Shortening the leash on a financially irresponsible spouse?
June 3, 2009 7:19 AM   Subscribe

Seeking techniques for aiding/supporting/educating a financially irresponsible spouse who talks the talk but won't walk the walk.

My spouse and I have a very weighted financial relationship. I earn 90% of our income and handle 90% of the family financial responsibilities (getting and maintaining insurance, paying bills, getting rent paid, etc.). This in and of itself is unacceptable to me, and has been the subject of many discussions.

The salt in the wound, however, is my spouse's child-like self-control and sense of entitlement. We have a budget, spouse is aware of the budget, and professes to understand the importance of keeping within it. Spouse professes to check the bank balance daily and live within the funds budgeted for "pocket money". When we have the discussions, it's yes, yes, yes, and very convincing statements of understanding of how important it is to share responsibility.

Recently, with my approval, a new computer was purchased - big sums are not the issue here, they are always negotiated and discussed between us prior to purchase. However, the small things are the problem - $40 at the record store, $40 at the comic store, $40 on liquor (within 48 hours of a discussion on how we are "tapped out" on non-necessary spending under the budget). I can't get through here. In the last several days, there have been $200 in non-necessary spending, all knowingly in excess of the budget. No bills have been paid.

So, obviously, there is nothing really more to be gained from talking - spouse will say yes, irresponsible actions will continue nevertheless. I've tried taking away the ATM and credit cards, but I have two problems with that: (a) I'm not the parent figure here, and don't want to be in that bad emotional situation and all it causes, (b) It creates problems - spouse my go grocery shopping, get there, and realize spouse did not bring the credit card, or spouse may remember to bring credit card but not return it - method causes more problems than it solves.

So, I guess I am looking for advice/anecdotes/etc. on how you have solved these problems. Real-life strategies, suggestions, day to day ways you have helped problems like these, etc. Please, please, please be considerate enough to refrain from knee-jerk DTMFA comments, as we have been through hell this year (loss of a child), and I have no interest in that - I love and care for spouse, and am looking not to change my spouse, but to accept spouse and create joint management techniques that can work. Please also know spouse and I are both seeing a grief/marital/general support counseling professional.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (27 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
Well since you're in counseling this may be something to bring up there if you have not already.

That said, here's how my wife and I look at it and handle it. For a long time we were in a scenario such as yours where one of us made most of the money, but we decided things should be equitable. Just because one of us made more doesn't mean one of us should live like royalty and the other just lucky to hang on.

So we have set up FOUR checking accounts (for two people).

We each have a personal checking account into which an "allowance" goes, and our allowance is equal. Now this isn't just fun spending money, it's money for clothes, for haircuts, for gifts for each other, etc.

Then we have one account that is specifically for fixed expenses. Mortgage. Car Payment. Internet. Etc. By having a certain amount deposited directly from our paychecks into that account we know all bills are 100% taken care of, period. (I want to note that lately due to some irresponsible use of credit cards the amount in "fixed expenses" has been upped and every month the extra goes to paying down CC balances).

The fourth is for joint expenses. This is fairly limited to travel (together), groceries, dinners out together, and gasoline.

For seven years of marriage this 4-account system has worked very very well. I will add that for a period of 1 year we changed banks and went to a 2 account system, fixed bills, and "everything else" losing our "allowances". This led to some fights, resentment over who spent what, and griping that something the other person bought wasn't "worth the money" etc. Returning to the 4-account system has removed ALL those problems again, and makes us simply happier people in general.

Now how much needs to go into each account, that depends on your personal finances. And quite simply, if you can't trust your spouse with the "joint expense" card for groceries, etc. perhaps you do away with that one and just do 3 accounts, and you "pay her back" for half of all groceries, etc.

Then again it may not work for you as there seem to be deep trust issues resulting from this. But you asked for anecdotes, there's ours.
posted by arniec at 7:33 AM on June 3, 2009 [28 favorites]

I don't know if this would be too "parenty", but could you consider opening another checking account that your spouse has access to and can spend freely from, provided they don't overdraw? Sure, you basically put an allowance in there, but that enforces the budgetary aspect of the problem.
posted by owtytrof at 7:33 AM on June 3, 2009

All I can offer are my heartfelt sympathies for all you're going through. I'm sure you've considered the possibility that the behavior is so-called "cash therapy" -- with that said, and repeating my heartfelt sympathies, I'll now move on from that aspect of your situation to say:

For 22 years I was with a person whose conduct with regard to money mirrored your situation precisely. I tried all the same things you've tried, to no avail. I never did figure out exactly why she behaved the way she did about money; my only conclusion was that she was (and is, to this day) stuck in an adolescent time warp, and intensely passive/aggressive. All I could ever figure out to do was work around it as best I could. I worked extra jobs to raise the money to a) pay down her exorbitant credit card debts and b) try to stay ahead of her runaway spending. Luckily I did pretty well at that, though we did have some scary close calls.

When we split, this was a major part of the reason. Not all of it, but a big part.

Things are better now.

Just my .02. YMMV. Good luck.
posted by charris5005 at 7:36 AM on June 3, 2009

Try moving away from plastic and towards cash. You're right in that having one spouse basically unable to spend money is inconvenient and likely to cause stress on a relationship level. But if you simply start making regular cash withdrawals which you give to her to spend on specified items, she can't spend any more than that. Yes, this does involve exerting some control over her that you might not like exerting--and you'd definitely want to talk with her and your counselors about this before unilaterally deciding to do it--but it does give her the ability to spend that money at times which are convenient for her without letting her spend more money than has been allotted.

Granted, she may blow it and wind up short elsewhere, but if she only has $40, which is for groceries, she may not spend it on groceries but she can't spend more than $40. But a scheme like this might get her used to the idea that she really can't spend any more money than she's got. Using plastic can make that hard to get through your head if you aren't really interested in learning it.
posted by valkyryn at 7:38 AM on June 3, 2009

Gut reaction: separate checking accounts. I've never had success merging finances with a significant other and, though I've never been married, I can't imagine marriage making it any easier. Decide who pays which bills, who does the grocery shopping, etc, and then have all your paychecks deposited into your checking account, and all spouse's checks deposited into spousal checking account. naturally, since you make 90% of the income you will pay most of the bills and likely all of the larger ones: rent, car payments, insurance, etc. But make sure a few smaller ones are spouse's responsibility: electric, maybe, or internet.

Then make sure spouse understands that all routine individual charges (gas, groceries, etc.) as well as non-necessary spending will be coming out of his/her own account. Part of the problem seems to be that spouse thinks you have limitless discretionary funds, and that though you're "over-budget" it doesn't really mean anything since there always seems to be money to cover everything. Individual checking accounts will make spouse realize that "over-budget" equals "overdrawn". Of course, for this to work spouse will have to be cut off from credit cards and allowed only the debit card.

It'll be rocky for a while, and spouse will no doubt say at some point, "I can't pay the electric bill because I don't have any money left. You pay it." And you'll have to counter with, "But I've already paid the rent, the car payments, the insurance, the student loans, the gas, and the cell phone bills. I don't have any money left over either. Guess you'll need to call ConEd and work out some sort of late-payment agreement." Your credit score may take a few dings in the process, but this is far preferable to having a spouse who will put you into tens of thousands of dollars of debt.

Also, my condolences on the loss of your child. I wish you and your spouse all the best in healing and helping each other.
posted by philotes at 7:45 AM on June 3, 2009

I've been in a position similar to your wife's. That said, I'm pretty sensitive to certain phrases- I always hear 'this is unacceptable' as 'you are unacceptable'. They don't mean exactly what you want to say anyway; would something like 'I need your help handling our finances- money is one of the top three reasons marriages end, and I don't want that to be us' work? Let her know you aren't mad because of what she isn't doing, but because she isn't following through. You know she knows, so move past the "You need to understand..." -type statements (not saying you're doing this btw) and go straight to asking why she doesn't follow through or what can you change to fix it. Offer a fresh start; no grudges or bringing up the past once you guys work out a shared responsibility plan. Starting a new habit or practice is an insurmountable goal when you feel like you are going to spend the first (and really difficult) little while just working off how badly you screwed up in the past. Also, ask her to set up the automatic bill payments, or get you the numbers.

I've been in a similar situation traveling for a year- one person held all the cash (out of necessity in our case) and I asked for what I needed. I thought I was fine with it but deep down I was furious. I'm used to working, budgeting, withdrawing my own money and although we ended up being able to rework the arrangement, I had some nasty thoughts about screwing up the arrangement so badly she'd throw up her hands and let me handle things. In other words, it is easier to have wiggle room and stay within it than to toe a line, no mistakes made; if she follows the budget, big deal because she followed the rules; you're the parent and she is the child. Instead of a shorter leash, give a little more room (I know, it's a risk) and say it's up to her to follow and whatever is left is for you guys to enjoy at the end of the month, or put towards something awesome (opening a separate savings account is free at my bank, you can have up to five, labeled things like BABY FUND, etc.).

Obvious statement: shopping and buying stuff you want (or feel like you want; pretty much the same thing) helps temporarily fill huge emotional empty spaces- the two of you probably have a huge one. Kudos to both of you for seeing someone about it (are you seeing the person together or separately?). I'm terribly terribly sorry for your loss, best wishes to both of you.
posted by variella at 7:55 AM on June 3, 2009 [2 favorites]

Until your spouse faces the fact that he/she is irresponsible and passive aggressive with handling the money, nothing will change.

This is not about money, this is about control. It needs to be addressed in counseling.

Meanwhile, money for bills, etc needs to go into a separate account from money your spouse has access to. No sense in letting your finances go to hell while your spouse delays being a grownup.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 7:58 AM on June 3, 2009

(Oh, and what variella said. )
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 7:59 AM on June 3, 2009

Guy & I have incredibly different approaches to money, and I know it bothers him, so I've asked him for help with the budgeting and told him to please prod me about it. That's what works for us, but then, i'm the one whose cavalier toward money, not him.

One thing that did help me understand his perspective and try to be more disciplined was something Suzy Orman focuses on. I don't really know much about her financial advice in particular, whether it's good advice or just good tv, but she does talk about something she calls the Money Memory, which is something like your defining experience with money. Basically, she encourages you to figure out what seminal event effects the way you perceive money and finances, how to unpack that event and move on from it so that you can start new with your personal finances. Worked for me. (It wasn't a single event for me, but rather something my father used to say to me all the time)

You're already going through a lot, and adding to your spouse's list of "things to focus on and improve/get through/overcome" may not be the best idea, but once you get a practical system for managing the spending in place, maybe the two of you can try to work through why your approaches to money are so very different and how both of you can compromise and become more comfortable with how the other relates to it. Good luck.
posted by crush-onastick at 8:06 AM on June 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

I've been in a position similar to your wife's.

Note, the original post goes to great lengths to hide the genders, for whatever reason.

The salt in the wound, however, is my spouse's child-like self-control and sense of entitlement.

I earn 90% of our income and handle 90% of the family financial responsibilities (getting and maintaining insurance, paying bills, getting rent paid, etc.)

These two items are probably related. Has this always been a problem in the relationship or is this new, perhaps related to the loss of the child? If not, there's something in the background of the money abusing spouse that made them this way. They or ya'll need to figure out what that is.

If this is a big problem, costing you guys overdraft fees and what not, then you need to put your foot down and have a separate account just for that spouse. It's harsh, but has to be done.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 8:09 AM on June 3, 2009

Funny how people assume it's the wife, I noted that Anonymous is very careful to hide the gender of "spouse".

Is your spouse even aware that they have such a problem managing money? I think it's a good sign that the intention is there, so perhaps it's more about getting them to be fully conscious of how they recklessly spend money. It's not about being a parental figure, but helping them become more fully aware of their actions.

Have you talked to them about the recent $200 binge? Not in a confrontational manner but just ask them where they spend money and I bet they wouldn't be able to remember. I think in a situation where there is such a mismatch of income it is probably easy for them to start thinking money just comes from out of the blue and thus become disconnected from the impact of spending.
posted by like_neon at 8:10 AM on June 3, 2009

I doubt another checking account will do anything but incur substantial overdraft fees.

Have you considered giving her a prepaid credit/debit card? You put an amount on the card, when it's gone, it's gone 'til the next time you put money on it. The advantage this has over a cash allowance is you'll be able to see where the money is actually going.

Also, I'd look at enforcing the consequences of her behavior with her. Bought CD's at the music store instead of food for dinner? No problem, at dinner time we'll have air sandwiches and a few glasses of tap water while we listen to music. Etc.
posted by torquemaniac at 8:13 AM on June 3, 2009

You know what else occurred to me? Are they just bored?? Record store, comic book store, liquor store.. All sound like things they did to just blow some time. I spend stupid amounts of money at drug stores on nail polish and makeup when I'm bored. Perhaps channel that to focus to a lower cost activity? Not the end all solution but something else to think about.
posted by like_neon at 8:14 AM on June 3, 2009

nthing separate accounts.

My husband is super organized when it comes to budgeting, me not so much. I have no interest in dealing with the nitty-gritty, so I transfer a portion of my pay check to a joint account where the bills are paid from, vacations and big-ticket items are saved for and the emergency-fund is managed. The remainder of that amount is for my personal stuff---clothes, CDs, haircuts, etc---and stays in my personal account. He has a similar, but more detailed system set up on his end.

We also have a $100 max on items we can buy without okaying it with the other. That may be high for your situation, but you could try a lower limit---maybe $50 or $40.

It has worked out great---we rarely argue about money.
posted by chiefthe at 8:17 AM on June 3, 2009

Sorry, another one: You say they are aware of the budget, but have you actually sat down together in front of the computer while you actually work out the budget? I don't mean showing them the end result but actually see you going, "Ok here is our incomes. I put this percentage away for this, this amount for that, and this is roughly what I hope to save for this". Perhaps that will help them view the budget as being a more tangible activity and not just something that spits out numbers at the end. Maybe even have them do the budget for one month (with your supervision). Even if they suck at it they might get a deeper appreciation for your own efforts (which sounds like you would also appreciate them appreciating).
posted by like_neon at 8:25 AM on June 3, 2009

I've been in a position similar to your wife's.

Funny, I assumed the poster was referring to a man! I earn about double my husband's salary and he is a spendy guy with me very much the saver. The situation is extremely stressful, and it got better when I realized I was adding to it. A few things that have helped us might help you:

- Letting him handle a whole bunch of the bills/accounts. This was hard for me as I am quite control-freakish about finance - update the net worth monthly and all of that good stuff - but me knowing all the ins and outs and just "reporting" the information to a bored spouse wasn't working.

- As he is spendy we made him responsible for grocery and household shopping. He can go and browse farmers markets, the gardening store, whatever to his hearts content and it's in the budget. He doesn't blow money so much on things we don't need. He also handles the 10% "gambling money" in our investment accounts as I'm more of a boring indexer.

- Goals, goals, goals. There's no point in saving if you don't have them, short and long term. We sat down and were able to plan goals that he/I wanted to save for individually and we wanted to save for as a team, versus me sort of taking the lead on what was right for both of us. A lot of people just don't see the joy in stacking up cash like I do - amazing, right?!

- We got a great coffee maker and one of those insulated cup things. No Timmys twice a day!

- Everything's automated and after mortgage, insurances, savings, investment contributions, taking cash for the market etc there's hardly anything in our chequing accounts after about the 10th of the month. It's hard to ignore a balance of 30 bucks on an ATM receipt.

- Just not carrying credit cards.

Best of luck and I'm sorry to hear about your recent loss.
posted by jamesonandwater at 8:30 AM on June 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

I like arniec's suggestion of four checking accounts. I have also found that separation of funds is the best way to go.

My husband and I mantain our own checking accounts and have our assigned bills to pay, but our income split is more like 60/40 than 90/10. A problem that my husband and I have had is having different assumptions about the purpose of money. He sees money as a way to get things that make him more comfortable, allow him to learn and grow (hobbies), and improve his quality of life generally. Consequently, he tends to want to spend money. I see money as a security blanket, and I tend to want to horde it.

Until we were able to unpack these beliefs and expectations, we had a lot of fights about money that went nowhere. It still isn't perfect, but we have a better understanding of each other and we are able to find ways to get both of our needs met.

Money in marriage is a negotiation, and it will work better if you approach it that way. Instead of insisting on your position (you must follow this budget), describe your interest (I want to make sure bills are paid and we are saving for retirement/college/whatever). Then find out what his interests are - what is driving him to behave the way he does. Be prepared to re-negotitate your budget or figure out creative ways to meet both your needs and desires.

Weird that most of the answers here are assuming an overspending wife. The record store, comics store and liquor store sound like a husband to me!
posted by jeoc at 8:34 AM on June 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'm sorry for the loss of your child.

I've been in a similar position to your spouse's, although I earned about 1/3 of the income at the point when finances became the subject of fights. My ex's parents were both accountants and he was extremely controlling with money. Reading your story gave me flashbacks to the end of my marriage to him, right down to the "agreed" computer and the $40 expenditure at the record store, which was the subject of public criticism.

Without knowing more of the details of your relationship, and going only on what I read in your post, I'm struck by the tone and the way you refer to your spouse as childlike and refusing to live with an allowance. Your spouse may have money problems, but may also be responding to parent-style criticism of his/her financial behavior with adolescent retaliation. A lot of the comments I read here reinforce that Anon-as-parent, spouse-as-child dynamic (all the recommendations to punish spouse or limit access to funds). My ex treated me that way and I left him, in large part because I felt he didn't respect me as an adult, and part of that was that he demonstrated a failure to trust me to share in financial decisions. For instance, in my case, the "agreed" computer purchase was something he and I had talked about for down the road, and the next thing I knew, it was in the study being unpacked. A lot of financial decisions he felt were agreed were, from my end, him wearing me down by arguing with me until I threw up my hands and said "whatever!". I'm not saying this is the case in your marriage, but if your spouse feels that it is, you have another problem that goes way beyond the money.

If you haven't already taken money issues up with the counselor, I suggest you do, very strongly, and listen to what your spouse has to say in counselling. It may be an unpleasant shock; I know it was for my ex. I hope I'm misreading, but the tone here gave me such a strong flashback to those days that I thought I should tell you how I felt when I was in spouse's shoes.

Good luck in solving this problem and keeping your marriage intact.

On preview: letting spouse pay the bills is a great idea. I know I keep a much closer watch on my spending when I'm in charge of making rent.
posted by immlass at 8:39 AM on June 3, 2009 [2 favorites]

My husband is somewhat similar (not as much a spendthrift but just not able to understand money - not passive agressive) and we have the same disparity in income. This was a huge rift in our marriage for a very long time as I felt he wasn't pulling his weight financially and he felt I was too controlling. Okay, he still thinks I am controlling about money (childhood issues about not affording to eat for me as contrasted with his wealthy upbringing). For me, what brought me peace was accepting his many good sides, how he comforted me after the death of our child (condolences on your loss), constant backrubs, that he made me amazing mixtapes, that he was my biggest cheerleader. Does your spouse have similar positives you can focus on instead of the financial irresponsibility? In my case, I accepted that I was responsible for paying all bills; his, mine, and ours, and that most of the bill-paying money was money I earned. Since your income gap is similarly huge to ours, discuss with him a reasonable percentage of his income he will move over to the joint bill account and the rest is his to spend as he likes (and no overdraft on the account). He doesn't need to have a credit card or a debit card to the joint account since that account is only for the bills and he isn't paying them. Basically, separate your finances as much as possible. As to shopping, well he can pay out of his account and you immediately refund him your share. In exchange, maybe he can take over chores you hate - cooking, cleaning, filling the car up with gas etc. Good luck.
posted by saucysault at 8:58 AM on June 3, 2009

My husband is the money manager and the responsible one.

I tend to spend way more than he does. I can charge up hundreds of dollars worth of books, makeup, and other nonsense within months and feel like I have nothing to show for it. It's a maturity problem. It's pure inconsideration and denial as well. My husband and I have had the same discussions that you have had with your spouse. I agree completely at the time of these discussions and promise to curb expenses but if I had friends coming over, or I needed a new outfit for an outing, or I was out with friends I would spend it up. I have been known to spend hundreds just on flowers and other crap to make my house look good for company.

My family never discussed money growing up and I have never really had to take complete care of myself. I went from living at home to being engaged and married to a person that took care of the finances and made much more money than I did. My husband paid off my credit card debt (around 2000 dollars) when we got engaged. I then proceeded to charge much more on new joint accounts. Did I really view our marriage and financial well-being as a joint-effort? Was I unified with my husband on the subject of financial responsibility? No. I was being a child and only thinking of myself.

My husband never nagged or complained so I kept on spending. He would make comments that I was going to put us in the poor house but those comments were few and far between. He isn't a complainer and I think he expected me to have a grasp on the problem and grow the hell up on my own. We have had discussions over the years about irresponsible spending and I have forfeited the credit cards many times. I do have some sense of responsibility, but mostly guilt, so my shopping tended to come in spurts.

If you're a person like me (always been taken care of, is accustomed to a certain lifestyle, and believes material things can bring happiness, and you're just plain stupid when it comes to financial responsibility) it is difficult to change. I didn't start growing up until I realized that we couldn't take the trips I wanted because I spend too much at Amazon or Sephora. The older I get the more I realize our retirement and kids' education could be in jeopardy.

I would suggest sitting down with your spouse each month and pay the bills together. He might not have a grasp on how much things cost and how much money is going out to buy a bunch of crap you don't need, and how much things like groceries, taxes, insurance, and electricity. Tell him how much the health insurance is. Tell him what you pay in cellphones each month.

Pay cash for everything you need. He'll learn quickly what he can do without. It forces you to be a better money manager. I have made it into a fun little game. What can I find on sale that I need? How can I stretch my dollar? What can I find in my house to decorate with that I already have, or entertain myself without spending, etc. Before I wouldn't think twice about buying a 25 dollar bouquet of flowers or pricey wine. I really never looked at price tags in the past. I was spoiled and out of touch with reality. Our budget was not that big that I could fail to look at price tags. Now that would never happen. I clip flowers from my garden and bring them in, or I do without. I don't splurge on drinks and charge everything at restaurants like there is no tomorrow. I wear what I already own and I know that all of my spending has not brought me any more happiness, friends, or fulfillment.

I would suggest you confiscate all credit cards and ATM cards. So what if he doesn't have money when he gets to the grocery store? It's not the end of the world and nobody is going to starve. You can't enable a child. It's sad but true. He has to grow up just like I did and I'm still working on it. We don't have an ATM card. Some would think it would be inconvenient but it has never really bothered us. At the moment I do not have a credit card in my possession and I pay cash for everything. We also save 100 dollars cash each week for our trip to England next year. I'm not suffering at all. I mostly feel guilty for the debt I have naively and childishly accumulated and am striving to pay that off. It's a maturity problem and until he can take ownership for his role for maintaining financial responsibility for your family, you'll have to remain the parent. The light bulb has to go off for him. You have an obligation to yourself to not let him run all over your financial future.

Good luck.
posted by Fairchild at 8:59 AM on June 3, 2009 [2 favorites]

My wife was similar to the OPs spouse - professed responsibility but wouldn't actually manage the household or personal budget that was under her control.

We had to have several changes of tack before we got to something that worked. I think the key was to put more responsibility onto her, rather than just show her that we were overspent again. ie I tried to say "look, here's where we overspend - what would help you not do that - we tried using cash (too inconvenient, and created problems if one of us wanted to buy something on Amazon for instance), we tried splitting household and personal spending into separate accounts (that didn't work initially because we both spent the same money and we didn't track it jointly well enough), so then we ended up pretty much with the arniec solution - ie separate accounts for each of our personal allowances + a bills account (for mortgage etc) + a household expense account (for day to day groceries, children's clothes etc) that my wife manages - ie I have to give her receipts, and she balances it.

We also have a horribly complicated whiteboard where we write up credit card expenses so we can see which of the above budgets they should come out of. I think the reason it started to work though, was that my wife saw that I was trying to find a way to work with her to manage our money in a way that she had a stake in (I provide 100% of the income, but that's only possible because she is looking after our children full-time) rather than trying to manage her behaviour by providing an allowance.
posted by crocomancer at 9:16 AM on June 3, 2009

follow-up from the OP
I am the OP - asked anonymously because I didn't want the post on my posting history prior to having an opportunity to talk to my husband about it, and as he is a MeFi member as well don't want to "out" him on the situation. I am amused that people initially assumed the over-spender was the wife.

This behavior has been life-long for my husband, not a recent reaction to our loss. I myself am only SLIGHTLY better with money than he is, and that's what makes it so important to have a concrete, as-fail-proof-as-possible SYSTEM to manage this. Dealing with the emotional reasons and fallout from spending habits is important, but if the problem can be neutralized then good discussions are more useful. I don't like to agonize on what we SHOULD do when one or both of us systematically fails; I'd like to fix the concrete problem (when, as here, possible) and move on from there.

At any rate, my spouse had checked the bank account prior to the recent spending, believed the balance reflected post-rent payment and was mistaken - I was out of town, he was bored and tipsy. Frankly, this is stuff I can understand (have done it myself), and my spouse responded openly and honestly, without resentment, to my questions. Discussion ensued, which was caring, respectful, problem-solving-oriented and kind on all sides, and then turned to how to manage for the next week on $27. It was a dumb mistake, but at least the behavior wasn't rooted in the "who cares?!?" attitude it seems to me to have been in the past.

Multiple checking accounts are probably going to be a GREAT solution for our family, as they can be discussed and negotiated in advance, agreed to together (as was our budget, we sat side by side doing it as a team, which reduced the resentment associated with a budget in the past, and eliminated constant arguments relating to the belief that I was just SAYING we didn't have money), and then largely self-policing. Husband would prefer to handle cash rather than cards. I am a card person - but we can act as we please with the individual accounts. Sure, without changing our underlying approaches to money there will still be some problems now and down the road, but we will be set up for success rather than failure.

The "money memory" comment is interesting - mine is that my parents pretty much gave me whatever I wanted if I "deserved" it, for example by getting straight A's or something, or if there was a good reason for it, like ballet shoes and such. Budgeting and whether it was financially reasonable were never issues presented to me - this is something I've recognized and worked hard to get through, with only moderate success. I myself racked up almost $20k in needless, senseless, stupid debt about 5 years ago, and came out from under it wiser.

By the way, after our daughter died, someone I trust and care for deeply told me that the measure of a man is not whether he does the dishes without being prompted, but how he steps up in the face of tragedy. My husband is my hero, he is an amazing man. He's kind, loving, fun, respectful, a great listener and gives me so much joy. Hence, my desire with this question was to support my goal of creating a system to manage the money, so that our emotional energy can be spent healing from the recent loss and crafting a good, healthy, supportive life - but where the things that have to get done, get done.

Thank you to all who have shared their financial arrangements and other words of advice.
posted by jessamyn at 9:17 AM on June 3, 2009 [3 favorites]

I think I'm the one who initially assumed it was the wife! Probably coming from a home where parents divorced primarily because of money, money, money, and it was the dad handling finances and resenting the (what he saw as) financially irresponsible mother. I know the saying about ASSUMING, now I'll try not to do it in the future.... :)
posted by variella at 11:03 AM on June 3, 2009

I have a book recommendation for you: Love and Money by Jeff D. Opdyke. This book is unique among personal finance books, at least as far as I can tell. I found it very useful in dealing with money conflicts among family members.

What I especially like about Love and Money, and Opdyke's philosophy of personal finance in general, is the emphasis he places on the emotional meaning of money and how it influences the power dynamics in close relationships. There is a wealth of advice out there about investing and budgeting, but there are precious few books that address the psychological and emotional aspects of personal finance with sufficient depth and complexity.

Opdyke believes that financial discord in relationships stems largely from deep-rooted beliefs and emotional issues, and that couples do themselves a disservice if they overlook this. (For example, many people want to believe in comfortable illusions such as the idea that "money doesn't matter if we love each other.") He provides numerous examples to illustrate the ways couples have navigated their trickiest money problems, and conflicts over between spouses over financial irresponsibility figure prominently among the themes. He writes about financial struggles in his own marriage with refreshing candor and insight as well.

The author also has a more recent book entitled Financially Ever After: The Couples' Guide To Managing Money which looks interesting, but I haven't read it. (Here is a sample from his Wall Street Journal column).

Approaching your financial differences by looking through the lens of emotion may work well for you, especially given that you are grieving so deeply right now. You might find, for example, that behavior you interpret as a sense of entitlement means something completely different to him within the context of the loss. That sort of understanding may help you bridge some of the gaps between you.

Good luck, and my condolences on your loss.
posted by velvet winter at 11:16 AM on June 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

At any rate, my spouse had checked the bank account prior to the recent spending, believed the balance reflected post-rent payment and was mistaken - I was out of town, he was bored and tipsy. Frankly, this is stuff I can understand (have done it myself), and my spouse responded openly and honestly, without resentment, to my questions. Discussion ensued, which was caring, respectful, problem-solving-oriented and kind on all sides, and then turned to how to manage for the next week on $27.

You guys are most of the way there already. Lots of good advice in this thread (esp. saucysalt's). Kudos to you both for tackling this in such tough time and not just giving up.

The good thing about your situation is that it sounds like your spouse is amiable, which means you can set your joint goals and have almost a free hand in how to get there. Can you stop resenting that you have responsibility for the finances and see it as a positive? Mr. txvt says things like "Let's start a new car savings fund" and I'm like, sure, whatever, great idea! Months later he'll show me an account where he stowed what we were saving, which I didn't really miss and usually have forgotten about, and it's a tidy sum. Do quarterly net worth statements and review them with your husband. Even with modest goals you'll start seeing changes quickly and after that, finances will seem a lot more interesting to you.

The only thing I can add to the controls (separate checking accounts, etc) discussed upthread is don't nag your husband about what he spends his mad money on. "No non-essential spending" will not work, you both need some spending money.

Also I'm wondering if a personal finance class for both of you at your local community college would help? Not so much to help with the basics of budgeting because it sounds like you've already getting there. More just to keep you both focused.
posted by txvtchick at 11:22 AM on June 3, 2009

Spending isn't always a rational behavior. Sometimes it is out of boredom, arousal, excitement, etc.

4 checking accounts sounds like a good idea.
posted by k8t at 2:27 PM on June 3, 2009

Just chiming in to say I have used the multiple accounts + allowance method, and it worked beautifully.
posted by peggynature at 5:34 PM on June 3, 2009

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