We’re continuing with the theme of money and relationships and today we’re talking about how to budget with a significant other.
Whether you’ve both been long time budgeters, neither of you have ever budgeted before, or one of you is a personal finance nerd while the other doesn’t know what their bank account balance is, starting a shared budget together is different than budgeting alone.
Here’s a flexible guide for what questions you’ll need to discuss when you start budgeting with a partner.
Why do we want to budget?
Before you sit down to start a budget together, you want to make sure you’ve already had a more foundational conversation about money, values, and goals. For a budget to work, you and your partner have to have a strong sense of why you’re budgeting.
The why can be anything – saving for a home, crushing your debt, a much-needed vacation, future kids, starting your own business, a life free of money-related stress.
Knowing that sticking to your budget will help you reach your savings goals as a team will make it easier to eat at home rather than going out that one night, or might help you think twice before making your next impulse purchase. Plus, as you start to see the results of sticking to your budget (like your savings account ticking up and stress level ticking down), you’ll feel motivated to keep it up.
Budgeting shouldn’t feel like deprivation. Making a budget isn’t necessarily about cutting costs, but about realigning your spending with your priorities.
Negotiating priorities as a couple requires some real conversations, so be sure to talk about your financial and life goals as a couple before jumping straight into the budget. If planning out big life goals feels overwhelming, then start on a shorter-term goal like “what would you like to save for this year?”
Getting on the same page about that will make setting a budget together a whole lot easier.
How are we making our budget and tracking spending?
The next question that you’ll have to answer together is what you will use to create your budget and how you’ll be tracking your spending. This is the nitty gritty logistical stuff, but your answer to this question could have a big impact on how successful sticking with your budget is.
You could set up a home-grown Excel sheet, you could use a free online platform such as Mint, or you could try my personal favorite budgeting software You Need A Budget (YNAB) which uses the zero-sum budgeting method. There’s also the envelope method, a cash based budgeting system popular with those just starting out, and good old-fashioned pen and paper.
When starting a budget together, you want your method to be easily understandable and accessibly to both parties. You also want it to be fairly simple. If it takes you two hours every time you sit down to update your budget and you need to manually add every transaction, it might start to seem more like a chore than it should.
Do some research on different budgeting strategies and software and find something that works for you both. If the first thing you pick doesn’t fit right or work out, try something else.
Remember: Y’all’s financial health is too important to give up on after one or two stumbles; that’s just part of the process.
What costs will be shared?
Depending on where you are in your relationship and how much you’ve joined finances, the answer to this will be different for each couple.
If your finances are fully merged then the answer to this question is simple: You’re sharing all of them.
If not, you’ll need to sort through expenses to determine what costs will be shared. Perhaps it’s just rent and utilities. Maybe it’s groceries and the cost of dining out together. Maybe it’s everything except the associated costs of an expensive hobby one of y’all have. What about holiday presents for each other’s family members?
Like I said, this will depend on lots of things unique to your relationship, but it’s worth going through your budgets’ categories and figuring out which ones you both feel should be shared costs.
Who pays for what?
Again, if you’ve fully merged your finances, the answer to this is easy. But when it comes to dividing costs, this is also unique to different couples.
You may split any shared costs 50/50. If one of you makes significantly more money than the other, then you might choose to split some or all shared costs in a way that’s more proportional to each of your incomes.
You may also decide to split some costs based on differing priorities. If one of you really loves to eat out and the other doesn’t really care, then maybe the one who always wants to go out pays for a little more of your dining out costs. If someone pushed for a slightly more expensive apartment because it was closer to their work, then maybe they cover a bit more rent.
Talk with your partner about what feels fair and why. Remember, budgets should be individualized and flexible. Your situation will change and so will your budget.
When will we update/revisit our budget?
Budgets take some routine maintenance if you really want them to work in all their glory.
You need to reconcile transactions, move money around from different categories based on any unexpected expenses, understand the progress you’re making on your goals, and make sure the framework of your budget still matches your priorities.
How often this maintenance should happen will partly depend on what method your using to budget.
If you’re manually entering transactions you either want to be entering them in real-time or set aside 5-10 minutes each day to update your budget with any new spending. If you put this off for too long, it can snowball and you won’t remember how to categorize that mystery trip to Target on last month’s statement.
If you’re using a budgeting software that connects to your accounts and auto-imports transactions, you may only need to do a quick check-in once a week to make sure the imported transactions are categorized the way you want them to be and add any cash transactions you made.
If you’re using a cash flow system such as the envelope method, you may just need to regroup every other week.
When budgeting as a team, it’s a good practice to set aside a regular time that you sit down together and go over the budget to make any necessary adjustments. Maybe the last Friday of the month you sit down to make next month’s budget, and then every Sunday you quickly go over any new transactions over coffee to handle the maintenance pieces.
Every six months or so it’s a good idea to do a bit of a deeper dive on your budget together. Check-in with how your spending level feels and if any of your priorities have shifted. Don’t forget to celebrate the progress you’re making towards your financial goals!
What are our boundaries and expectations?
Another piece to the puzzle is being clear about any expectations or “rules” there are about money and communication. Discussing each other’s expectations about your shared budget is important to start off on the right foot.
If your finances are merged, it’s a good idea to determine a threshold price point above which you would expect your partner to check-in with you before making the purchase. The amount will vary from couple to couple depending on income levels and money scripts. For some couples, it may be $100 while another couple might not feel a check-in or discussion is warranted until hitting $500 or $1,000.
Be sure to ask what this number is for each of you and see if you can land around a similar number. No matter what, it’s good practice to discuss larger purchases ahead of time.
If you’re sharing most of your costs and setting a budget together, build in a monthly category of “judgement-free fun” money for each of you. The amount in these categories will vary, but it gives each person some funds they can spend however they want, no questions asked. Some folks might save it up for a big purchase, while others might use it for smaller treats throughout the month.
If you and your partner disagree over certain spending habits, this may be a good way to tackle that — as long as the fun money category isn’t taking too many dollars away from your larger financial goals.
There isn’t a right or wrong way to budget together; the important thing is finding something that works for you as partners and helps you feel like you’re on the same team.
The simple awareness of your spending will do more for cutting costs than any amount of coupon clipping, and the conversations that stem from your budgeting dates will certainly inspire dreams of the future you hope for and clear a path for getting there together.
PS — The YNAB link is a referral link, which means that if you sign up for a subscription at the end of your free trial, I’ll get a bonus free month. I wouldn’t recommend YNAB if I weren’t enthusiastic about it, and I think you will be, too! You can sign up for your free trial of You Need a Budget here.