I’m newly married, and my husband and I have been trying to talk about our future financial goals. I know that’s a good thing, but now he is very particular about my spending. Last night, we met up for dinner after a work event, and the bill was $117 (we live in Manhattan, so that’s a lot but not insane). Still, he thought it was unnecessary and ridiculous to be so flippant about our budget. Obviously, we don’t spend money like that every day, but why does it have to be a thing if we do it every once in a while? I understand that he wants to plan more, but I need some spontaneity! I also love going out to dinner — it’s one of the things that makes living in New York worth it.
My job pays decently and I’ve been hustling to find side gigs that could bring in extra income, but if we want to save, we really don’t have much wiggle room. He’s framing my spending as “hurting our goals,” especially as we are hoping to have a baby and move in the next year. And I really am trying — I came in $300 under budget last month, even though I’ve already blown it this month. I just feel so hemmed in. How can we work together without this all feeling so constraining?
Welcome to the club, my friend. Whether they do it consciously or not, it’s normal for people to try to balance themselves out by partnering with their financial opposite. (And that’s not just anecdotal — academic research backs it up, too.)
Which is sweet, if you think about it! When your husband isn’t stressing about your dinner bill, he probably loves your spontaneity, and needs it to save him from a life of boredom and spreadsheets. And I bet that, on some level, you were attracted to his orderly, sensible, cautious nature — it’s a solid mooring when you’re being tossed around by your impulses.
In theory, you meet somewhere in the middle, and it’s all well and good. But when you actually have to live and eat and sleep and shop with someone who gets anxiety from your financial decisions (and dishes that anxiety back to you, in turn), you may not enjoy the “balance” in the ways that you hoped. My own partner and I take turns in these roles, depending on the situation, so I know what it’s like to be both the freaked-out one and the get-off-my-back one, and neither is fun. But it’s important to remember that you both serve an important function in the push-pull equation.
“I see this with a lot of couples: Once they decide who’s the spender and who’s the saver, they tend to delegate those roles to each other, and polarize even further,” says Megan McCoy, a marriage and family therapist and professor at Kansas State University, where she studies personal financial planning. “It becomes a good cop, bad cop situation. But in reality, their viewpoints might be more similar than they think, and it’s not that one person is right and the other is wrong.”
McCoy also points out that money means very different things to different people. She recommends trying the “Prepare/Enrich” workbook, which she often uses to help couples better understand where their spouses might be coming from. “For some people, money is about safety and security, but for others, it’s a symbol of power or status — ‘I worked so hard, and I deserve this.’ If you have a better understanding of what money represents to your husband, then it’ll help you empathize with him.” And vice versa: He might be less likely to accuse you of “hurting your goals” when you just feel like a good steak and a glass or two of wine, and more likely to understand why it’s important to you (and your marriage, on a larger scale).
Personally, I think the spender/saver conflict is a trap, because we’re conditioned to think that saving is good and spending is bad. But it’s a stupid dichotomy. Spending money is an essential part of living and enjoying your life, just as saving money is an essential investment in your future — apples to oranges. Being made to feel guilty about spending more money than you planned (which happens to everybody, at some point, and isn’t automatically “bad”) leads to fighting or, even worse, not talking about it at all, which is where the real poison is.
I’ve found that money gets a lot easier to discuss once you tease out the moral baggage and try to look at it in terms of what you really value. Like dinner! I’m serious, though. McCoy agrees that if you love restaurants, you should advocate for making them a bigger budget item. “I applaud you for saving and planning for the future together, but it sounds like you maybe haven’t been overt enough about your own financial goals, which can and should include going out to dinner on a whim if that’s what makes you happy,” she says. “You can be assertive about saying, ‘Hey, if we’re going to move and have a child in a year, I also want to be able to enjoy this last year in a while that we’re able to go out when we feel like it.’”
I get it, though — that money has to come from somewhere, and trade-offs are tight. Be patient with yourself, and ask for patience from your husband, too. Try different budgeting apps, and take it day by day. For some people, budgeting by category (“food,” “clothes,” etc.) is helpful, but I find it easiest to give myself a weekly dollar amount that I’m not allowed to exceed, like an allowance; it makes me feel like I have more latitude, even if I wind up spending on the same cereal and lime seltzer week after week.
The point is, allow yourself to experiment. This plan, like your marriage, is still extremely new in the grand scheme of your adult life and the habits you’ve established. If, say, you had to push back moving and a baby by six months to save more, would that be okay? Talk about it! Maybe you’re both in different states of urgency. This stuff is impossible to nail down, and while a plan is fantastic, your ability to be flexible as a couple is what will serve you most in the long run.