a brief financial chat monthly about our general financial plan and monthly budget. Once a year, we have a major sit-down where we look over our plan and see what’s working and what isn’t and decide what our current priorities are. Sometimes those shift. Be flexible. Regrouping periodically is important. And keep pedaling. Hills will inevitably arise, and you’ll have to shift gears. But if you stop pedaling, you’ll fall.
  6. Be prepared – Along with the inevitable hills are the unplanned events. Sometimes tires pop, the trail is closed, or you have to wait for a moose to cross a safe distance away (you don’t have this problem on bike rides?). Have an emergency plan. Build an emergency financial fund. Have at least $1000 in easy-access funds as well as 3-6 months of expenses aside from your regular or retirement savings.
  7. Plan for Differences – Mr. T and I ride differently. He rides perfectly on the path at a very consistent rate. I’m all over the place both in position and pacing. And we’re different financially. Everyone has their thing. (For me, it’s Trader Joe’s brownie mix.) There will always be something they buy that frustrates you. Plan for that. Build into your budget some freedom money. $20 per person per month can save a lot of disputes. You can save your money up and buy something bigger or you can spend it all on brownies. No arguments. This freedom money will help you stick to the budget in other areas.
  8. Enjoy the ride – If you’re always worried about the bike working properly, how you’re going to get up the next hill, or what will happen if your tire pops, you’ll forget to enjoy the ride. Biking is fun. The scenery is amazing. Set up your plan and keep pedaling, but you don’t need to worry about finances all the time. Automate savings. Stick to your budget. And enjoy your life. You set out on this tandem trip together for a reason. Have a great time!

Marriage

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8 Comments

  1. Really great tips and I love the analogy. It’s so important to remember to enjoy the ride. We have a lot of uphill climbing yet to do, but that doesn’t mean we can’t appreciate the scenery on the way up.

    • MaggieBanks

      We waste so much time saying “When____ happens, we’ll be happier.” Part of our goal is to enjoy it now! We got married because we wanted to experience life together. Not just the happy parts. And the uphills are what bring us closer together.

  2. Love this analogy! Really shows the importance of working together and communicating for happy joint finances.

    • MaggieBanks

      Thanks Ali! It’s worked for us! And biking makes sense to us, so it made the most sense to explain how we’ve navigated our finances with a bike analogy. Though it does make me want a cute tandem bike…

  3. Wondering how to make this fit with the bike analogy, but I’d add that you have to let things evolve over time, too. Maybe letting yourself go from mountain biking to road biking? 😉 The way we managed our finances at the beginning of our marriage are quite different from how we do things now, mainly because we’ve stayed open with each other and have learned from what has gone well and not so well. For example, we used to have separate discretionary accounts and pay ourselves an allowance, so we’d each have money to spend that the other couldn’t question. (Though, admittedly, we paid ourselves a lot more than your suggested $20 a month! This was in the *old* system, before we got on the frugality train!) Over time, we found that we trusted each other and didn’t need that discretionary fund. So we don’t do that anymore. We also don’t budget, but neither of us spends willy-nilly, so we know where we’ll end up each month. We’ve found the system that works for us, and it’s going to look a little different for every couple. So maybe add: find the right bike for you! And then feel free to customize it over time. 🙂

    • MaggieBanks

      I like it. I guess I considered that a part of “Switching gears,” but I think you’re right in saying sometimes it can be as drastic as moving from road biking to mountain biking. We certainly do things much differently now than we did when we started (grocery list budget on the fridge).

  4. These are really great tips. Love the bike analogy. “Don’t be the one pedaling backwards” – awesome!

    Many married couples catch what I call the “Newlywed Disease” – trying to attain their parents (or the similar) lifestyle in the first 5 years of marriage; except it took their parents 30 years to get it. These are all great tips to prevent the Newlywed Disease.

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