10 Ways Budgeting Saved My Marriage

Eleven years ago, my wife and I sat across the table from an experienced married couple squirming in their seats uncomfortably as though they feared we were about to deliver some terrible news.  But the source of their discomfort was the bomb they were about to drop on us.

You see, we were not yet married, but engaged, and the couple across the table was our mentor couple in our pre-marital class.  Upon review of our personality profiles and piles of personal baggage, they felt it their duty to discourage us from further pursuing the sacred vows of matrimony.  They’d never seen a hopeful couple more innately disparate, more inevitably destined for failure. 

We are indeed vastly different, but one thing my wife, Andrea, and I share in common is a penchant for resisting authority.  So with the blessing and support of family and friends, I’m thrilled to report we’ll be celebrating our eleventh anniversary this April with our two wonderful boys, Kieran and Connor, ages six and eight.

We have never forgotten, however, the well-intended admonishment of our mentor couple; indeed, we see much of life from vastly different perspectives, foremost among them our view of things financial.  And apparently, we’re not alone. Over 50% of marriages end in divorce.  Over 50% of those splits cite financial disputes as the primary reason for the break-up.

100% of marriages deal with money as a daily necessity.


This thought occurred several times when preparing my recent posts on budgeting on Forbes.com (How To Spend $1 Million At Starbucks) and TimMaurer.com (A Burdensome Yoke…Or A Path To Peace?).  It struck me that budgeting ranked right up there with prayer and counseling as a precious few factors that have helped keep us together.  Here are the top 10 ways budgeting has saved, and continues to save, our marriage:

10)  Budgeting forces us to collaborate.  It seems that as parents of young children, the level of commitments between work, school, church, sports and the arts leaves us functioning more as independent business partners than spouses.  We’re almost always in short supply of adult conversation and genuine collaboration, and (strange as it may seem) budgeting gives us the context for both.

9)     It offers healthy accountability.  Ronald Reagan famously said, “Trust, but verify,” and while 100% verification of trust in our marriage would be stifling, we’ve found periodic accountability to be a healthy way to build faith and trust in each other.  Our joint budgeting effort means all of our expenditures are accessible to the other.  Scrutinizing every penny spent would be unfair (a-hem, note to self), but knowing everything is visible is likely to encourage us each to spend more responsibly.

8)     It humbles us.  I’ve not found a more helpful tool in the pursuit of a successful marriage than humility, and since the use of money is so pervasive in our lives, small mistakes are the norm, not the exception.  Rarely a weekly cycle goes by in which we don’t each humbly acknowledge that we erred in some capacity, humbly submitting our mistake to the other.  And of course, a good budget is designed to withstand these small mistakes.

7)     It provides an opportunity for reconciliation.  The prevalence of small errors in our budgeting, however, provides fertile ground for a destructive tendency: that we’d develop a scorecard, real or implied, and shame the more regular offender (because there normally is one in most households).  So for us it’s very important that a humility ground-rule is established: Any time an offending spouse submits in humility to an irreversible mistake, forgiveness and reconciliation is the only way forward.

6)     It gives us reason to celebrate.  For each mistake, there are several successes in each budget cycle.  The long-term success of our marriage is often built on a series of small victories, and we should never withhold an affirmation for completing a project under budget or enjoying the security of a buffer when an emergency arises.

5)     It cuts down on surprises.  So many aspects of our life are subject to variability and volatility.  We can’t necessarily reduce the number of those surprises, but we can certainly reduce their negative impact by being financial prepared for them.  Financial strain, and especially shock, pushes many marriages to (and over) the brink.

4)     It makes us better parents.  All of us parents could probably agree that it’s possible to spend too little OR too much on our children, right?  We’re responsible to determine what the right levels of spending are for our children, and budgeting allows us to deliberately set aside appropriate levels of funding for education, clothing, sports, music and fun.

3)     It shows our dependence on each other.  Andrea and I do think very differently, and this inevitably leads to divisive thoughts like these: “You know, I think I could do this better on my own!”  But this decries the very essence of marriage as an institution in which each partner’s primary objective is to serve the other.  The process of budgeting puts our (literal and emotional) dependence on each other on full display.  That makes us vulnerable, but it’s good.

2)     It preserves a healthy level of independence.  The income production in most households is almost never perfectly equitable.  Andrea sacrificed a successful career in the financial industry when she chose to stay home with our young children.  This has been an incredible blessing in our family, but it’s also a breeding ground for insecurity and manipulation as I might have a tendency to overestimate my contribution to the family’s finances and underestimate Andrea’s.  It is imperative, then, that part of our budget is the preservation of a certain amount of financial independence for each spouse.  To offset this income inequity, we’ve established “His and Hers” accounts with unilateral privileges.  Many shun budgeting as too restrictive, but properly implemented, it actually gives us room to breathe financially, and we all need room to breathe.

1)     It preserves date night!  One of the interactions I’ve enjoyed most throughout my career was with a client who is a generation or two my senior.  He and his wife have five kids(!) and appear to be more in love today than they’ve ever been.  So at the close of one meeting, I got up the nerve to ask this gentleman what his secret to marriage and parenting was.  His answer?  They never fail to set aside time—and money—for each other as a couple.  He made a convincing case that we are better parents when we deliberately setting aside time to be together, away from the kids, and not just for date nights, but also long-weekends and even week-long vacations to remind ourselves that before we were parents we were lovers.  This proved especially difficult for Andrea and me because by the time we got to the end of most months, we’d already spent our discretionary cash on the rest of life and felt like we were taking funding away from other things to line-up a babysitter and enjoy a night or weekend out.  So now, much as we have preserved His and Hers accounts, we also have an Ours account.

Budgeting is not the slightest bit romantic, but it has the ability to promote and preserve the romance in our marriages and keep us on the right side of that daunting 50% divorce statistic.  There are as many good ways to manage this process as there are couples, and I’d love to hear some of the ways budgeting has helped preserve YOUR marriage also, so please share your story in the comments section!

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Belts and Budgets

1269613009money-belt Ahh, the holidays.  That time of year when spirits are lifted and offenses are forgiven.  When the smell of wassail and a freshly cut Fraser fir wafts through the home.  And, of course, it’s a time when both belts and budgets are stretched, almost as if it’s tradition.  I try never to ask of you something that I’ve not struggled with and asked of myself.  So it is with humility that I offer this prescription for a merrier Christmas and happier New Year regarding belts and budgets:

Eat and spend less.

Deep, huh?  Actually, it is.  Most of the mechanics of successful money and life management are embarrassingly simple; it is WE—you and me—who are hard to manage.  This stuff may be simple, but it’s certainly not easy.

The first question we should ask is, “Am I a natural?”  Do I have an innate proclivity for success in the realms of food and financial-based consumption?  Some people are blessed with a body that can incur a high-caloric blitzkrieg and not seem worse for doing so, but that’s a tiny minority.  For the rest of us, we must reach a mathematical equilibrium in which we’re expending a proportionate amount of the calories we take in.  Then, each of us has a physiological disposition that either makes it harder or easier to reach a comfortable and healthy balance.  That last component is what makes dieting a challenge—many of the variables are unseen.

Budgeting has a similar set of variables.  Money comes in and money goes out.  The primary objective is to spend less than you take in, and the “physiological disposition” equivalent in personal finance is the amount, frequency and variability in the level of income.  It is, necessarily, easier for a family with one monthly paycheck and a set of monthly bills to manage household cash flow than it is for a two-income family with self-employed individuals responsible for the income.  But regardless of the level of complexity, believe me when I tell you that there are natural budgeters—those who have a tendency to spend less than they take in—and those with a predisposition for over-consumption.  Hopefully you’re one.  (Frankly, I’m not.  It’s work.)

The first step towards managing each of these topics well, especially around the holidays when the challenge is exacerbated, is to know where we are weakest.  For food consumption, behold the “French Fry Rule”:  Know the extent of your will power.  For me, I’ve learned that I AM capable of saying NO when the server asks me, “Would you like French fries with that?”  But once the fries are on my plate, I will, invariably, eat them!  Know where (and also when) your will power is strong and weak, and play to your strengths.

When it comes to financial overindulgence, consider “The Four Forms of Money Rule”:  There are four primary forms of money—cash, checks, debit cards and credit cards—and each of us is most responsible with one and least responsible with one.  Personally, I am least responsible with cash.  If cash is in my pocket, much like if French Fries are on my plate, I’m going to dispose of it!

The key to success in both healthy budgeting and eating is to KNOW YOURSELF.  Don’t allow yourself to deceive…yourself.  Be honest and give yourself a fighting chance by playing to your strengths and avoiding your weaknesses.  And when you start to hear that lie in your head, pouting that you’re depriving yourself of a well-deserved treat, remind “it” that the balance and comfort you’ll feel when the temptation has passed is a far more desirable than the momentary indulgence.  As my good friend, Pat Goodman, tells me, “You must not only want what you want; you must want what your wants lead to!”

And if you think I’m asking too much of you, check out Leo Babauta’s blog post entitled, “The Case Against Buying Christmas Presents.”  I’m not necessarily suggesting you go that far, but Leo shares some great wisdom in here that speaks to the underlying causes of holiday-specific excess in spending and takes it to another level.

Gifting: The Pressure is OFF

A-christmas-story-ralphie-santa We’re now in the midst of Hanukkah and Christmas will be here in a few short weeks.  The Season of Giving, right?  And with all of the great things about this season also comes gifting stress.  You know how it works…You get together with someone this time of year for lunch or coffee and they come bearing gifts.  You immediately feel like a putz because you didn’t get one, so as soon as you leave, you head to the mall and buy them a gift…out of guilt.

Or, your children spend the entire month of December hearing about all the presents that their friends at school are going to get.  They start listing out the aggregate of ALL the gifts they’ve been hearing about at school on a daily basis and you are burdened by the thought that your child might be hanging his or her head at the lunch table when all the kids are discussing what they got.  So, you get them…everything.

You have a new boyfriend, girlfriend, fiancé or spouse and this is your first holiday season together, so you decide that you’re going to show them you know how to do it right.  And, you’re scared to death that they are going to outspend you, so you make sure that they don’t…out of fear.

Fear and guilt are not good motivators.   Thoughtful, heartfelt impulsion, on the other hand, is a great way to gift.  So, if you’re a last minute gift buyer like me, I suggest that you sit down and think about who you feel impelled to give a gift to, and then actually apply a budget to each gift – a guideline on how much you want to spend.  NEVER use credit to pay for a gift, because then you start the New Year off with a lower net worth than you had the day after Thanksgiving.  If you free yourself from giving out of guilt or fear, you’ll enjoy the season all the more.

The Cure For Greed

Interesting, isn’t it, how all that seems to be good about the holiday season recently incepted also seems to be accompanied by something… less than good?  Along with the bountiful feast on Thanksgiving comes the gluttony of eating like animals preparing for hibernation.  Along with the tradition of competitive college and professional football comes the sloth of watching three games… back-to-back… in the same spot… on the same couch.  And along with the season of giving comes the season of frenzied consumption, driven by marketing that at times seems downright manipulative.

Please don’t perceive my tone as judgmental; I only used the examples mentioned because they are those temptations to which I am most susceptible.  I am not a member of the naturally frugal minority condemning the profligate materialistic majority.  It is, after all, my tendency to prefer more over less, better over worse, cool over dorky and hip over unfashionable.

So it is with humility, then, that I posit this “Cure for Greed,” learned quite unintentionally through an experience many years ago that helps me avoid succumbing to the tug of materialism, an enticement we all face daily:

Defense Wins Championships

The fall is, without a doubt, my favorite time of year. And a not-so-insignificant element of that is the joy that fills my heart when huddled around my parents’ television on a Sunday afternoon with my family, a belly full of “linner” (a lunch big enough to be dinner) and the smell of apple pie wafting over a group of adults and children yelling in unison at the images of modern day gladiators chasing around an odd-shaped leather ball.  Football is philosophy… and some of that philosophy translates especially well in our personal finances.

IRAs Are Boring…in 90 Seconds or Less!

IRA is the most often used acronym  in all of personal finance, but what the heck is it (Individual Retirement Account)?  And when should I use a Traditional IRA or a Roth IRA?  And, by the way, what is the difference between the two?  The answer:

Wag The Dog

Let’s face it: the topic of taxes is just… plain… boring!  Boring, but IMPORTANT.  Here’s the most important rule to remember about taxes in your personal financial planning in the least boring way I could muster.

From The Financial Crossroads Chapter Thirteen of, Wag the Dog:

There is an alien in our house.  Even though we willingly invited this being into our midst when it was very young, it’s become abundantly clear that it does not fully understand the cultural norms of the human realm.  For example, when left to its own devices, it will pillage our human food stores even though it subsists on its own specialized alien food.  It seeks to re-create the style and substance of our outdoor landscaping by relocating the dirt and mulch of our purposefully designed flower beds onto our sidewalks, and creating anew trenches and holes in parts of our yard that were previously flat and covered with grass.  And despite our munificent creation of an alien habitat inside of our home, it seeks to live in, and often bring destruction to, our human habitat, furniture, and creature comforts.  It’s…a dog.

Tim’s dog can’t catch a Frisbee with her mouth, but tries with her paws!

She is, as much as it pains me to say it, our dog, and unless she hears Jack London’s Call of the Wild, she will be for quite some time because she’s still only a puppy.  She was a shelter puppy—an adorable, lovable mix between a German Shorthaired Pointer and a Labrador Retriever (at best guess).  An especially strong case can be made for the pointer, because as she grew, she became so tall and lanky that her youthful coordination simply couldn’t keep up with her growth.  The result was an hysterical few months of physical comedy.

After a February winter storm, she looked like Bambi scrambling to find her footing on the ice-covered snow.  If she made it up a flight of stairs, she’d have to be carried down to avoid tumbling over her stilt-like legs.  And her tail grew to a point where it seemed to double her overall length.  That tail is a weapon capable of clearing off an entire coffee table.  And she’s so annoyingly happy that her tail is always in motion.  I have, on more than one occasion, seen her lose control of her overjoyed tail, collapsing her entire awkward frame into a heap on the floor.

“Don’t let the tax tail wag the dog.”  In college, I heard that quote for the first time from the professor that made the greatest impact on me in those years, Dr. Daniel Singer.  He was—and is—that professor that unnerves students because he’s not predictable.  One semester, he’d teach a class with three tests and two quizzes in between; the next semester, your entire grade was based on only one presentation.  But it was his unpredictability, his passion, and his depth of conviction that drew me to him, and I aimed to take as many of his classes as possible.  It is now my privilege to teach alongside Dr. Singer as an adjunct faculty member at the university from which I graduated.

Dr. Singer would not claim to have been the first ever to say, “Don’t let the tax tail wag the dog,” but to me, in my junior year of college, it was groundbreaking, and it still is.  Too many people, too often, make poor economic decisions because their judgment is clouded by tax concerns.  In most financial decisions, the tax consequences are a secondary or tertiary—at best—consideration.  Drew Tignanelli, a Certified Public Accountant and Certified Financial Planner™ practitioner with 30 years of experience balancing tax planning within the framework of good financial planning put it to me this way: “First, forget about taxes!”

How could he make such a claim?  It’s not because he sees taxes or tax planning as irrelevant or unimportant.  He simply recognizes that in the realm of personal financial planning, you should make decisions first based on the wisdom of the investment, insurance, retirement, or estate planning strategy, and then take a look at the taxes.