The One Secret to Money in Marriage

I don’t have an answer for the wife of a husband that won’t listen to your worries when it comes to paying the bills, buying the necessities, etc. It boggles my mind that people can be married and live together but still be living (or at least attempting to live) completely separate financial lives. I’m not talking about how you actually manage the day-to-day funds — which accounts you use, who pays bills out of what, etc. — I’m talking about mentally leading separate financial lives. How is that possible while still being productive?

I don’t understand why money is such a touchy subject for a couple. Why do you take offense when your spouse asks about XYZ expense? Why do you assume you’re being attacked? Is it because you feel guilty? Is it because you immediately mentally turn the question around and start holding your spouse up to the same scrutiny, spouting off that they spend on XYZx2?

What do you hear when your spouse tells you “money is tight.” Do you hear blame or shared concern?

What do you hear when your spouse mentions that “this could be a bad month.” Do you hear an accusation that you aren’t earning enough or a message from a trusted friend to ‘hang in there’?

Why do you attempt to exercise control over your spouse through your finances? Do you not trust them? Why?

Why do you hide spending from your spouse? Is it because they’re so controlling? Why?

Why do you make your spouse do all of the financial paperwork? Why do you stick your head in the sand when there’s a financial crisis? Why do you have such a hard time facing the reality that your spouse has been trying to tell you about for the past six months?

Why can’t you talk about money openly with your spouse? How is it that you can talk about your childhood, raising kids, religion, fears, sex, aspirations… but can’t manage to throw together one productive conversation about money without taking offense, or going on the offensive?

Why is money the number one cause of divorce? Why do we tie everything else in life back to money? What makes money such an emotionally-charged topic? Do you feel that money is a reflection on you?






Take off the gloves, step out of the ring, (remove the mouthguard), towel off, and talk. Better yet, simply ask very open-ended questions and listen. Don’t respond to answers, just listen. Don’t begin formulating your next question, just listen to the answer being given. Don’t think of the past wrongdoings (yours or theirs), just listen. Understand what it is that your spouse is telling you. If they aren’t talking a lot, listen to that. And listen hard because it’s a lot tougher to listen to someone that doesn’t (want to) say much.


Confess that you take offense too quickly because you’re insecure about money (but don’t, for the life of you, know why!). Confess that you offend too quickly. Confess that you question your spouse’s spending too harshly. Confess that, in your feeling frustrated about money, you’ve carelessly shifted the blame completely to your spouse.


Apologize for not doing more to help with the financial stuff. Apologize for not wanting to talk earlier. Apologize for being a jerk about spending money (apologize for being a hypocrite about spending money). Apologize for always blaming and never taking some of the blame for yourself.

I am not a marriage counselor. Trained as an accountant, I learned to read financial statements, not women (oh that there were a major for that). I do not understand all of the intricacies that make up a relationship as complex as the one you’re currently in.

I do understand budgeting. I have a handle on it. I’ve seen what it can do for marriages. No, I can’t tell you what behavior you’re exhibiting when you do A and your spouse does B and together you get C… but I can tell you what behavior will put your finances back on track.

Sit down every month and give every dollar a job together.

Maybe one person does most of the actual day-to-day entry of expenses, that’s fine. We’re starting small here. But make sure that both of you sit down every month and give every dollar a job. Face reality together.

Your communication will improve. Your guilt will go away. Your finances will recover. Your anger will subside. Soon your goals will begin to be realized.

You’ll be dealing with the same bills, the same income, the same crises…but you’ll be dealing with them together. And there is the secret!

14 Responses to “The One Secret to Money in Marriage”

  1. Ian

    This is right on, jesse. I have tried many times to get a handle on the money. Tracked the expenses for years in MSMoney, and watched as we spent lots of it. Tried setting the perfect budget, and never hit it ;-)

    Sat down and gave evey dollar a job with her when we went down to one income.

    Now instead of a $2000 overspend in a month, we have $800 left over, one one income instead of two.

    Less stress. Now I want to pay off those credit cards, I want to be a revolver, now a source of money for the Creditcard company.

  2. Steven

    Hello, I’ve been waiting for the Mac version of YNAB, for some time now. The iPhone is now doing very well, and ‘Splash Money’ Have already released an App for the iPhone, with the wireless sync, desktop to follow shortly, yet I’m still waiting for “YNAB”.

    It’s fair to say at this point, as I’m still unable to find the Mac App, that…YN…TO GET A MOVE ON!! At the rate your going, anyone waiting for “YNAB” would have had to use something else, OR gone bankrupt.

    and so on.

    Ps. Pull your finger out.

  3. Jesse

    @Steven, we’re very much aware of the demand for the Mac version and we are working as fast as resources allow to have it ready. I do hope you haven’t yet gone bankrupt in your wait.

  4. Steven

    Lol. No not just yet… But would like to get my hands on the thing soon

  5. NtJS

    This is absolutely key. I always cringe when I hear a couple talk about their separate checking accounts, or not knowing what HE does with HIS income, or how he can’t tell HER what to do with HER money. Ug.

  6. The Family Wallet » Blog Archive » Mid Week Roundup - Teaching Kids About Money, Money Secret, Estate Planning

    […] You Need A Budget shares the one secret to money in marriage. […]

  7. How to talk openly about money in a marriage - Smart Spending

    […] Jesse at You Need a Budget is a personal-finance blogger — not a marriage counselor. But he has some exceptional advice for couples who don’t see eye to eye about money in a post called “The one secret to money in marriage.” […]

  8. James@capitalcouplesfinance.com

    This is great advice and points to some of the shortcomings many of us have when it comes to dealing with finances in our relationships. Why do many people have some of these problems? I don’t know…perhaps it’s because people are scared of the problems caused by the mismanagement of their finances. Or perhaps its because people aren’t great about communicating in other parts of their relationships? Great question…

  9. Alissa

    Jesse- I found YNAB yesterday and I am loving your writing. I have SO much fear around money, but your writing has a great way of cutting right to the point and helping me move through that fear. Having tried so many times to budget and instead winding up flailing around miserably is awful, but I’m determined to stick with it this time (and hopefully NOT be so miserable ;). Anyhow- thanks for the encouragement! We’ve got a babysitter tomorrow night and will discuss money then.

  10. toni

    After reading this i can finally say it is true ! only the opposite way ! I am the one who gets bitchy when my spouse asks about xyc and money has and is causing problems ! But hopefully doing the YNAB budget course will help.

  11. brad

    I was married for many years, and have 3 wonderful children. My wife and I clashed over money often, so I had her handle the finances because that is what she wanted. Many years later she sunk us in debt, then decided she found someone new. Neither of them have any money so I get all the debt (It was all in my name anyway). Now I have a mountain of debt and a fiancee. I can’t bring myself to relinquish my finances to anyone else again. She does fine but doesn’t have the same desire for strict budgeting I do. So we each have our own checking accounts and take a portion of the bills in our name to be responsible for. Over half of my income goes to paying off debt from my previous marriage, and I am not interested in going into debt again.

  12. Nomore

    I’ve assumed my wife’s debt as my own and together we’re $140K in the whole (90% of it is student debt). She can’t work full time because of her health but unfortunately doesn’t qualify for disability. She loves to spend. Sometimes I think she can’t help it. And the worst part is that it seems like she feels like she NEEDS stuff – like a new pair of pants or shoes to go to a particular event, or a better TV stand because the used one we got from Goodwill is old and rickety and falling apart. In my opinion those are “wants” and don’t even enter my mind because I’m sinking in debt. My part in the fiasco is that I’ve been extremely irresponsible, paying bills late, ignoring collection calls, and ALLOWING her to spend whatever she wants whenever she wants to. NO MORE. I’m now working 2 full-time jobs totaling only $57,000/year (Still looking for a better paying job). Our yearly expenses are about 40,000 with 2 kids. So I have $17000 to pay debt. I’ve told her that any spending she wants to do above her “allowance” I give her, she’ll have to earn herself. She has a part time job and I have no idea what she does with the money, and frankly I don’t care. I just want to get MYSELF out of debt. If she takes on more, that’s on her. But from my end, I WILL BE DEBT FREE in 10-12 years at most, even with these lousy paying jobs.
    So no disrespect, but if your spouse is not interested in change, there’s nothing you can do to make that happen. You have to cut off the madness. I love her and I’m there for her in every way that SHE ALLOWS me to be, but I cannot keep up this nonsense.
    By the way, your software is excellent and your philosophies are pretty solid, but I actually am a counselor, and your marriage advice can’t be followed in every situation.

  13. GeroGirl

    Nomore, this YNAB is great for getting the finances in order (although I’m a newbie and have accrued debts we can’t get rid of yet). However, the way that your wife is spending may be helped by a site such as SimpleSavings.com.au. Recommended by some financial gurus here in Aus, it includes many members contributing cost-saving tricks and challenges, which are very practical and empowering, as well as fun. She has to have some positive alternatives to the habits she relies on, and this may be for her. All the best.

  14. Deana

    Jesse, My husband speaks only Spanish. It’s like pulling teeth to get him interested in managing money. While you’re looking for ways to grow YNAB, think about translating to multiple languages. Budgeting is a universal concept. I think it might be easier for my husband if he could read it rather than hear me. Thanks for the work you’ve done.

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