The Budget Pow Wow: An Evolution

Written by Jesse Mecham  |  on


My husband and I have a monthly budgeting meeting, which we can now refer to with some affection as the “budget pow wow.” I believe for married couples, or those in a committed relationship, a successful budgeting meeting is the key that unlocks the door to an effective financial management system. The pow wow is a habit we’ve been in since we got married, but the affectionate part has evolved over the past two years as we’ve made some small, but significant adjustments in our approach to financial management. Our pow wows at present are virtually unrecognizable from the anxiety ridden, tear-filled, exchanges they used to be.

Then:

We’d convene once monthly to account for spending, plan the next month’s spending and evaluate the state of our financial union. It was, for me, a stressful scramble to find receipts and explain unrecorded purchases. The dynamics of our situation complicated financial issues. We were struggling college students. Nate made most of the money. I had difficulty requesting money for unnecessary purchases (ie fun/pleasurable spending) – even asking for generous enough amounts for necessary ones. I always thought I should/would be able to feed our family for less than what the previous months had shown it would cost. So we’d under-budget for things that I was responsible for purchasing (ie food) and then I’d feel a month’s worth of stress, and a pow wow full of shame, for over-spending.

When I did mention a desire for something extra, I was met with a response akin to, “well, that money has to come from somewhere, if you want those things, you might have to earn the money for them.” Discouraged by the perceived unwillingness to facilitate my financial needs, I stopped asking. And started resenting the budget because, in my world, it was the restrictive and stifling reason why I couldn’t have things that were important to me.

Now, to defend my husband, who I feel like I have unfairly vilified, I think it just took him some time to let go of his white-knuckled grip on the financial reigns. He grew up in a family where money was always an ugly issue because they never had enough. His resulting anxieties about not having enough and his determination to best his childhood circumstances made it hard for him to trust that I wasn’t going to go spendthrift on him and bankrupt our savings. Little did he know, he’d married a woman whose frugality causes ulcers when forced to pay more than $.99/lb. for purple grapes. Prodigious spending should have been at the bottom of his list of things to worry about. Our combined weaknesses and insecurities led to hostile budgeting pow wows and reluctant (read: loose) compliance with financial goals on my part.

Ironically, there were really only two things that changed to take us from the dreaded pow wows of yore to the bearable, sometimes enjoyable, planning sessions of the present.

Now:

First, and I know this is sort of the old stand-by solution for all of life’s problem, but I’m going to re-emphasize it – we needed to communicate more honestly. So my advice to fellow budgeters whose monthly money meetings are less amiable and productive than desired is: talk. Talk. And…talk. And then when you don’t think you could possibly talk about anything else – talk more. Express your frustrations, needs, anxieties, desires. And make each other feel safe and understood by listening thoughtfully and validating one another’s financial needs.

Second, I needed to feel some sense of financial autonomy and control within the structure of the budget, and my husband needed to recognize that my financial needs, although foreign to him, were important. The solution: establish separate “fun funds.” By fun fund, I mean a predetermined monthly amount given to each budgeting partner that does not have to be explained or justified. These purchases should still be recorded in the budget for balance tracking purposes, but the “memo” column on the YNAB spreadsheet can be left blank and inquiring minds need not ask what you spent thirty fun-fund dollars on at Target last week. The fun fund has completely revolutionized our budgeting. I like the feeling of exclusive control my little fun fund affords. And knowing that I can spend a few pleasure-filled dollars on non-necessity items makes it easier to stick to the other, more rigid, parts of our financial plan. Also, knowing that the fun fund is mutual, I feel less vindictive about my husband’s discretionary spending.

We’re both allowed “for fun” purchases, so there’s no need to feel angry or resentful of the other person’s. It’s been good for me, even with our limited resources, to bite my tongue while watching him make purchases that I would never deem budget-worthy. And to realize that he’s exercising the same restraint every time I bring home more canvasses to paint or vintage glassware from the local thrift store. And, since fun fund levels are never ample enough for all of our material desires, it’s also a good personal exercise in micro-level budgeting–planning, saving, and resisting non-priority purchases, while saving for big ticket personal desires. I recommend making the fun fund a substantial enough amount, (which will vary depending on your personal financial circumstances,) to allow each budgeting partner to feel some fiscal autonomy.

Sometimes, most times, it’s just a tiny bit of tweaking that makes a terrific impact in a personal management program. For us, with budgeting, it was as simple as more thorough communication, which facilitated more mutual understanding, and a little discretionary cash in our pockets to enable us to stick to our financial plan with increased focus and determination because we each felt a greater degree of personal contentment. The miracle of it all? It’s that I am now a budget crusader (sort of.) I preach the beauty of the budget, the peace of the plan, and the rewards of achieving financial goals. I love it. It’s not restrictive or stifling, it’s empowering to have and follow a financial plan and to make purchases with peace of mind. And every single one of those juicy little fruits of personal money management stem from the life-giving root that is a peaceful and productive monthly pow wow. And (bonus!) it’s as good for the relationship as it is for the pocket-book.

Your Next Step

Budgeting is not restrictive. You won’t be spending less, you’ll be spending right. So what do you have to lose? Except all that debt and stress?