Creating a budget with your spouse or significant other is critical in managing your household finances. Your budget not only allows you to plan and track where the money will be spent, but it enables you to direct the course of your finances together.
If you or your spouse haven’t created a budget before, you’re not alone. The NFCC’s 2019 Consumer Financial Literacy Survey found that only about 40% of Americans have a monthly household budget that closely tracks their spending.
For couples, budgeting can be a touchy subject, but you can be successful at it and have fun while you are at it, too. When creating a budget with your spouse, the most important thing to remember is that a budget is simply a plan for your money. And, like all plans, it should be discussed, tweaked, and revisited often to ensure that you reach your end goal.
5 Steps to get started budgeting as a couple
Figuring out how to budget can seem confusing in itself since there are so many ways to approach it. It comes down to six basic steps.
1. List all of your combined income sources and amounts
Knowing how much money you have to cover your expenses and other items in your budget is of utmost importance. In fact, your income should be the first item that is listed on your budget.
To begin creating your budget, list out all of the expected income that will be received between you and your spouse during the time period that you’re budgeting for. Again, this could be a week, two weeks, or even a month.
Income can come from more than just your 9-to-5 salary. Don’t forget to include income sources like:
- Side-hustle money
- Dividend income
- Rental income
Once you’ve created a list of all of your combined income sources, list out how much you expect to receive from each one. Add these numbers together to get a total of how much income will be coming into the household to cover expenses for that budget.
List this number at the top of your budget and remember that your expenses should NOT exceed it.
2. List out all of your joint household expenses
After calculating your total income, list out your expected expenses into one column. There are some expenses that don’t change from month to month. For example, rent or mortgage, groceries, and electricity are recurring expenses that you’ll need to account for. These recurring expenses can be sorted into twelve standard household budgeting categories.
12 Common household budgeting categories
- Personal Care
- Household goods/supplies
- Debt repayment
Grouping your expenses into these categories not only keeps your budget organized, but it allows you to see where the majority of your money is being spent. Simply list your expenses within the categories that they belong to. For example, your “housing” category could include mortgage, HOA dues, lawn care, and property taxes.
Even if an expense doesn’t occur each budgeting period, you can still include it in your standard list of expenses.
3. Estimate how much you will spend on each item
Though some expenses may be recurring, the total cost may not be the same every time. Therefore, it’s important to review your expenses each time you create a new budget. Estimating and listing your expenses also allows you to see what can be reduced in your budget to free up cash for other things.
The easiest way to estimate your expenses is to take an average of what you’ve spent over the prior months. An example would be taking a three month average of your grocery costs to get an estimate for the coming month.
In some cases, you’ll know the exact amount from a billing statement, while in other cases you’ll just need to make a decision on what your limit will be. This is true for expenses like gifts and savings. You can determine what you want to budget for these line items. However, the key is coming up with realistic budget amounts that you can both afford and stick to.
Total up these estimates and subtract them from your estimated income. Does it exceed your expected income? If so, you need to reduce some of your expenses. If it’s less than your expected income, allocate the additional money to savings or paying down debt.
4. Track expenses
The most important part of budgeting is tracking your expenses. After all, you need to know if you’re staying within your budget. There are two ways that you can easily track your spending with your spouse:
- Shared spreadsheet or templates: You can house your budget spreadsheet on Google Drive or Dropbox so that you and your spouse have access to reference or edit it at any time. Here are some awesome budget templates as well as an example of a budget.
- Budgeting apps: There are tons of budgeting apps that allow you to connect your bank account and debit cards to track your spending. These apps even go as far as putting your expenses in the right category and alerting you when you’re nearing your budgeted amount.
You can log your expenses as they occur or have a set time each day to do so. Either way, you’ll need to be consistent about tracking your spending if it’s not being done automatically by an app.
5. Schedule a standing budget meeting
Remember, in order to be successful budgeting as a couple, your budget is a plan that needs to be discussed, tweaked, and revisited often. To ensure that this happens, schedule a standing budget meeting with your spouse. The intent of your budget meeting should be to review your spending and to create your next budget before you get paid.
Make the conversation fun and relaxing (cook a nice dinner!) and plan out your bills and expenses that you know are coming up. This way your dollars are allocated in advance. You can also discuss upcoming expenses. At its conclusion, there should be an agreement on what the upcoming budget will be and it should be documented.
6. Talk about your finances often
Your budget meeting does not negate talking to your spouse about the budget and spending as needed. You should be in constant communication about your finances and spending. It's all about getting to the point where talking about your finances is just something that you do!
Rules of Thumb for Successful Budgeting With Your Spouse
Now that you have an understanding of how to budget, you’ll both need to keep in mind and agree on a few other things to make it all work:
Create your budget with your spouse before you get paid
You must be proactive and not reactive with your money. If you wait until after your income arrives to create your budget, it is no longer a plan.
Budget as often as you get paid
Correlate your budgeting to every time you get paid. If monthly you should budget monthly; if bi-weekly you should budget bi-weekly. This allows you to align your expenses with your income and not overspend. Make sure you are both aware of each others' pay dates so you know when to expect income.
Don’t budget for more expenses than your income
Your budget should help you stay within your financial means and not overspend. If you find that your expenses exceed your income, it's time to sit down and take a long hard look at where you can cut back or how you can increase your incomes.
Track your expenses jointly and consistently
This is the only way that you will be able to see your performance and progress toward the plan. You have to know what expenses you both have. You also need to know what irregular expenses you both have coming up.
Stick to the plan you both agree on
Once your budget is set, don't deviate from it without first having a conversation with each other about it. Not only will this avoid conflict, but it will also help you maintain trust with your significant other around your finances. The last thing you want is to get into a big fight or feel disappointed because one of you didn't honor the agreement (i.e. your budget) you both made.
Review how you’re spending to your plan regularly
It’s important to review and pivot if necessary. Talk about your transactions, go over your bank statements together. Make it an exercise, not an argument.
Talk about your long-term goals as well
Take some time out to talk about your dreams and goals and how you plan to approach them. Want to launch a business? Travel the world? Save a million dollars? These are conversations you should have and start planning together. A good idea is to create specific categories within your budget that includes savings for your long-term goals, no matter how small you start.
Listen and communicate
Communication is the foundation of success in marriage and in budgeting together as a couple. There will be times where you don't always agree on your money choices but the key to getting past the disagreements is by listening, communicating your own point of view, and coming to a common ground or mutual agreement. Remember, you are a team, not rivals.
Applying these rules of thumb to your budgeting practice will help you stay on track with your financial goals and your spending. Ultimately, you want your budget to help you manage your finances, not feel like a trap.
Creating a budget with your spouse is one of the best financial decisions that you can make in your marriage. Budgeting together allows you to work toward your financial goals as a couple. Use it as a tool to generate much-needed money conversations in your marriage and to avoid disagreements around how money is spent.