How to talk about money with my spouse.
March 8, 2006 7:03 PM   Subscribe

Money is difficult. I'm familiar with Your Money or Your Life, "pay yourself first", Quicken, The Tightwad Gazette, etc. but my money problems seem to be intertwined with a lot of relationship stuff that is hard to unravel.

I make what looks like good money (to me): $55k a year. We payed $13k in taxes, leaving us with $42k. Ten percent of our gross goes to our church, $5.5k. [let's pretend that isn't negotiable, because for us it isn't]. Our home, which is within walking distance of work, has a monthly mortgage of $1200 (80/20). We have four kids, ages 9, 6, 5, 2. Our 7-year-old minivan costs $176 a month.

Money is really tight since we moved from our $800/month home, which was 25 miles from work, and costing us an additional $300/month in extra gas and vehicle costs. (we sold the second car, which was costing $160/month, when we moved).

Those are just some of the particulars of our finances. We are barely making it each month, which is a source of embarassment and shame, given our gross income. My spouse's identity is somewhat tied to our home and lifestyle.

Another problem is that we are not getting along that great, so it's very difficult to broach the subject.

My apologies for the amorphous nature of this post. I would be interested in hearing if anyone has been in a similar situation and was able to dig their way out. I am afraid if I moonlight and make and extra $500/month that it will just get spent.

Where do I start? It feels like there is more to this mess than just budgeting. Is there such thing as a combination marriage/financial counselor?
posted by anonymous to Shopping (45 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Part-time job for the spouse? Could the SO work at home? Provide day care?

There are only two ways to have more money: reduce your expenses, or increase your income. Looks like your expenses are bare bones. You're supporting a lot of people on $55K. It would seem you'd have to find ways to increase income; but I'm not sure why that's got to be solely your responsibility.
posted by Miko at 7:19 PM on March 8, 2006

Unless you rigidly divide your financial responsibilites, there is NO way that I can see you solving these financial problems without a level of communication much greater than you currently appear to have. Do you know where your money is going? Do you know what the spouse is spending money on?

While I really think communication is a prerequisite, two things have greatly helped us: 1. online banking (with all bills paid through online bill pay). Having a daily idea of what is going on with our money is very helpful. 2. overdraft protection (in our case from a credit card, also possible through a line of credit or savings accounts). Those overdraft fees can be real killers.

Seriously though, cure the disease and the symptoms will be greatly reduced.
posted by Rock Steady at 7:23 PM on March 8, 2006

What about credit cards, do you have a lot of debt? Might be a good idea to cancel them all and borrow against the house to pay them off at a lower rate/longer term.
posted by empath at 7:35 PM on March 8, 2006

Wouldn't your church understand if you suspended your tithing until you get things under control? You could always make up the difference later.
posted by lilboo at 7:41 PM on March 8, 2006

I must say your taxes seem high, especially since you're homeowners. I can't be sure though, since my situation is different, and of course IANAA. Do you go to a tax preparer?
posted by Miko at 7:43 PM on March 8, 2006

"My spouse's identity is somewhat tied to our home and lifestyle."

With 4 children and one income your spouse needs to lose the hang-up. Initially, I thought this question was more geared towards fiscal responsibility (and I would be the last person to offer advice in that respect) but you clarified the problem at the end. I was raised in a similar environment and, for the sake of your kids, visit a marriage counselor. It sounds like your spouse is having difficulty coping with the realities of the life you and your family share. This is probably a lot more common than you think and I would imagine that any reputable marriage counselor would have dealt with similar situations.

Most couples, with 4 children in the age range you specify, experience the exact same month-to-month fiscal battle that you're encountering. It is nothing to be ashamed of and I applaud your efforts thus far to make this as tenable for your family as you already have.
posted by purephase at 7:44 PM on March 8, 2006

I'm in awe that you are doing this well on 55k and tithing to boot. Seriously. You should be giving us advice. Do you have a pension? Eat out much? It's hard for me to say too much because that 10% tithe is the elephant in the room, but in all honesty, will the church help you in retirement? Will they help your kids get through college? What about seeing a financial advisor - possibly through your congregation?
posted by docpops at 7:53 PM on March 8, 2006

Miko is right; $55k is stretched pretty thin on a family of 6. Your impression of it being 'good money' may be weighing you both down with unrealistic lifestyle expectations. Because even by the stingy criteria of the federal government, that's not considered a lot. Consider: a family of 6 earning <$47,860 is eligible for Food Stamps and discounted school lunches. And while I don't know what state you're in, using California as an example, your income is low enough to qualify the kids for low-cost health insurance under Healthy Families. So maybe your family is eligible for other forms of assistance?
posted by nakedcodemonkey at 7:56 PM on March 8, 2006

I agree with Miko about your taxes. With your mortgage, 5.5K for charity and four kids it seems like you shouldn't be paying that much in taxes, even if you are including payroll tax. Are you itemizing your deductions on your schedule A? Just as a quick look, you should knock off $19,200 for six exemptions, about $12,000 for your mortgage interest and $5,500 for charity. That leaves you only about $29,000 of taxable income. That puts you in the 15% bracket. Your income tax would be about $3500 and your payroll tax would be about the same. Your total taxes should be about $7000 leaving you with $48,000.
posted by JackFlash at 8:04 PM on March 8, 2006

Wouldn't your church understand if you suspended your tithing until you get things under control? You could always make up the difference later.

From the 10% figure I'm guessing anon. may be Mormon -- and from everything I've heard, even if the church in principle might understand, there is tremendous social and religious pressure to pay the tithe.
posted by advil at 8:22 PM on March 8, 2006

Does the 10% have to be on your gross income? I tithe off of my net income.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 8:25 PM on March 8, 2006 [1 favorite]

I'm in awe that you are doing this well on 55k and tithing to boot. Seriously.

Me too. I do think that you're managing very well! You should be congratulating yourselves.

It feels like there is more to this mess than just budgeting. Is there such thing as a combination marriage/financial counselor?

This may be closer to your real problem. As a couple you may have very different practices/dreams/expectations of how money, family life, and love are linked. How for instance do you see an extra $500 income being 'wasted' - this implies your spouse might spend it on something you might not agree with - would your spouse also see this as being wasted? I'm just guessing here but your separate expectations may be very deep-rooted in your own backgrounds, families and childhoods.

A counsellor may or may not be able to help you balance (not resolve) these differences - but I think you should try that. Shop around for some relationship counselling, maybe one that does deal with finances, but I think if it is a relationship problem here, there will be dynamics other than finances that you will have also to discuss.

And good luck!
posted by carter at 8:38 PM on March 8, 2006

That was an awesome answer JackFlash (and flagged as such). On a side note, why is there no email in your profile?

I have no advice to offer except that it seems like $55k is very little to support a family of 6 on. Is there a trusted friend or minister within the church you could consult about this? It's possible they can help you with some more specific advice than we can provide.
posted by onalark at 8:39 PM on March 8, 2006

P.S. Consider joining a credit union. They will have unbiased financial advisors - they may be able to help you with budgeting, tax questions, and so on.
posted by carter at 8:40 PM on March 8, 2006

On 55K a year, a $1,200 a month mortgage is technically affordable (less than one-third of your income), even if I subtract 5K for tithing. And it looks like you have reduced expenses overall by moving. But, as you know, kids are expensive, and it will be tight. If you're not confident on your deductions, an accountant could save you some money.

55K is relatively a lot of money for one person, but there is no shame in struggling on it when you are supporting five other people. Keep track of your money closely for a month. I think you will be surprised at how much the little things add up. Maybe showing that to your wife would help her see it, too. ("Look, if we cut out this, this and this unnecessary expense, that's $300 we can put away each month.) If nothing else, I hope you will not feel ashamed at the money situation. You are doing OK with what you've got.

Can you have a small amount (say $50 a paycheck) put into a savings account automatically (if you have direct deposit)? It will add up faster than you expect and you may not notice it missing.
posted by Airhen at 8:41 PM on March 8, 2006

I know we're supposed to take the tithing off the table, but my friends, family, and coworkers who all tithe to their respective churches give their 10% from the net (after taxes), not the gross.
Otherwise, I agree with the other posters -- it's really hard to have a family of 6 on your salary. Do you have access to Quicken or even just Excel or some software like that? I think itemizing your expenses every month, really seeing where every nickel and dime is spent can be a way to help you and your spouse prioritize where you spend the money. If the two of you sit down together every week, go over the expenses in a non-threatening, non-blaming environment, it might help to get a handle on things.
Also, unforeseen expenses tend to wipe out people who are living hand-to-mouth (medical bills, car repairs, etc). If you can, try to save up a small reserve to handle those situations.
Money problems are very very common for couples. Counseling can be quite expensive, but many counselors have a sliding scale for their fees based on income. You could also talk to your pastor or someone at your church for counseling, which will be free. I know at least in the Catholic church (where my brother was studying to be a priest for a while) they do take classes on counseling and family issues.
best of luck.
posted by j at 8:42 PM on March 8, 2006

I have 3 kids, and our gross was about 47K and not only didn't I pay any tax (Fed or CA), I got extra back (additional child tax credit). I could deduct student loan interest ($2500), but no morgage interest, so I see you paying a little more but not 13K.
I am probably the last person to ask about taxes, but a quick perusal of the 1040 instructions says that donations to charities (including churches) are deductable. But even without this: 55K - 10K (standard deduction for married) - 3200*6 (exemptions) = $25800. Tax table says ~$3100, and remember this is no child credit, morgage interest deduction, charitable deduction. Now Social security and medicare are going to be another 3-4K that you can't change. But unless you're contracting and have to pay soc and med extra or capital gains or something you are paying twice as much tax as you should.
I would suggest getting rid of all the monthly payments that you can, cell phones, cable, etc. Having your money already spent is depressing, no matter what the lifestyle you've bought on time. This is because you don't have the freedom to get something special that you want. This leaves you in a state of constantly being denied stuff.
posted by 445supermag at 8:43 PM on March 8, 2006

Would your church accept non-cash portions of your income? For example, your means might include fruit and vegetables you grow, furniture, clothes, sewing, cooking, etc -- which, in turn, could be turned over to needy persons, used in a bake sale, used for church meals or a soup kitchen. If you do any volunteer work for your church, perhaps the portion of fuel you use would be acceptable. This doesn't mean negotiating your tithing; it simply entails discussing all the kinds of "means" your church accepts. Some churches may also accept volunteer work.

It sounds like you have a bare bones budget. Communication, shared goals, and a shared plan for implementation are the most important things for you to do. But 6 people on your income sounds like a lot. You haven't even allowed for retirement or education savings. Could your wife do some work on the side? Dog-walking, housecleaning, childcare...those are just some ideas that would accommodate her role as primary caregiver. Alternatively, your wife could join the full-time workforce, but perhaps this would not meet your life goals.
posted by acoutu at 8:46 PM on March 8, 2006

I strongly suggest you get a-hold of Excel or a freeware spreadsheet and doing a 24-month cashflow based on your current situation.

Base the figures of your actual expenses from the last couple months or so.

Then gather your S.O. and any other sentient members of your family together and explain that you are worried about money and want their help to make sure the family doesn't end up in a sticky situation.

Sit them down and show them the spreadsheet and ask for suggestions of how to bring down the monthly budget.

The reason for doing it over a 24 month period is psychological, because even a small budget deficit will show you a long way in the hole at the end of the time period, while even a small surplus will show you with considerable amount in the bank.

If your S.O. does not want to engage in this process then I am afraid you simply have to take charge and cut them off. That means cancelling credit cards and moving the family to a cash economy.

The key to all of this is what Mr Micawber says in Oliver Twist: "Annual income, twenty pounds. Annual expenditure nineteen pounds, nineteen shillings and sixpence. Result, happiness. Annual expenditure twenty pounds and sixpence, result misery." I've personally found that when they are confronted with specific numbers and a chance to participate, family members are very helpful, whereas if you just yell at them they're spending too much, it doesn't help at all.
posted by unSane at 8:55 PM on March 8, 2006

I wonder, based on the taxes, if they might be Canadian? The Tightwad Gazette, too, I think was a Canadian thing, though it seems to have gone international.
posted by jacquilynne at 9:01 PM on March 8, 2006

Why are you so afraid of talking to your SO about this? What do you think her reaction will be? Do you'll think she'll be angry or disappointed in you? Where is the fear really coming from? Frankly, if the woman can handle four kids I suspect she'll be able to deal with your financial reality. Have faith in her. Give her the benefit of the doubt.


Just come clean. The cashflow you posted here? Draw it up all nice and neat and go over it with her. You'll both feel a lot better. You won't have this burden eating away at you and you'll both be able to work together to come up with a solution. Before you opt for an a counselor try just talking to her. Counselors have a tendency to polarize people and can actually make some situations worse.

As for the money side, lower your charitable donation and replace it with baked goods or the somesuch. Also, if you can walk to work, then why do you need the minivan at all? Perhaps you can get rid of it and rent a vehicle when you need it. If your wife needs it for shopping and errands then maybe she can do her shopping with a friend. And, heck, don't be afraid to ask for a raise. This is a free-market: f you want more money you're only going to get it by convincing others to give it to you. Begin going over your accomplishments in the last year or two and putting together a case for a raise. Even an extra 5k would mean a lot. Save. Please. Save any way you can. You have four kids and you absolutely need to be saving for a rainy day. Living paycheck to paycheck is a terrible idea.
posted by nixerman at 9:06 PM on March 8, 2006

The one expense our poster said was non-negociable was tithing. Can't we just accept that and move on? Many good answers here, but I'm surprised at the insensitivity on this issue.
posted by knave at 9:24 PM on March 8, 2006

It is often the non-negotiable expenses that get cut in the end.
posted by unSane at 9:47 PM on March 8, 2006

I think some of us were sensitive to his decision to tithe, but merely suggesting he ask his church for full details on how they interpret that. Given that a share of crops was accepted for millenia, I think it's fair to just double-check the church's interpretation of "means", without seeking to reduce or eliminate tithing. Before making the suggestion (which I based on my experience with a charity that saw millions in in-kind donations from church members), I checked to see if this was common and it is the reason I used the term "means". I apologize if I've offended the poster. (Sorry for not putting this in small type, but my font tag skills are lacking.)
posted by acoutu at 10:04 PM on March 8, 2006

From the 10% figure I'm guessing anon. may be Mormon

Anon, if advil's right and you are a Mormon, you might want to not only take nakedcodemonkey's advice and look for help on the community front, but consider enlisting the help of your local church authorities, and LDS Social Services, or at least talking to them about what possibilities exist for help. This applies to getting both real counseling and help with general financial welfare.

The flip side of the social pressures and religious obligations is (or should be, anyway) that you have a community there to pull for you if you start to struggle. And just like you don't have to wait until you're dying of serious to go to the doctor or hospital, you don't have to wait until you're homeless and begging for spare change or even not paying the heating bill before you go back to the community you've given to for years and ask for help. You might not get your mortgage paid for you, but you might get food assistance or help paying your heating bill. And if this is coming from a community that you and your wife are a part of, you might be able to actually utilize some social pressure to make sure you agree to save some of the funds spared by any aid you receive.

If your Bishop or whoever isn't immediately responsive, politely persist. Some people in that position (or any position to help) are compassionate, intelligent, and perceptive and take their callings to help their flock very seriously, and some of them are proud, insular, thick, or distracted. All of them are human beings. Whatever deference you may feel towards any particular leader, don't leave them the responsibility to connect you and your family with the help your community may have to offer.

Even if advil's guess is not correct and you're not a Mormon, then you should still consider approaching your church and most of this may apply -- Mormons certainly don't have a lock on social/welfare programs, however famous Mormon programs are.

I understand that going to people and asking for help is not an easy thing, and to the extent that you have issues with identity being tied to lifestyle (and really, who doesn't, to some degree?) it can be even harder. I'm still somewhat ashamed of the fact that my financial life stopped working several years ago and I had to collect unemployment and live on the goodwill of my family and face the hard fact that I wasn't able to be independent. I think it's especially hard after you've been independent and played the "contributor" role. But the fact is, the world needs contributors because there are people who need help. And I think people and society are better off if individuals can learn to live with both sides of that equation.

Finally, I suspect that in answer to the question of whether there's such a thing as a marriage/financial counselor: money is so often an issue in a marriage that I suspect many of them are familiar with basics of good finance.
posted by weston at 10:22 PM on March 8, 2006

I think if communication is a problem, you should definitely consider seeing a marriage counselor. A good counselor will (hopefully) have tools and ideas that can help you and your spouse learn to communicate more effectively. I highly recommend seeking a reference from your church leader or other social agency. There's so much help out there.

As for the finances, here's something I found that's helpful, concrete advice.

From section 6: "After you have a written record of where all of your money is going, divide your spending into categories: fixed, flexible, and miscellaneous expenses. Spending can also be divided into daily, weekly, monthly, seasonal, or yearly expenses. Know what type of expenses you have. Know when and where you spend money so you can build a sound money management program."

You and your spouse should write out exactly what you spend every month so you can talk about what type of expenses you're dealing with.

Your fear that any extra cash you bring in "will just get spent" seems to indicate that you lack confidence in the ability of either yourself or your wife (or both) to responsibly account for where your money is going, so I'd start by writing it all down. That's the only way you'll really know which areas you can cut back on, and which ones are the walls that you really can't move.

Also, a friend of mine has really gotten a lot of mileage out of taking on the cause of anti-consumerism. She and her husband don't have a lot of money. So instead of trying to "keep up with the Jones's," and getting all depressed about how little they have, she has made the conscious choice to find ways to live well without spending money.

One of my cousins is also extremely frugal, (and also likes to have a lot of free time). She cooks for a month and freezes it all. She also uses the envelope method of accounting. Once she and her husband figure out the budget, they put the money in envelopes, and when the money's gone, that's it. I'm trying this method myself this month.

Here are some other websites to try:

Frugal Recipes,
Creative Frugality,
A variety of frugal cookbooks, and
Talking with your Spouse (about finances).

But mostly, I'd say solving the communication issues in your marriage will help you solve the financial problems. See a counselor, and soon. Then both of you will be better prepared to work together to solve the other problems.
posted by eleyna at 10:22 PM on March 8, 2006 [2 favorites]

Is there such thing as a combination marriage/financial counselor?

Anecdotally, the most common cause of marital strife is money. Financial arguments are going to be nothing new to a marriage counselor (and vice versa I imagine).

As others have said, feel no shame for how you are doing; you're doing famously well in those circumstances. I include in this compliment your obvious effort in reading about solutions.

We have been in a similar financial situation and pulled out. Here's some of our keys:

1. We are on the same page. (usually. :) ) She and I *both* know what goes in and goes out and what's left and what we get to spend. This is essential, and is where you will find your greatest improvement by far if she's not on board yet. You can't be headed in different directions. You don't have to like the fact that you can only spend $20 on yourself this month (or whatever), but if that's all you've got, that's all you've got. Make it last (that's where the tightwadding, etc. come in.) In order to do this, you guys have to sit down, and grind out the numbers. Paper and pencil is fine, Excel costs money. :)

2. We are obsessive about cash flow. We *really* don't like taking on new monthly expenses. Neither do you, it looks like, which is good. Your wife, on the other hand, might be a problem (from your implication). Continually reevaluate your cash flow against your needs. You're closer to work now--can you use the extra time to not eat out? Can you ditch the phone you bought in case you got stranded? Or drop to a lower plan? Can your insurance get dropped for the lower commute? (Probably not--you sold the car as it is). Etc, etc. Look for opportunities to shave off a bit of the bite. You've probably done a lot of this.

3. Without going into specifics, we were quite in debt at one point, and now we're pretty comfortable with a cushion. Despite that, we use grocery coupons heavily, more so now than before. There are many coupon trading sites and forums for this, and it is often possible to stock up on items when they are free or extremely cheap (we have 20 rolls of toilet paper and 7 bottles of salad dressing as I speak). My wife can end up with a full cart of groceries for something like $20 on a good week, and our food bill is consistently well under half of what it was. When stuff is more expensive, don't buy it. As far as the identity/lifestyle thing, coupon users are found across all income brackets, and I have heard anecdotally that highest usage is actually among the upper-middle-class, which doesn't sound surprising (though not supported by my link). Mail me for pointers on this if you wish.

4. Keep eyes out not only for savings, but for opportunities. A refinance helped us greatly when we realized we could consilidate debt and that rates were noticeable lower than when we bought. If we weren't looking. Can you moonlight? Get a raise? Work overtime? Every little bit helps.

5. I can't stress enough that your (the whole family) attitude is by far the defining factor here and changing this will reap the largest rewards. Do the two of you a favor and get it straight what you've got and what you can spend. Do the kids a favor and teach 'em early what financial responsibility means. If you must be motivated by money, let it be the amount you have saved, not the amount you spend, that makes you satisfied.

6. Be creative. There are lots of resources out there to draw from; you can save a lot of money if you can be flexible and/or creative about things.
posted by RikiTikiTavi at 11:32 PM on March 8, 2006

Remember, if you have overpaid your tax in the last three years, you can file a 1040X to correct it. Do so quickly, though. I don't think you earn interest on your own mistakes, and if you do so after 15 April this year you'll miss another year.
posted by grouse at 12:18 AM on March 9, 2006

I've been living on not much money for quite some time, and the way I cut out most of the stress is by running a "virtual zero" of $500 in my bank account - that is, if I have $509 (as I currently do) I behave as if I have $9.

That way, I don't have to worry too much about the major source of low-budget stress - unexpectedly being unable to pay for something because one of my periodic automatic debits (mortgage, phone bill, ISP bill, insurance) happened since I last checked my account.

I look on this as having spent $500 on peace of mind.

If my available funds exceed $500 (that is, if my bank account goes over $1000) for any length of time, I add another $25/fortnight to my regular mortgage repayment. This hasn't happened for the last six months or so, which means that my income and outgoings are now pretty well in balance; I've been in the red (below $500 balance) several times but rather than cut the mortgage payment back again I've just chosen to spend less on other stuff.

My wife and I each have a small income, and we'll move cash back and forth if we're short; neither of us likes having to be on the receiving end of this, though, because we both value our financial independence. We don't run a joint bank account, and from the sound of things neither should you.

There was a time in our lives where I was making way more than she was (I was programming for AU$100k/year, she was in full-time study) and the way we worked it was that because I was making so much that she wasn't eligible for Austudy, I funded her at the same rate she would otherwise have been getting from the gubmint for that period. I felt kind of stingy about it but it worked.

It seems to me that if you're earning the money, it's only fair that you get first dibs on the spending decisions.

It also seems to me that anybody whose identity is tied up in impressing other people by being able to outspend them has Got Issues. There should be no shame in needing to be frugal.
posted by flabdablet at 1:03 AM on March 9, 2006

From the 10% figure I'm guessing anon. may be Mormon

Why? 10% isn't limited to LDS. It's fairly common in many evangelical (or "missional," or whatever) communities.
posted by Alt F4 at 5:34 AM on March 9, 2006

Wait. My "why?" was rhetorical. Don't answer that.

Anon, I assume you'll be checking this thread for a little while. I do want to post, but can't right now. I'll be back.
posted by Alt F4 at 5:35 AM on March 9, 2006

For you non-tithers out there, the ten percent is supposed to come before taxes. It's all God's, He just lets us keep 90 percent. ;-)

This sounds like a communication problem more than a financial problem. If the spouse is stay-at-home there are things she can do to help matters (saving money is just as helpful as making it) but she will need to rethink lifestyle choices.

If you are a tither, then it means you attend a church. I'd start there to look for counseling since it should be free, and if something more extensive is needed they should have good recommendations (our church makes referrals to professionals in the community when needed.)

And as one who did stay home with the kids pretty much, I say that if your wife is not happy living within your means she needs to come up with an idea of making money herself. But I would have been thrilled to have had that kind of money coming in when my three children were young.
posted by konolia at 5:49 AM on March 9, 2006

There are plenty of things your wife can do to make money without losing her homemaker identity. For example she can:

- iron clothes for friends/neighbors/members of your church
- provide daycare for one or two neighbors kids
- walk dogs
- Does she have a college education? Can she provide tutoring for neighborhood kids?

If anon is LDS, then the 10% tithe is off the gross and not debatable because the privilege of participating in activities associated with being a member in good standing is directly related to the tithe. Also in kind tithing is NEVER allowed. But there are extra in kind donations that ARE optional (somewhat), little things that might be adding to the financial strain.

Anon, if you are LDS, and your wife routinely contributes food to relief society functions and meals, maybe a few dollars here and there can be saved if she provides service instead of funeral potatoes?

I would suggest you go back over your taxes. If I am not mistaken, you can apply for corrections if there are mistakes or things you overlooked on returns from previous years. That might bring in a little extra money as well.

Finally, as humbling as this might be, perhaps you can speak to your bishop about temporary assistance (cash, food) to help you out and allow you to save a bit of money?
posted by necessitas at 6:27 AM on March 9, 2006

You need to work on getting along better before and/or alongside with solving the money problem. Then, the energy created by getting along better can lead to solution-energy.

Want to take control of the finances yourself by going to a cash economy? For her to agree to that, you have to get along better.

Want to address her lifestyle and insecurity issues? To broach that, you have to get along better.

Since you're asking the question, I ask you: what can you do to help yourselves get along better?

You offered to moonlight. Well, moonlight at home. Put the energy you'd put into earning money into taking on some additional responsibility at home - communication with / enjoying the company with your wife; childcare; housework; exercise and self-care to improve your mood; church based counseling for yourself; and prayer. Email's in the profile if you'd like to contact me.

I'm concerned that you posted about money before posting about getting along better with your wife. When this problem is resolved, you want to have good memories, that great foundation of a good marriage, to keep you going into the future with your committment.
posted by By The Grace of God at 6:31 AM on March 9, 2006

This all sounds eerily familiar. I, too support a family of 6 on one income, and we've faced many of the same challenges you're describing. There is no reason to be embarrassed about your situation. Every day you "survive" is a day to be grateful. My email is in my profile if you want to talk more.
posted by grateful at 6:35 AM on March 9, 2006

It feels like there is more to this mess than just budgeting. Is there such thing as a combination marriage/financial counselor?

All marriage counselors have some experience with financial issues, as it is one of the two most common causes of marital strife (the other likely being adultery). However, if you want someone with specific experience, consider seeking out someone trained in treating compulsive gamblers. Seriously. My spouse and I are currently working through some (non-gambling) financial problems that I caused, and in addition to working on our relationship issues, our counselor worked with us on developing a spending plan, tracking expenses, etc. It's one of the first things you do when dealing with a compulsive gambler.
posted by fochsenhirt at 6:50 AM on March 9, 2006

From personal experience I will tell you one thing: The fact that you are having trouble keeping up a family of six and a 1200 mortgage is not indicative of a particularly spendthrift lifestyle. Yes you can dig yourself out. Your number one problem is communication. For example, you are worried that even if you increase your income, the money will "just get spent?" Money does not just get spent. Someone spends it. If you think someone - and I have to presume your spouse - is spending money to the detriment of your family's stability and security, then either you are not communicating your family's situation to that person honestly, or they are behaving in a way that is too irresponsible to let alone, or probably both. I'd make one more note - it may be true your wife is overly concerned with home and lifestyle to the detriment of your economic stability, but it sounds to me that you are also probably hung up on keeping up the appearance of being in control financially, and the "embarassment and shame" you describe is probably keeping you from dealing with the issue forthrightly.

Your church community is obviously important to you. Check if there are any resources in this area. I am a Lutheran and there are a couple of agencies run through Lutheran churches that give me really top notch financial help. And I know I am not supposed to negotiate about this and will probably take some flack, but unless you are a seriously orthodox Jew that tithe is optional. Do you really think Jesus wants you to lose your home, or are you ashamed to have your pastor/elders know you are struggling financially? If you don't think I'm too much of a dick now, feel free to email me through my profile, I am dealing with similar issues though in a much different context.
posted by nanojath at 10:01 AM on March 9, 2006

I've got to throw in my vote for an unbiased financial advisor.

They aren't a marriage counselor but will be able to shoot from the hip and give you guys some clear advice while avoiding the resentment that is likely from you two trying to figure this out yourselves. It will cost some money but good advice, especially in the area of money, is probably worth it.

It sounds silly but my wife and I were at a stalemate after years of discussing how to paint our house. After two meetings with a person who eats and breathes color we were completely energized, and we have a beautiful color scheme that we both love.

We've had similar experiences with all of our sundry experts: a financial adviser, a tax accountant, a landscape designer, and a color advisor.
posted by deanj at 10:36 AM on March 9, 2006

There's a lot of good advice in this thread! The soundest bit that I've seen here is that there are only two ways to make your financial situation better -- increasing your income or decreasing your expenses (it should be noted that selling off the kids is frowned upon...). The most important initial step is seeing exactly where the money comes from and where it is going.

I'd encourage you to look into Crown Financial Ministries. It's an evangelical financial education program that teaches sound financial principals from a Biblical point of view. It's premise is that everything you "own" belongs to God, and when you see things from this perspective, you begin to see how you treat money differently.

Crown assumes in all you do there is a certain percentage taken off the top of your income for "giving." (They aren't hard and fast about 10%). After that they guide you though determining where your money goes. Debt, for example, is frowned on but not forbidden, especially when the value of the item being paid for (house, business) has potential to grow in value rather than shrink (car, for instance). Credit card debt is strongly discouraged, since it's entirely unsecured, and Crown strongly teaches against bankruptcy simply to eliminate debt -- if you owe something, you should have something of value as collateral.

Since we don't know if you're Mormon or are simply committed to tithing, it's hard to say whether you can easily find a church that makes Crown Ministries studies available. My wife and I are a few weeks into the study and it's already made a huge difference in how we look at money and how we communicate with each other about it.

Our church doesn't require any sort of monetary commitment, but we've made a pledge of the equivalent of 5% of our gross (hoping to eventually make that more) for 2006, and when you make a pledge it's a lot easier to see it as a commitment. I'm probably going to be taking a pay cut soon, and our church would be happy to accept less if necessary, though I'm hoping to keep the dollar amount the same (thereby giving an automatic percentage!).
posted by lhauser at 11:12 AM on March 9, 2006

I am very impressed with your regular, and pretax, tithe! Don't give that up!! This is not about having more money, this is about having better communication.

See if your church community can recommend a counsellor.
posted by selfmedicating at 12:27 PM on March 9, 2006

Also - why is this question posted to "shopping"? I am guessing one spouse's idea about how to spend money is not exactly the same as the other spouse's.
posted by selfmedicating at 12:31 PM on March 9, 2006

"It seems to me that if you're earning the money, it's only fair that you get first dibs on the spending decisions."

1. Even if you believe this to be true, do not, under any circumstances, play this card!!! You will shut down any hope of ever having the conversation you need to have.

2. It's not true. Your wife is educating and taking care of four kids all day, she just doesn't get paid for it. It's exhausting work. And if she weren't doing that, you couldn't go to work every day.

You're both working and you're both earning the money--the check's just in your name. Just because your work is the work that's rewarded doesn't mean you have a god-given right to be the household dictator. This is clearly not how you've been handling things, and that's good -- I'm mostly responding to flabdablet who made that ridiculous comment.

Everyone else here is totally right about involving everyone in the process and WRITING DOWN EVERY EXPENSE.

My wife and were getting more and more in debt every month and had no idea where the money was going. As a result, every discretionary purchase was fraught with guilt and dread, even if it was just an extra magazine from the newsstand.

After we recorded every expense for a month, we were able to plug some holes, change some bad habits, and work out a plan where we can make a substantial payment toward our debt every month and still have spending money. And since we've been able to budget in discretionary money for each of us that we can spend how we like or roll over to the next month, there is no feeling guilty for buying things we want, and no weirdness around comparing how each other are spending. Now that we have a budget, it feels like we have way more spending money.

Mind you, we have two incomes and are not raising kids (yet!).
posted by crabintheocean at 4:41 PM on March 9, 2006 [1 favorite]

I didn't mean to suggest that "first dibs" means "total control"; I meant it more in the sense of "not ceding total control".

As I see it, to earn money is to contribute an essential resource to the household, and the effort required to do so should be acknowledged by all parties.

Of course it's true that it can be hard for the absent wage-earner to understand the sheer bloody effort required to raise kids. But it's equally true that a non-wage-earner - especially one who works hard all day in the home - can fail to get a gut feel for the effort required to make that wage available.

This lack of understanding can lead, as it seems to have done in the OP's case, to treating the household funds pool as a thing in itself, rather than a reflection of the effort of the earning partner. Once it's abstracted that way, it's easy to fall into the trap of considering it an objectively inadequate Thing, as opposed to a hard-won resource requiring careful management.

One way to get rid of that effect is to get rid of the pool. If each partner has an independent bank account, and there are negotiated - not imposed - areas of spending responsibility, accompanied by a negotiated - not imposed - allocation of available income across those accounts, the partners' differing spending styles stop being such a relationship stressor.

The conversation shifts from "we're always running out of money - you don't make enough" to "I'm low on funds - can you fuel up the car this week?"

It's kind of interesting to note that this is exactly the way the tithe operates. The church doesn't get access to the household bank account, and the household doesn't get access to the church's. If you're a committed member of a tithing church, you've voluntarily agreed to an allocation of income between your own accounts and the church's, and you get a say in what kinds of thing the church will spend that on.

Everybody knows where they stand, and the relationship between churchgoer and church stays good enough that contributing $5500/year becomes "non-negotiable" even in the face of severe household financial stress.
posted by flabdablet at 7:07 PM on March 10, 2006

Alright. I'm back.

Anonymous, a couple of people have recommended writing down every expense. I totally agree with that. I'll write a little more on that in a second. There are a couple of other things I'd suggest that intersect with expense tracking that you should also have in place:
  • have a time for tracking expenses
  • have a place for tracking expenses
  • have a process for tracking expenses
Ultimately, as the others have noted, this is about communication between you and your wife. Having clear ground rules about how you'll be approaching your A) budgeting, B) spending, and C) expense tracking is important. Establishing those three elements (time, place, process) is important. Just as you (theoretically/ideally) sit down each evening for dinner as a family around the dinner table (I know, that might not be realistic, but work with me), you have a time (early evening), a place (the table), and a process (chores to set it up, everyone gathers, sit, grace, eat/conversation, chores to clear it, everyone disperses). I could go on here, but I think you get what I'm trying to say: Have a place in your house where you and your wife sit, once a week, to go over the previous week's expenses, to see what expenses you have coming up in the next week or so, and to see how you're doing for the month in general.

You noted that you have some tension in your marriage. Every relationship needs a common enemy. Team up with your wife on this. Don't see each other as "the problem": see debt and overspending as "the problem" and see your wife as a fellow soldier fighting it. That's a cheesy way to say it, but you know what I mean.

Back to the "writing down of every expense." This fits in with the "having a process for tracking expenses." What I'd suggest is this: Keep your receipts (and have your wife and children (if applicable) do the same) for the next few days / week. At some point (say, Monday evening), sit down together with a cup of tea or whatever, and go down your expenses. See where you spent money. Create some basic categories that will help you classify your expenses: groceries, dining out, tithe, car gas, clothing, etc. Begin to see how much each category is getting. This shouldn't take more than a few minutes (10 or so). See it as a really nerdy, really short date. After a few weeks, you should be able to see (on a larger scale) where your money is going. Begin to set levels for yourselves, for how much each category SHOULD get. Then do your best to stick to those levels.

People hate budgeting because it puts a ceiling on what they can spend. In truth, though, the ceiling was already there (put in place by their income), and budgeting simply helps them spend their money in the right ways.

I wrote a budgeting / personal expense tracking spreadsheet. It's really straightforward, really simple, and really easy to use (says me). It's also totally free. It's called PearBudget, and you can check it out here. It's an easy way to write down every expense and to see how you are spending your money. And it even has an expense category for tithing.

Debt will crush your soul. I'm sorry you're in this situation, and I'm glad that you're seeking ways to get out of it. I would echo others' recommendation that you seek out solid counseling: first as general marital counseling from your church) (or from these guys). Financial issues will surely come up in those conversations. Good luck, and please e-mail me (check my profile) if I can be of any help.
posted by Alt F4 at 3:27 AM on March 11, 2006

Also, I would recommend that you keep your money pooled with your wife's. Both for simplicity (easier to manage) and so you don't begin to resent / distrust your wife or her bank account.
posted by Alt F4 at 3:30 AM on March 11, 2006

« Older Should I pay to fly to an interview?   |   Three column view in Apple Mail - is it possible? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.