my two cents

‘My Husband Won’t Stop Overspending on Worthless Crap!’

Photo: H. Armstrong Roberts/Getty Images

I love my husband a lot, but he has issues with shopping. Before the pandemic, he was making a decent income, so his spending wasn’t a problem. Then he was furloughed about a year ago. He has started working again, but his work is commission based, so he hasn’t made nearly as much as he usually does. But instead of cutting back on nonessentials, he’s been buying tons of crap. We get boxes and deliveries all the time — random hardware for our apartment, ingredients for foods he wants to cook, new accessories for his at-home desk, etc. 

He has always been forthcoming with me about his finances, so honesty isn’t an issue. But he gets upset and defensive when I try to tell him we don’t need this stuff, and especially upset when I try to get rid of any of it. It’s like he’s hoarding out of stress. 

Not only is the clutter driving me nuts, but he’s now carrying a balance on his credit card of about $5,000, which gives me a ton of anxiety. I told him I’d help him pay it off, but is that just enabling him? We’ve been getting into huge fights about this, and I’m really worried about him and what this could mean for our savings in the future (we’re both in our early 30s, have student loans, etc.). How do I get him to stop doing this and make better habits?

The past year has exposed countless problems that used to be easier to ignore, and I’m sorry that your husband’s spending habits are among them. On the bright side, this is your big chance to tackle a problem that could otherwise simmer on the back burner indefinitely.

And you should address it, even though your husband might be resistant. After all, what he seems to be doing — reacting to scarcity by stockpiling unnecessary crap — is a very common, even normal, coping mechanism. Acute stress makes it hard to see the bigger picture, and buying things you might need in a scary, uncertain future can be comforting in the short term, even though it digs you into a deeper financial hole in the long run. It’s frustrating to watch anyone do this, and when it’s your own spouse, it can be downright scary. But admonishing your husband for this behavior could just exacerbate it, and — even worse — make him secretive about his spending. So you’ll have to take a delicate approach.

You can’t solve this problem for your husband, nor do you want to scold or babysit. Instead, you want to emphasize that you’re in this financial boat together, says Trina Patel, a certified financial adviser at Albert. “Establishing open channels and getting on the same page about income, spending, debt, and savings is a crucial first step, even if you’re managing money separately,” she explains. “From there, you can get aligned on values and goals, and that will help you work together instead of creating a me-versus-you dynamic.”

Of course, this will be a process. Patel recommends planning weekly or monthly “money dates” to go through your cash flow, what’s going well, what isn’t, how you feel about it, and what you want to work on. By setting aside time in advance, your husband won’t feel ambushed, and you’ll have time to think about what you want to say instead of snapping suddenly when more packages from his latest shopping spree show up at your door.

You’ll also have opportunities to let him know he’s not alone — take them! “Saying things like, ‘How can I help support you through this?’ can go a long way,” says Patel. And finally, make it fun: “Get a glass of wine, or have a dessert, or go outside and walk while you’re talking. Do something that makes it enjoyable and less daunting.”

It would also help to restructure your finances so that you both feel more accountable to each other. One way to do so is to try pooling all your money, at least for a while. Bahareh Sahebi, a therapist and faculty member at the Family Institute at Northwestern University, says that couples who share their money in a joint bank account are more likely to consult each other about their spending, be transparent, and think about how it impacts their partner. (Research backs this up.) “I recommend to married couples that they share one account that both of their paychecks go into, no matter how much each partner makes,” says Sahebi. “That way, you both know what’s coming in and going out.” From that account, you pay your joint expenses and contribute to savings, student loans, or other necessities.

But your pooling plan also needs to allow for some autonomy. No one wants to feel like their spouse is watching every dollar they spend, and you don’t want to be peering over your husband’s shoulder all the time either. For that reason, Sahebi advises setting up a certain (reasonable, agreed-upon) amount that gets funneled into your individual accounts every month. This money can be spent on whatever you each want, no judgments or questions. Your husband can blow it on random desk accessories when he gets the urge, and you get peace of mind that he isn’t going rogue.

As for your husband’s credit-card debt: It’s tough for me to say how much you should help him pay it off, and it obviously depends on whether you have the means to do so. I’d also be curious about his history with overspending. Has he done it before and had to rely on, say, his parents to bail him out? (If that’s the case, it seems important that you not do the same.) Understanding his behavior will give you more context about what kind of support he needs from you.

Either way, it would be best for both of you if he stopped using his credit card immediately and deleted it from the autofill function on his phone and web browser and wherever else he shops, says Patel. Since you’re married, his debt could legally be seen as yours (depending on what state you live in); it could also impact his credit score, which would affect your ability to take out a mortgage or other loans together in the future. So you’ll both benefit from getting rid of that lingering balance as soon as possible, and you should treat it like a collective effort, even if he’s shouldering most of the actual payments.

Finally, if you’re still hitting roadblocks in these conversations, it could be worth enlisting a third party, like a financial planner or a couples therapist with experience handling money conflicts. Remember, even if you are objectively right about how bad his spending habits are, you won’t get anywhere if he feels criticized and ashamed; you both need to be on the same team.

‘My Husband Won’t Stop Overspending on Worthless Crap!’