my two cents

‘How Can I Get My Spouse to Support My Career Transition?’

Photo: H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock/Getty Images

Dear Charlotte,

My husband and I have always had different takes on money, but it’s come to a breaking point lately. He grew up wealthy, but is very practical and budget-minded. I grew up middle-class, but have always liked beautiful things when I can afford them. 

Recently, we have been discussing me leaving my full-time job to write a book and work on a podcast series (I have an agent, so this isn’t as wild as this sounds). My husband is onboard with this and knows that it could lead to a larger income for me in the future, but he recently said we will have to cut back on everything, including travel and eating out, to prepare for the transition. He also is stressed about what the book advance will be, and if I will be freelancing on the side.

In terms of our overall expenses, we split rent and bills evenly, but he usually spends more on our shared “extras.” He recently said that I contribute one-third to our life versus his two-thirds, which is probably true. But this is also roughly proportional to our salaries, as he makes more money than me. I also spend much more on our social commitments and home than I think he understands or acknowledges. 

My biggest problem is that he seems to expect me to just nod my head when he says what I can and can’t do with my money. He also keeps discussing everything he is doing for me as a “favor,” and brings up the fact that he has lent me money in the past. (I tried to pay him back, but he refused to take it and told me I should put it toward retirement savings instead.) How can we stop arguing? How can I get him to support my decisions more? I would like to think that I would support him in a career transition, and I wish he would do the same for me.

— On different pages

It seems like you have a communication problem masquerading as a money problem. Both you and your husband’s arguments have merit, but you’re speaking such different languages that it’s impossible to find common ground. You’re each trying to voice what you need, but the other person can’t hear it.

So, let’s break it down, starting with your side. You want your husband to be more flexible and supportive, financially and emotionally, as you navigate these exciting but scary changes in your career. You also want him to stop breathing down your neck about your spending, saving, and earnings more generally. In short, you want him to trust you and have your back — and maybe pick up some extra expenses over the next few months so you can focus on your new ventures.

Meanwhile, your husband sounds like he’s probably a little nervous about the pressure on him to provide for you both while you embark on a new chapter that won’t immediately bring in the kind of income you’re both accustomed to. I can understand why he wants concrete numbers from you; he wants to know what he might be on the hook for if he needs to pick up the slack.

The thing is, you are both right. Your husband’s point — that you need a financial plan before you quit your stable job and dive into the amorphous world of book-writing and podcast-making — is valid. But you are also correct that he shouldn’t be bossing you around or giving ultimatums about your expenses. “Part of the problem is that you need a clear communication strategy for this launch,” says Nick Holeman, the head of financial planning for Betterment, a financial-advisory firm. “I see these types of questions from couples all the time, and the solution is always part financial, part relational.”

To start, you need to figure out what kind of runway will make you both feel comfortable. “For most people, that’s some kind of savings or other cash that you can depend on, so you can give yourself a fighting chance without being stressed out about rent or bills while you get up and running,” says Holeman. Setting aside a pool of money that will sustain you for, say, six months would be a good benchmark. Of course, that’s a lot easier said than done, so maybe you can bulk up that money pool with some easy, non-time-consuming side gigs that will bring in extra income and make your runway longer. (For instance, I know a couple of entrepreneurs who did tutoring on the side while they started their businesses, just to have some dependable cash flow.)

Cutting back on expenses could also be part of this equation, but you should both be very specific about what that means. “Stopping all travel and eating out sounds dramatic, and I don’t know many people who have much luck making big changes to their budget with the flip of a switch,” says Holeman. “It’s also undefined. I would recommend coming up with a goal to cut back by a certain amount for a set period of time, so you’re both aware that it’s a temporary and hopefully worthwhile sacrifice.” You also need to be on the same page about it — neither of you should be policing each other.

You might also consider tracking your expenses on a more granular level and sharing them with each other, at least for a few weeks as an experiment (you can use apps like Mint to make this less of a headache). “Having more concrete numbers could alleviate some of your husband’s stress,” says Mark Reyes, a certified financial planner for Albert, a financial-services company. You mentioned that your husband doesn’t seem aware of what you spend on your home and social life as a couple — more transparency could change that. I’m not saying that you have to be an open book about every single cent that leaves your bank account for the rest of your lives, but it can be a good trust exercise to try it for a period of time. Just make sure that you approach it with an open mind — try not to judge his spending, and ask that your husband be equally noncritical of yours.

Gaining more clarity around your shared expenses could also help you divide them more fairly, Reyes adds. “If your husband is making two-thirds of your total household income, then a more equitable ratio could be for him to pick up two-thirds of your shared bills,” he says. You mentioned that you split bills like rent down the middle, and then your husband picks up more of the “extras” because he makes more money. But it’s tough to quantify that if you’re not really keeping track, and that can lead to each of you feeling like you spend more than your fair share. Getting some hard numbers should give you more information to work with.

Finally — and most importantly — you need to make sure that you’re talking to each other in a way that the other person doesn’t find threatening or dismissive. In your husband’s case, he might feel scared when he hears you being vague about how things will work out. “When I work with couples, I often find that a spouse who’s more controlling with money is acting that way because they think they don’t have a choice — if they don’t control it, the bills won’t get paid,” says Holeman. If he isn’t communicating well about his anxiety, it can come across as criticism or a lack of faith in you and your future endeavors. Which sucks! The problem is, he probably doesn’t know that he’s giving you that message, so you need to explain to him how it makes you feel.

There’s no easy fix for these types of communication barriers. Reyes recommended a few sessions of targeted couples counseling — or more, if you find it useful! (If you want a couples therapist that specializes in financial differences, I recommend looking at the Financial Therapy Association.) I’m also a big believer in putting regular financial talks on your joint calendar, perhaps as often as weekly to start. That will keep you from hounding each other about money in between your scheduled discussions, and allow you to prepare in advance for how you want to word a difficult point.

Ultimately, this should be an exhilarating time for you both. I’m sure you’ve put in years of work to get to this point, and I hope your husband is proud and eager to support you. It’ll take some work on both sides to make your financial future feel solid and secure as you embark on these next steps, but having that strong foundation at home will make all the difference.

‘How Can I Get My Spouse to Support My Career Transition?’