It Takes Two to Make a Budget

November 10, 2017

With the new year upon us, as I gather statements for the tax preparer from the folders I created last year, I can't help but wonder: where did all the money go?

Did we take a big vacation, or do a home improvement “small project” that somehow snowballed into something “not so small”? But, hey, I am sure it looks great!

As I create the dreaded “b” word—budget, for 2018—I make the first draft of my “wish list,” which I hope doesn't get buried behind the “needs list” of usual suspects like housing, groceries, utilities, car, school tuition, summer camp, and religious organization. To that I add the savings (401k, emergency, education, and vacation funds): I must pay myself first! Lastly, I make sure my family is taken care of with life and disability insurance.

Finally, the fun stuff: clothes, movies, dinners out, concerts in the park, a visit to Camden Yards (when the Boston Red Sox are in town), and maybe a beach trip!

But I don't want to decide all of this, selfishly, by myself. How do I share the budgeting task with my partner—without confrontation?

For tracking purposes, I document my and my husband's savings and expenditures in Quicken, not because I particularly want to, but because handling this duty somehow always lands on my plate and is easier for me to do on my own than delegate.

In return, I don't have to clear the gutters of gunk in the fall, shovel the snow and ice in the winter, or mow the lawn when it's 100 degrees outside in the summer.

One of my goals for the new year, however, is to blend the household responsibilities, both physical and financial (while still avoiding having to cut the grass in 100 degrees). Tending to the leaves and snow provide good opportunities for exercise and a sense of accomplishment in the fresh air, sans pollen—and sharing the finances would be a good thing for both of us.

With our busy schedules now that the kids are older, my husband teaches them piano and we remind them to practice, throw in sports a couple of nights a week, homework and reading every night, dinners, it all gets hectic. Together we divvy up the work to budget our sanity!

In my work as a financial advisor, I have found that one partner in a couple often tracks the spending and makes most of the financial decisions. I try to engage both parties to discuss savings and strategies in a way that leaves out ego, allowing for a healthy conversation of reviewing “how much is in savings?” and “where did it all go?” without generating frustration.

Here in the Baltimore area, we have many couples in which a partner or spouse is/was in the military, perhaps on deployment. First, thank you for your service. Next, recognize that while you were away, many financial decisions were made without you. Some may have been fantastic and others less so. Now that you are home, the expenses are likely to increase.

Begin to schedule time to review the bank, savings, mortgage, student loan, and credit card statements. Ask your partner questions in order to again share in the financial decision making. You might be surprised to learn how much was saved while you were away as well as how much some activities, clothes, and home improvements really cost. I know I am always shocked.

Specifically, when reviewing your retirement savings statements, note that the IRS has increased the 2018 401k maximum contribution limit to $18,500, with an additional $6,000 for those older than 50. Each of you can go online to your employee benefits site to increase your 401k contributions over last year. Even with a tight budget, you would be amazed how modestly a 2 percent increase will impact your take-home pay yet prudently increase your retirement savings.

Plan a Saturday coffee together to review your accounts and spending patterns: what's working, what's not. Set a spending limit beyond which you must ask the other's blessing before making a purchase. For instance, you might agree not to buy something that costs more than $200 without combined consent, thereby committing you both to the expenditure. It may not always be pretty, but that kind of teamwork is crucial to creating and meeting a family budget. BC

Annie Morrison is an independent advisor representative with and securities and advisory services offered through Commonwealth Financial Network, a Registered Investment Advisor, Member FINRA/SIPC. Zuma Financial Advisors is located in Reisterstown, MD. Email her, at, or call (443) 468-3280.

The opinions expressed in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual.