We just finished dinner Sunday night and it’s time for our regular family budget meeting…uggh… I thought we just did this? Clothes are piling up in the laundry room, toys are scattered like land mines throughout the house, and one more cup in the sink will cause an avalanche of baby bottles, sippy cups, etc. Additionally, my 3-year-old announces that he will NEVER use the potty again and incidentally, won’t be going to bed either. Good grief…so we get the kids down, straighten up a bit and get the computers, legal pads, apps, and calculators out to begin the arduous task of projecting expenses and formulating a series of compromises that will supercharge our finances for the coming month. But wait! “I need a snack for this” and “Maybe we should have a glass of wine” or “Better take the dog for a walk…and hey look…The Bachelor is on..!” are all common procrastination phrases that will likely ensue. (Bachelor excuse is not mine FYI).
The specifics of your situation are likely different, but many of the same roadblocks come into play for couples trying to spend time on the family budget. Not only are there tons of distractions, but also there are a gazillion other things more fun than discussing (or debating) next month’s budget. However, from a financial standpoint, I would argue there is no better use of you and your partner’s time.
Budgeting is the first and most important step in the financial planning process – it’s the map for the whole thing. If you go on a road trip and you don’t have a map (or Google Maps), you’re going to be guessing the entire trip. Same with budgeting - you’ve got to decide to spend less than you make, have a solid cash position for emergencies, and save enough to get to your retirement destination while also meeting obligations and intermediate goals along the way. That means knowing where each dollar of income is going whether it be bills, savings, investing, paying down debt, or fun stuff.
Imagine that you and your partner are running a business together. You have a balance sheet, income statement, and a statement of cash flows. The tighter your books, the smoother the business will run. Day by day, month by month, and year by year you’re continually working to increase your equity or net worth and the only way that happens is by increasing assets or reducing debt…ideally a combination of the two.
Technology: let tech be your friend here. There are countless tools and apps that allow you to track spending and set parameters for certain categories in your budget. Many of these programs allow you to link accounts (checking, savings, 401k, loans, etc.) so your transactions and balances update daily with handy graphics and visuals. Check out Mint (www.mint.com) and Dave Ramsey’s tool, EveryDollar (www.everydollar.com) to name a few.
While technology has simplified the process of budgeting, it can also make us complacent. There is no substitute for discussing the budget with your partner on a regular basis. Full transparency as well as combining accounts and assets is really the only way to go in most cases. Although I’m sure some have had success, couples trying to achieve common goals with divided assets will be at a huge disadvantage and will most likely struggle. Just imagine if Partner A and Partner B ran XYZ Company together but did so through separate operating accounts…results would suffer. Now, I’m not saying combining your finances is the silver bullet. You and your spouse still have to compromise on allocating discretionary income to the things that matter most in your lives, but now it will be with a common purpose as a TEAM.
Fundamentally speaking, there are some budgeting priorities that absolutely must be met that shouldn’t need compromise. 1) Have you met your basic needs including shelter, food, and utilities? 2) Do you have a solid emergency fund to get you through 3-6 months of basic living expenses? 3) Have you paid off all high interest debt (e.g. credit cards)? 4) Are you paying yourself by investing at least 10% of your income to either company sponsored retirement plans, IRAs, or other investments accounts?
If you and your partner can answer ‘yes’ to all four questions, then let the negotiations begin! At this point, both you and your partner try making a list of things that are most important to you individually ranking them 1-5 for example with 1 being the most important. Seeing what lines up and what doesn’t will generate some healthy discussions and give you a starting point of where compromises are necessary. Common items on your list might include additional retirement savings, paying off student loans, kid’s college savings, charitable giving, saving up for a new house, saving for a trip, home renovation, car upgrade, etc.
Budgeting is a hugely fruitful experience if done correctly and will save you a considerable amount of money over your lifetime. It’s also a necessary step to achieve financial goals for you and family. As an added bonus, it will also bring you closer to your partner. Best of luck in 2020.