Marriage and Money: Who Handles The Bills?

After a couple ties the knot one of the more important things that has to be settled is who will handle the bills.  I’m in favor of both husbands and wives being involved in the finances, but in most relationships there is one person who will take the lead.

In the Frugal household, I am the nerd.  I enjoy reading and learning about money.  I keep up with the market (as painful as it is these days) and try to learn more about various investing vehicles.  Right now our main priority is becoming debt free and building an emergency fund, but once that is in place we plan to really pour on the savings.  My wife is involved in any major financial decisions, but I typically handle the mechanical transactions like balancing our checkbook, scheduling payments, writing out checks, etc.  She’s happy with that, but honestly I would like her to be more involved.

Recently, I created a list of accounts and passwords and we sat down together to make sure she knew where everything was, financially.  We reviewed insurance policies, debts and savings, and went over how to handle things in the event something happened to me.  I’m ashamed to say this was the first such discussion since early 2007 when I had rotator cuff surgery.  We should really make it a point to review these types of things more frequently.

One piece of advice I would give to other couples in our situation is to give your spouse one small piece of the finances to manage.  In our case, my wife now handles all of our household bills and utility payments.  I take care of the big-picture stuff–retirement contributions, debt payments, college savings for the kids, etc.

Ultimately, I would like for us both to be equally involved in all aspects of our financial plan, but it’s not really feasible with two kids and a busy schedule.  Let’s face it, most days the last thing you want to do is get together to enter transactions in Quicken, or schedule an extra payment on your car, so I typically handle those types of things and we communicate on where we stand.

Here are some additional tips on managing money as a couple:

  • Have a budget meeting at least once a month to discuss upcoming expenses.  My wife might not know I’m planning to buy new tires for our car next month, and I might know that money is due for yearbooks and soccer registration.  Failing to plan for these types of expenditures can lead to debt, or even worse, marital strife.
  • Non-working spouses need to be just as involved.  For some reason, stay-at-home moms and dads are often left out of the picture because they do not “earn” an income.  They should be just as involved in the financial decision-making as the income-earning spouse.  After all, it isn’t my money and her money, it’s our money.
  • Both couples should have an open view to debts.  Hiding debt is one of the worst things you can do.  I know, because I hid aspects of our debt totals from my wife because I didn’t want to worry her.  Instead, I shouldered all the worry and resented her for spending money that I had planned for debt repayment.  The best thing I ever did was come completely clean about where we stood so we could develop a game plan together for tackling our debts.
  • Do not keep a financial scorecard.  Occasionally, my wife and I get caught up in trying to see who can out-save the other.  If one of us spends money on something, the other reminds them of it and it can lead to an argument.  Best to allow both spouses to have a little “blow money” in their envelope system and not ask questions about how the money was spent, or how much something cost.
  • Talk openly about your financial goals.  I want to retire early and do something that I am passionate about – with or without a salary.  To be in that position we will have to work hard to clear all of our debts, including the mortgage, and then build a sizable nest egg to live off while I pursue other goals.  Fortunately, my wife’s goals line up well since she hopes to one day help with grand kids and enjoy some traveling that we haven’t had a chance to do early in our marriage.

Ask the reader:  Who handles the money in your household, and why?

Comments

  1. My husband is the one using the financial scoreboard, but tends to forget to record his own score. There’s nothing like listening to someone complain that you spent $20 on a new oven mitt and Tupperware while staring at the $500 weight set and bench bought the day before. Please, no one else do this to your spouse.

    We both have $40 of fun money every month which we get to spend as we please. This cuts down on the little arguments over minor expenditures, but it really stinks when one spouse blows the budget that both of you made.

  2. Good tips and a very important subject!

    My wife does not work and I do my best to keep her involved in the finances. She is now great at entering receipts and bills into Quicken and balancing against our online statements and we talk regularly about our savings goals and budget.

    A few tips I’d add to your list.
    1. Have a highly visible, nearly real-time budget status. This way you can both always see exactly where you at at any time.
    2. Have mutual short term financial goals. We know we have long term goals like early retirement and that is great, but it can be harder to visualize progress towards long term goals. Short term goals are motivational as we see them get accomplished. IMO you should have a few short term goals that can be realized within the year.

  3. We have a very similar system. My wife also pointed out that she was not involved, and wanted to know more about what was going on in our financial lives. I make it a point now to prepare a formal report for her every 15 days, which takes me 10 minutes, but keeps her completely in the loop on where we stand. I plan to let her run the whole show one month this year so she gets the hang of it.

  4. Thanks for the suggestions. My husband and I were just talking this weekend about the need to sit down and go over some things. Typically I “handle” our money, but I really need to make a list for him of all of our accounts, passwords, etc. I’m ashamed to say I haven’t gotten around to this yet, but need to.

  5. Thanks for the great tips. As you are probably aware, money is given as the number 1 reason why marriages fail.

    Really, the issue is the power that the money represents. We get into power and control struggles with our spouse, and money becomes a toxic issue.

    Your suggestions are great places to get past the power/control of money and into the connection that is possible about money.

    Lee H. Baucom, Ph.D.
    author of Lee H. Baucom, Ph.D.
    author of Save The Marriage

  6. Great post FD.

    My wife and I split the bills about 50-50. We each have a mix of debt paydown, revolving bills and savings. It helps that we both have good jobs and make about the same amount of money. That way, neither relies on the other’s money for anything (either budget or non-budget related). But, this does require the monthly “review” that you mention. Without it, we’d be in the dark as to the other’s financial status.

  7. The joke at our house is that dh doesn’t even know where the checkbook; it has been in the same drawer for 9 years. He is passively involved with our finances. I manage all of our finances, but we meet once a month to discuss them. We make all decisions together. I have a spreadsheet that lists our account and debt balances that I try to review with him at our meetings. I love handling these things and he hates it. I am a sahm, but dh has never made me feel like the money is his, it is ours

    I do like the idea of creating a list of accounts and passwords and I should probably review my filing system with him too.

  8. It has taken a LONG time, but we seem to have finally gotten to the place where there isn’t so much “yours” and “mine” in our finances, and more of just “ours.” And that has taken a WORLD of strain off our marriage.

    One thing that helped was changing our thinking about work – we have been reading “Your Money or Your Life” and we have been redefining our work and our jobs. It used to be that the person whose labor generated money (or more money) saw their work as more valuable as the person whose work didn’t generate money (or more money – as though making a greater numerical value of money means the money you make is somehow more valuable, or entitles you to more financial irresponsibility!).

    Now in our marriage, we make large financial decisions equally. In turn, he is in charge making sure the big bills get paid (rent, insurance, etc.) while I am in charge of the marketing for the home (groceries, clothing, household stuff, coffee). Since I make most of the purchases, I balance the checkbook at the end of the month and we go over it. It really helps to use a financial agregator though – we use wesabe.com – it really takes the headache (and the tedium, and the crying) out of balancing your checkbook!

  9. Seems to be a hot topic of PF bloggers lately, wrote a similar newlywed post last week.

    I agree that couples should both be active when it comes to your finances. I’m guilty of managing most of our money, but my wife is aware of our budget status. We just need to work on taking the time to sit down and look over things once in a while.

    Stupidly Yours,

    Matt

  10. As a Stay-At-Home-Mom, I handle the finances. Actually, I am able to be a SAHM because I have always done well with finances. I taught my husband about putting money away for retirement and the value of living on less than you earn. I came into the marriage with much more money that he had. But now he is the only one making money, for the most part, so there is no resentment on either side.

  11. I do all the household management, including the money. On large purchases, I consult my husband first. On the most recent one involving stocking up on food for a somewhat extended period, we went in halves on the cost. Even though everything is “ours”, our direct deposits are in separate places. Even though he has full access to everything, he avoids any financial actions, preferring me to do it. I was talking to a friend of mine about this, and her husband is the same way. It works just fine for all of us; in fact, I think it minimizes conflict to have one person in charge who consults with the other when necessary.

  12. @The Passive Dad: I like the idea of using something like Mint to keep tabs on things real time so that we can both see where our money is going. This would make it easier than both of us keeping up with logins to all the various banks/brokerages. Good tip!

  13. I’m the main financial person in the household. I pay the bills, plan overall strategy and otherwise keep tabs on things.

    But I insist that my husband keep up with everything. To that end, I let him know how much I’m making payments for on each card. And each time I make a payment, I update the white board so he knows exactly where we’re at.

    He is currently responsible for one card’s payments, so I am easing him into bill payment. And he takes care of paying his doctor’s bills, though he always checks with me to be sure it’s okay to throw X amount of money towards a bill.

    The biggest problem we run into is that I know where pretty much all of his money is going. The same isn’t true for him. So whenever I spend money, I try to let him know. That way we’re on a more even keel.

    Meanwhile, we each get a (very) small allowance per week. That is where any indulgence spending has to come from. Usually, this goes to our hobbies, but it gives us a quantifiable amount that is okay to spend without checking in with the other person.

  14. This is very timely for me. I’m trying to get my husband on board with a debt reduction plan, but it’s been an uphill battle. We are just barely making our bills, but he keeps talking about things he wants to buy. It’s pretty frustrating.

    I gave him the responsibility of paying the monthly bills thinking that it would help him understand. I just opened four bills and they are all past due by more than 30 days.

    I just spent the afternoon compiling yet another budget spreadsheet to go over with him. I’m at the end of my rope. I don’t know how to get him to take this seriously. If we don’t get this under control we aren’t going to make it through the year. I don’t want to be the naggy wife. Any ideas?

  15. My guy friends would probably bash me endlessly for admitting this, but the roles are largely reversed at our house compared to what you’d consider typical. My wife handles almost all of the financial matters – although I do help – and I’m the domestic dude.

    For example, I’m a laundry ninja, sneaking in loads here & there. You never quite know how or when it’s happened, but there’s (almost) always clean clothes & linens when you need ‘em. Left to my wife, laundry would get done maybe once every 3 weeks and then it’d take an entire weekend.

    But the upside is that we’re in better financial shape than nearly any other couple (or for that matter most individuals) we know – except for our money guru go-to gal, Gretchen.

    So, I’m ok with being only marginally involved in the finances. I’ve got the rest of the house – and yardwork – to keep me occupied.

  16. I used to put zero effort into our finances. Seriously, I knew absolutely nothing about them. Just the thought of doing the taxes was enough to make me shiver with fright.

    That’s all changed in the last 2-3 years. My husband and I now collaborate on family finances. We both play a role in paying the bills. For the last two years, I’ve even done the taxes. I think it’s great for all contributing adults in a household to know what’s going on with the finances.

  17. Jason…great post for everyone to start thinking and better yet, talking about. In our home, it is me who handles ( and sometimes mis-handles) the bills, with little input from dh.

    In my first marriage, dh took care off all the $ stuff, I just handed him my check every 2 weeks. When he died suddenly, I was in over my head and the clock was ticking…I had no choice but to take a crash course in money and figure it all out…am still learning nearly 9 years later.

    When dh2 came along, I was way too uptight to even think about letting him handle all the money, or even loosening up and letting him in, to work with me. So we have progressed for many years into a system that I think we both hate. Lately, I have come to realize that he feels scared and emasculated by his lack of knowledge.

    So, where are we? I would love to say that I have fixed this, but I have to say that we are still taking tiny tiny baby steps…most days, we have to walk away and come back 3 or 4 times when we talk about money.

    I guess what I am trying to say is that no matter who “does” the money, both must feel secure and involved. Communications are vital and long term goals are too. Good luck, it is much easier than it sounds!

  18. As the stay at home parent, it seems to just make sense for me to handle the finances. Though my husband earns it, I am primarily the one who spends it. I can’t imagine being in charge of purchasing groceries or new clothes for the kids without knowing our financial bottom line and how much money we really had to spend on such things.

    My husband knows how to access all of our financial accounts, and we work out a budget together. I let him know at least on a monthly basis where we stand savings wise and how our budget is working for us.

  19. We received some good advice from an older couple a few years ago, that we’ve put into practice in the last year: With an agreed-upon budget, have one spouse handle the checkbook and other financial accounts for 6 months. Then switch and have the other handle it all for 6 months. It helps balance the responsibility/burden that finances can be.

  20. Great tips. My fiance and I are getting married in 2 months, and we’ve already worked out how to handle the finances. Hopefully, it will be a smooth transition from separate to joint finance!

  21. Even if one spouse pays the bills, there are other ways the second spouse can be involved. My husband makes sure the bills get paid each month (although we have enough in savings now to automate the process – next on the to do list).

    But I keep an eye on our budget. I try to find places where we can trim here or reduce somewhere else. I enjoy finding $5 here and $10 there. I also keep an eye on our interest rates for savings. Our local bank is offering 5% if you make 12 ATM transactions a month. I can do that easily with our groceries and weekly gas fill ups.

    The best way to communicate about money is to split responsibilities. Since I was laid off, I am the best one to call the bank, utilities, or other places during the day. My husband doesn’t mind the tediousness of paying the bills. And we both keep each other informed of what info we have.

    It takes work :) But it can be done. Just make sure each spouse feels like a working partner.

  22. Both need to take an active role in managing the money.
    Obviously, one might have more time than the other – money tasks should be allocated accordingly.

  23. Engaged, so not yet married, but we plan to continue on in the same fashion. I call our method, “Separate, but not alone.” That is, all the day to day handling is done separately, to each his own. Joint expenses are split 50/50. At the same time, we usually balance budgets and reconcile accounts at the same time and spend that time discussing where we’re at, our goals and their progress, and our future plans.

    I think it’s the best of both worlds. We both know that we’re on track to meet our goals and working towards the same things, but we don’t have to worry about the other person’s day to day expenses or their splurge on a new video game. Besides, he budgets bi-weekly, and I budget monthly. It would never work! :)

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