10 tips: How to manage money as a couple

Are you about to get married? Or preparing to move in together with your loved one? Or are you about to merge you finances? Or just started dating? Here’s 10 tips on how to manage money as a couple.

Img src: colinwalker.me.uk
Img src: colinwalker.me.uk

1) First changes come as soon as you start dating

Okay, so while dating, you’re not quite a “couple” yet, but even so – this will be very different from managing money as a single, non-dating person.

I was single for 3 years before I met my soon-to-be husband. In those three years, I constantly worked on my money skills, and greatly improved my finances in the process. I obsessed about optimizing my budget and saving as much as possible. And I got really good at it.

When I was a non-dating single, I didn’t have very many expenses. I didn’t travel. I didn’t go out much. Even when I did, I chose the cheapest thing on the menu.

But when I started dating my now-fiancee, I felt things change.

When we were dating, we both had a lot of travel expenses since we lived in different towns. Because of that, we had limited time together, and we wanted to make the most of it. We’d want to visit a park out of town. Shoot some balls at a pool table. Go to a Christmas party – and after-party – together. Have dinner out. Even when we’ just sit for a cup of coffee, I’d spend more than my usual (which was one drink of whatever’s cheapest on the menu). If it was just a friend I was out with, I could have done with just one cup of coffee. But he and I had such a great time together, we always wanted to stay “a little longer” and so we’d have two or three drinks instead of one. Then we’d want to eat somewhere. Then something else.

It was no more just about me and my favourite place or my choice of the cheapest meal. It was no more just about me and what I wanted and me being contempt with a free walk in the park. We did a lot of free things, but that wasn’t enough for us anymore. I was totally on board with that, too!

They say When the heart fills, the head empties. I agree. While I kept my money *generally* under control, I would have done waaaay better as a single non-dating gal.

2) And moving in together will change things even more

So if you think dating changes were huge, just wait till you move in together!

Once you share a place, you’re going to discover a whole universe of things about your partner. And you’d better be ready to accept even more changes to your single-person routine.

When my man and I moved in together, I had a lot of adjusting to do. For example, soap. The kind of soap he had in the bathroom wasn’t expensive, but it also wasn’t the dirt-cheap brand I was buying for myself. I thought he was overspending on soap. This was sort of compensated by his buying cheap soda drinks. But did this make me happy? No, because I would have never bought cheap soda – that stuff has the most amateur taste ever, and is also full of stuff that’s not good for your body.

At the store, he likes to add tomatoes and a jar of mustard to the cart. Those items are not luxuries, but they aren’t really necessities, either; and the tomatoes are before-season so they don’t really taste good. Actually, they don’t taste like tomatoes at all. This is balanced out by the fact that he buys cheap toilet paper, but I don’t like cheap toilet paper.

Eventually we found middle ground: I let the cheap soap go, he let the cheap soda go. We kept buying overpriced, out-of-season tomatoes, but now we also buy good toilet paper. So we basically upgraded from the cheap stuff to the not-so-cheap stuff. We compensate by buying fewer sodas, and when we go out for coffee we don’t always sit at a café – we alternate between having a waitress and sitting on a park bench right next to that café.

3) Talk about what you want and about what he wants – as separate people

So you’ve made it through the initial adjustments and you’re now in your third month of living together. Congrats! But you should know that it’s just now that the real money talk starts.

Relationship experts will tell you to discuss important stuff – like marriage, kids, and money – early on. But what does “early on” mean? When is that – your third date? Your fourth? Before you sleep together?

Money is one shy topic. And it’s awkward to talk about money on your third date (although that’s exactly what I did with my man, but not at other thirds dates I had). On a third date, you are still basically meeting a stranger, and you have no idea if he will turn into something serious. Then why should you want to talk about money?

You wouldn’t. But let me tell you what happens if you DO start talking money on your third date, since that’s what I did on my third date with my soon-to-be husband. It was much like confessing your love to someone who had absolutely no idea how you felt about them and never saw it coming:

One, I felt relieved. I had told him how I feel about money, and it was out there now. Phew!

Two, I was terrified! What if he didn’t feel the same way? What if, by springing this on him, I had his initial shock working agains me? And what if, by rushing things, I had killed something beautiful before it even had a chance?

Three, MY FEARS CAME TRUE. He didn’t feel the same way, at least not completely. I freaked him out. He found it odd that I had brought up money so early on, and kind of robbed the evening of its romance. But he decided that since I’ve brought the matter up anyway, we should talk about it because apparently it was important enough for me to make such a bold move on a third date.

Four, I was relieved again, because now I knew where each of us stood, and we shared enough common ground to make it work.

Five – and most importantly – we both spoke in general terms. There was nothing too specific. So while this talk was definitely helpful and I’m glad I got away with it, I think pushing for specifics would have been too awkward and, well, inappropriate.
That money talk just can’t get too detailed while you’re freshly dating. You can drive around for more details when you know each other better and when you’re comfortable enough with each other to share such “intimate” stuff as money. The real money talk usually happens when your relationship is more advanced and getting more serious.
And when that time comes – the time to start talking money, – do you really dare spoil the romance of a cuddle-moment in front of the TV by bringing money up?

Well, there’s never a “good time” for that. But whenever you decide to “seize the moment,” don’t open with money right away. First, talk about what you want – not “you” as a couple, but “you” you as a separate person. Then see what your partner wants. BIG WARNING: Do not expect that you both want the same things just because you love each other. You may be a couple but you are still two different people. Also, don’t just talk about wanting “someday” stuff like travelling the world of buying a mansion. Talk about “next week” stuff like buying shoes, replacing the AC unit or a having a dinner out.
After it’s out and you know what each of you wants, you can figure out ways to make it happen. Now is when you bring money into it.

4) Talk about how each of you can get what you want

So you’ve managed the courage to talk about what you want, and also listened to your partner without scratching their eyeballs out. You two might have a chance together!
Your first and most obvious option is to work through your budget together. Get your income straight, get your expenses straight, and jointly decide what to do with whatever’s left. You could just split the leftover money equally for each of you to use as you see fit. Or maybe you could get alternate – this month you get all the excess money, and next month it’s your partner.

Another approach is to think in terms of cutting down your spending. This is not very fun, especially if you already watch your money, but optimizing your budget is always worth it (given that you each contribute equally to cutting down expenses). However, asking your partner to cut down their spending – even if you are willing to cut your own – is a hard and delicate job. That’s why it’s best not to impose it on them or demand they comply (“Don’t you get it?! We have to do this!”). Instead, tell them that you, as a family, need to cut costs, and let them come up with some ideas of their own. Remind them that you talked about what each of you wanted and that neither of you will get it on your current budget.

If you don’t like that, there’s one other way left: think how you could earn more. Maybe somebody should get a second job? Work harder towards a promotion? Or maybe even, one of you should quit their job to allow the other one to earn more?

5) Keep in mind: you two are not the same person

Sometimes people fall in the trap of thinking that once in a relationship, you should want the same things as your partner – or else it’s like you don’t love them or something.

But you two are two different people. You have some things in common, you have some goals in common, but that’s it. You are not 100% the same, and not even 50%, so don’t try to make yourself want what your partner wants.

Also, you two bring your own money history – and financial habits – to the table. We already talked about this so I won’t bore you with it again, but in case you want to refresh your memory: Relationship advice: money problems and issues

Let’s sum it up

To be honest, at first I thougth I’d give you a post with 23 little tips on how to manage money as a couple. I though I’d talk about joint and separate accounts, clipping coupons, and saving money by washing the car yourself.

But that’s just… small stuff.

Which is why I decided to focus on just 5 tips, but make them good ones.
So, let’s sum it up:

Tip #1: Managing money as a couple is definitely different than managing money as a single person. You will notice that as soon as you start dating – even before you are a “couple”.

Tip #2:
Prepare for real shutters in your single-person routine after you move in together. While dating, you have limited financial decisions to make together because you only meet out for coffee or dinner. When you live together, you have to think about (and decide together on) what kind of soap, toothpaste, toilet paper and towels to buy; what kind of bread, meat, veggies, sweets, drinks and snacks to buy; what kind of cable, internet and phone contracts to get; and so on and so on and so on. It could be overwhelming at first, and the trick is to ease into it. Also: be prepared to let go of having things 100% your way.

Tip #3: Speak out about what you want. Never assume that you two want the same things just because you are in love. Also, never assume that your partner can read your mind just because they love you. Speak out about what you want, and let them speak out about what they want, too.

Tip #4: Talk about what each of you needs to do (or stop doing) so that each of you can get what you want. This is where real actions come in.

Tip #5: Always remember that you two are not the same person. You are two different people. Yes, you are in love, but you are still two different people. You will not want the same things, you will not have the same habits. And that’s perfectly okay.

And after all that money talk, I have a bonus tip for you: enjoy the feeling of loving someone else.

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17 thoughts on “10 tips: How to manage money as a couple”

  1. Interesting.
    I’ve done that in my life and it’s not easy at all. Especially if your loved one doesn’t feel that it is so urgent to pay the mortgage or so on.
    On the other side I want to finish it up once and for all. But this means to save a lot of money. This is quite difficult when we live together.
    When I was alone I could say “I will live with 15 levs this week” and it is ok. It isn’t even so difficult. But when you have someone else in the home things change. I can eat baked potatoes for a week and to be ok. but I can’t make someone else to do the same. Because it’s not her choice.
    On the other hand, if I allow her to do the shopping in her way, we finish the money for food very fast.
    One possible solution is to do the shopping myself alone. And ask her if she wants something special. Most of the time, I buy what she wants, but either in smaller quantity or not straight now. So as a result we keep in budget.

  2. @Todor – exactly! It’s that much easier to be frugal when you are on your own and when you are not imposing your choices on someone else. This was one reason why a few years back I saved as much as I can – I was preparing for the day when eventually I might have a family and a child to consider.

    That being said, I think two people in a couple can’t be 100% the same, but also they can’t be 100% different. I also think that people learn to “tolerate” each other and get used to each other’s ways.

    What I think works best is, when your partner does something right, praise them, give them a hug, say you noticed and appreciated it. That’s the shortest way to changing behaviour. Also, praise effort and not results, because results don’t come right away. And – if possible – never critisize :)

    I think that for two people to live together happily and to have a family, both partners need to make an effort. You can’t just demand and you can’t just give in to your partner’s demands. And money is one reeeeeeealy sensitive area :)

  3. Now you understand why most people on exotic trips are divorced. It’s easy to enjoy expensive hobbies when you are on your own. You don’t have family to support so whatever you earn is immediately available….

  4. @California – I never thought of that. I though there were many divorced people on exotic trips because they were on a “get-laid” type of vacation :)

  5. Since I use only one to two rolls of paper towels per year, I couldn’t even begin to imagine what people were doing with all these paper towels. Just then, I realized that many people not only don’t use rags, but a lot of people don’t know how to use them or even that you can. Hopefully the next few paragraphs will change all of that and maybe help you save money on paper towels.

  6. Put a positive spin on money management: Illustrate that hashing out some money issues now can pay nice dividends in the short, mid-, and long term. Ask what your partner is excited about in the coming years. Maybe it’s a family cruise, paying cash for college, or retiring 10 years early. Then commit to finding ways to make those things happen together.

  7. When it’s money crunch time around the business I go by the local community college and offer to teach a couple of evening/and/or weekend adult computer literacy or beginning adult piano classes. They keep a waiting list and can get it together pretty quickly. This takes up a good bit of my time, but is a fast, interest free way to earn some cash. The only hard part is ear marking this money specifically for the business and not for some “extra” that’s on my list!

  8. Hi Erin,

    There’s a huge market out there for beginners in every field – arts, languages, science, you name it.

    The tricky part is, there’s usually a limit as to how much you can expand, because such gigs are usually a one-man show.

  9. Tim, sounds like a good theory. But making that “commitment” is the easy part; the tough part is, how do you stay commited? Also you can’t force your partner into commitment. It all takes a lot of slow, patient work, and a lot of times of keeping your mouth shut :)

  10. Hi Dewayne,

    I think people know about rags but worry (obsessively) about sanitizing them after use. For me, a wash is enough to get most of them clean, but people are different.

    What we do for the kitchen is, we buy the cheapest brand of toilet paper and I use it to get rid of greasy spots. Like when I fry something and a bit of hot oil jumps out of the pen – nothing like that cheap toilet paper to absorb it without a trace. The funny thing is, the “good” toilet paper doesn’t work like that at all – it’s too thick and strong and doesn’t absorb as well.

    My husband laughed at me when I told him about it at first. Now when he refers to the “good” toilet paper, I know he means the cheap one :)

  11. The EPA may regulate a lot of things but the type of toilet paper that reaches your septic tank is not one of them.

  12. Put a positive spin on money management: Illustrate that hashing out some money issues now can pay nice dividends in the short, mid-, and long term. Ask what your partner is excited about in the coming years. Maybe it’s a family cruise, paying cash for college, or retiring 10 years early. Then commit to finding ways to make those things happen together.

  13. That’s good advice. Although I find it hard to be motivated by long-term goals.

  14. Very often I meet people who are perfectly happy to live together or get married (join their lives) without being willing to take on the debts of their partner (join their money.) Whazzup with that? Why would you want to marry someone who you’re not willing to go to bat for, or who isn’t willing to go to bat for you? Do you have ANY idea how hard it is to stay married? If you aren’t prepared to pony up and help each other through thick and thin, then just throw a party and skip the nuptials.

  15. Moms-Secret, no offense taken at all. OF COURSE I was looking for at least a smidgen of humor. After all, it is a piece about toilet paper. :) When it comes to making and saving money, and especially stretching money, though, I do think more people don’t take that serious enough, and I do think very few people really look at the forest for the trees when they spend their money, and it’s part of the reason so few people actually have any of it. It’s part of the reason people have to work so hard, and work for so many years more, and have to whip out credit cards instead of cold, hard cash. Anything I can do to help people to think a little bit more about their spending habits, and to think more about how what they spend and how they spend it affects their work life is my aim. All of a sudden I’m at a loss for who made the quote, but it went something like, “The best way to save your money is to fold it up and put it back in your pocket.” Analyzing the things we buy very closely like this is exactly like doing just that.

  16. Sure, but remaking your personal finances when single is one thing, and when you have a partner – a totally different business. Everything changes. The best time to improve your finances and save-save-SAVE is when you are on your own.

    Of course if you have a like-minded partner who shares your money views, this can create awesome synergy and you can achieve wonders together. But, this takes adjusting, and adjusting takes time.

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