How To Argue About Money Nicely & Productively

How do you manage money as a couple? Do you fight about money? This couple money advice is super doable and super helpful!

It’s 2009 and I’m standing in the tiny galley kitchen of the ‘garden’ (read: basement) apartment I hate, fighting back tears as I stare into the fridge.

Two days ago, I splurged on an expensive ball of fresh mozzarella. Today, where there was once fresh mozzarella, there is now a plastic container of cloudy mozzarella water.

That cheese cost $5. At the time, I was earning $16 an hour as a teacher at a non-profit. After taxes, the cost of that cheese = 30 minutes of my life. And my boyfriend ate it. My earns-three-times-what-I-do-doesn’t-have-school-debt-wants-to-split-everything-50/50 boyfriend ATE MY SPECIAL EXPENSIVE CHEESE.

It will not surprise you to know, dear reader, that what followed was an all out, raised-voices fight about money.

It also won’t surprise you to learn we did not remain boyfriend/girlfriend much longer.

If you’ve ever shared a living space and expenses with someone, you’ve probably had a similar experience. In fact, 57% of people who divorce cite money as the reason for their split.

Of course, money is complicated. We all spend it in different ways, for different reasons. These five basic steps can help you argue much, much less.

5 ways to argue about money nicely and productively 

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Figure out which expenses you truly share

If you’re on a ‘family plan’ for your phones, include that. If you pay $30 a month for a basic plan and your partner pays $75 for something fancy, don’t include it. If your car insurance is $60 and theirs is $200, again, don’t include that.

The goal here is to find a monthly number that covers the expenses you really, truly share. Expenses we truly share = expenses we don’t bicker about, right? It’s those “Why do you expect me to pay for half of that thing only YOU use?!” expenses that lead to shouting matches.

Set up three bank accounts

One for you, one for them, and a joint account that your (agreed upon!) shared expenses come out of.

If you’re not already doing this, this will end SO MANY of your money arguments. When your partner buys a new mountain bike out of their account, you won’t care. When you spend $150 a month on massages they won’t care. Having three accounts reduces guilt, resentment, and all those other bad feelings by, like, a million.

Have a conversation about how bills are being paid, by whom, and when

If you’re in a financial position to put your bills on autopay OMG DO IT. Companies often give you lower rates if you do!

If you prefer to pay bills on your own timeline, decide who will be paying and when. If you’re paying the bills and you wait till the very last minute, will that stress your partner out? Do you prefer to pay bills as soon as they arrive? Do you know which bills come out of which accounts? 

No matter who’s paying the bills, set a reminder in your calendar to look through your bank and credit card charges at least once a month. When you put bills on autopay, it’s verrrrrry easy to forget about them and miss it when CenturyLink raises your rate by $37 a month <- real thing that happened to us.

Also: make sure both of you have the login information for all of your accounts. Because it sure sucks when your partner is in Yellowstone, unreachable, and you can’t figure out how to get into the Tmobile account.

Not that this has happened to me or anything.

Agree on how much each of you can spend from the joint account without checking in

Can you buy $150 of champagne and seafood without telling your partner you’re putting it on the joint credit card? If you’ve agreed that home goods are a joint expense, can you spontaneously purchase a $300 sofa from Craigslist?

Everybody’s ‘check-in’ price point is different; it’s just important that you figure out what yours is.

And under the heading of ‘Obvious But I’m Saying It Anyway,’ it’s always better to err on the side of paying for something yourself.  You can always ask your partner later if they think it should be a shared expense.

Put the same percentage of your incomes into the joint account

When I started Yes & Yes I was earning $34,000 a year. My partner at the time was a web developer who earned $80,000.

Our shared expenses came to about $1,600 a month, so it seems like I should pay $800 of that, right? But $800 a month meant a looooot more to me than it did to him. So we decided we’d both put 40% of our income into the shared account. That way I still felt like I was contributing (rather than being a ‘kept woman’) but I didn’t feel resentful.

If you and your partner earn about the same amount, you might be able to skip this step, but this is a life-saver for couples with disparate incomes.

If you’re still arguing about purchases, try to get to the emotions behind them

It’s easy to get angry when your partner spends $$$ at the bar every night with their buddies. It’s a bit more understandable when you discover that they feel isolated at work and their only social outlet are the friends at said bar.

Or maybe your partner is less than thrilled by your recent purchase of one million candles, velvet throw pillows, and a crockpot. But if you open up about your seasonal depression and your attempts to Hygge and cozy-fy your home, those purchases are a bit more understandable.

How we navigate finances isn’t just about money. It's about the people we want to be. Click To Tweet It’s about the lives we want for ourselves and the things that are important to us. When we can talk about money with the people we love in a calm, respectful way, everything gets better.

But I’d love to hear from you! Do you and your partner argue about money? If you do or have in the past, what’s helped you stop? 

P.S. Money doesn’t matter if everything else sucks

P.P.S. Did you know I have a (free) private Facebook group dedicated solely to the topics of money and happiness? And the stuff we talk about has helped members change jobs, save thousands of dollars, and fight less with their partners? Join us!

photo by anneliese phillips // cc

14 Comments

Rachel DCB

Thanks, as always, for your insight and new way of looking at a topic many of us have spent a lot of time agonizing over. One question: many of these strategies assume a dual-income household. Do you have any suggestions for how this might play out in a single-income household?

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Rachel DCB

Yes, or for two people *plus kids* living on one income! For example: how might the non-earner feel okay spending the “other person’s money” on what might be considered frivolous things, etc.? And how does the earner try to graciously understand those purchases, etc.?

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Amy

I’m a stay at home mom and my husband earns the income, but we still use a lot of these tips. Rather than 3 separate bank accounts, we each get an equal amount each month that we budget as “personal money.” That takes care of more frivolous expenses. For example my husband can buy as many video games as he wants within that budget, and I can get whatever craft supplies strike my fancy. We also agree to discuss any bigger purchases that don’t fit into our regular monthly expenses (like food, gas, and bills). So if i had my eye on that Craigslist couch, I would run it by my husband and we would decide together if it was a good use of our money. Works well for us!

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Laura

OMG, my blood boiled at the sad mozza water in the fridge for you. Not only did he eat the special cheese, but who puts an empty container back in the fridge? Rude.

My partner and I have the same money philosophy – quite frugal, so we go with a single account and each spend what we want, on what we want. I know this wouldn’t work for most people, but it works for us!

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Sarah Von Bargen

INFURIATING RIGHT?! And, yes, it’s so important to find something that works for YOU!

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Libby

My husband and I happened upon a yours-mine-ours approach to the money and it has saved us time and time again. I recommend it to everyone who asks.

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hecate doe

Sarah, as you hinted in your fifth tip, rarely are arguments about money really about money, and say way more about issues of trust, abandonment, “fairness”, and resentment. Your cheese story particularly struck me. What would a man really be saying if he saw you bought something (clearly something you wanted) and ate it all? And then made sure you saw the empty container lying there so you had to throw it out. And what are you saying when you are so upset? Was it really the $5 (hopefully, you would gladly have bought him a $5 gift at that time, no matter how strapped you were)? Or was it feeling ill-considered and disrespected? And would you have gladly shared your cheese had he asked, instead of taking it all, or were there also issues around sharing? As a psychologist, I always ask couple to consider the greater relationship issues that money arguments merely illustrate.

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Darcy Coulter

I love this! I would also add that it’s important to talk about your debt upfront. Even though I make less than my boyfriend, I pay for more of the expenses so that he can really focus on paying off his debt. It’s better for both of us in the long run to get that debt out of the way.

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Anna

This is a great post! My fiancé and I set up a joint bank account about a year ago (partially to help with visa issues down the road) and it’s a life saver. I generally take care of doing the actual household buying (groceries, furniture etc) so it’s removed a lot of much stress. More recently, we move to a percentage-of-salary based contribution rather than 50/50 as we have different salaries and it has helped a lot. I worried initially that it was weird and selfish because I had never heard of anybody else doing it, so I’m glad to read that its a ‘thing’!

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Sarah Von Bargen

It’s is totally a ‘thing’, Anna! In fact, it’s what lots of relationship therapists and financial advisers recommend!

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