Welcome to Joint Accounts, a weekly advice column about money and relationships of all kinds. Have a question? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dear Joint Accounts,
My partner and I are in a long term relationship and have kids. For the duration of our relationship, I’ve been more on top of our finances. My partner tends to spend willy-nilly without putting much thought into how it affects our bottom line. To keep those tendencies in check, I’ve historically managed our finances and spending very closely.
Six months ago, they asked me to trust them more with money and micromanage less. I agreed. I recently discovered the consequence of this: My partner has racked up some serious credit card debt. To me, this is a BIG F*CKING DEAL. They don’t seem as concerned, and brushed it off as “an expensive few months” that “we can pay down over time.” I’m frustrated and concerned. As it stands now, we need to dip into our savings to pay down this debt. Help! How can my partner and I get on the same page about money?
— Financially Frustrated
You’re right — this is a big deal. Your partner asked you to trust them with money, then betrayed that trust by getting you into debt. Even if they racked up that debt on their own cards, it’s still your problem, since you’ll be dipping into your savings to cover their spending. And the bottom line is, your partner didn’t seem to consider how their spending affects you.
That said, it also sounds like your relationship could use a little balance. The two of you went from one extreme (you micromanaging the finances) to another (your partner going to town with the credit cards). The key is to find a middle ground where you both have a say in financial matters. And yes, this means you’ll have to confront your partner about their habits. But it also means you need full financial transparency — they need to know what the family budget looks like, and you need to know what they’re buying.
Money issues are rarely just about money — they’re about trust, respect, boundaries, autonomy, and so much more, which means it’s easy for a conversation about money to turn into a conflict about money. You feel vulnerable now that your partner has racked up debt; your partner, on the other hand, might feel they’ve lost their ability to make financial decisions independently. But as angry or afraid as you both may feel, blaming, yelling, and lecturing will only make things worse. “Money is a super emotionally loaded topic, so going into any discussion of it by leading with one or the other partner’s spending behavior is bound to lead to conflict,” says Tanja Hester, author of Work Optional.
Hester, who writes about her family finances with her husband on their blog, Our Next Life, suggests a three-part conversation about goals, logistics, and then, financial habits: “So first, have a big-picture discussion about what you each want out of life, and what you want out of life, together. Where do you want to be living in 10 or 20 years? What kinds of things do you want to do with your time?” Your partner might want to travel more, whereas your priority might be a larger emergency fund to accommodate your family.
Discuss why these goals are important to each of you, too. Maybe you want the peace of mind of knowing you and your kids will be okay if an emergency arises. Maybe your partner wants the family to see more of the world together. There are no wrong answers here, but starting the conversation from a more zoomed-out perspective gives you a better chance at being able to get on the same page.
This isn’t just a budget: It’s a blueprint for being on the same page, and if you frame it as such, your partner may be more likely to respect it.
Next, talk about the role of money in those goals. Calculate roughly how much you’ll need to save up for that two-week backpacking trip — or whatever the goal may be — and how much time it will take to get there. Calculate how many trips you can take during the year while still building that emergency fund. In other words, talk logistics. From there, discuss your current relationship with money: Now that you’ve laid out your goals and done some rough math to see what’s possible, how will your current habits affect these plans? How are you willing to change those habits to support your priorities?
This is the part of the conversation where you’ll need to confront your partner about their spending. That doesn’t mean a big intervention where you put them in the hot seat, but they do need to know the impact of their actions. When my husband and I went to marriage counseling, one of the best communication “hacks” we learned was to tell each other how we feel and what we need. Which isn’t exactly groundbreaking, but the idea is to make them part of the solution rather than the problem. Use a word to describe how you feel about your partner racking up debt, without blaming them directly, then tell them what you need from them to make that feeling go away.
And remember, anger isn’t the feeling you need to focus on here — it’s a secondary emotional response to a feeling. Let’s say you’re angry because you feel vulnerable. You’d tell your partner something like, “I feel vulnerable when we’re in debt, and I need you to stick to a budget.” Your partner might share something like, “I feel powerless over my money, and I need you to include me in the budgeting process.” This seems simple, but it’s a lot easier to get on the same page when you tell each other exactly what you need.
Once you’ve talked, it’s time for action. Come up with a budget that includes both your spending priorities and goals. Like your partner, my husband used to be a big spender, and he hates the idea of budgeting. We had wildly different habits, so we adopted a “Yours, Mine, and Ours” money plan. It involves joint accounts for joint spending and separate accounts for individual spending (but our individual spending is still transparent). We agreed on shared expenses and goals, then agreed on an amount each of us would deposit in the joint account every month. This has alleviated a lot of our differences: My husband has control over his money, and I feel secure knowing our expenses and goals are taken care of. You have to come up with a system that works for you, but this is a good one to start with.
Of course, this won’t work if one partner is racking up debt. So make sure to set some firm ground rules, like not putting things on credit cards unless you have the cash on hand to pay it off immediately.
This isn’t just a budget: It’s a blueprint for being on the same page, and if you frame it as such, your partner may be more likely to respect it. It sounds like they’re okay with you handling the finances, so I would assume they’re okay with setting up a few guidelines together.
But if they’re resistant to any of this, consider a couples therapist. Therapy is always a good idea, but it’s especially helpful if you and your partner have wildly different ideas about how money should be managed, and they’re not willing to budge. Try a couples therapist who specializes in money issues, or a financial therapist who works with couples. Yes, this is abig deal, but the solution simply calls for a bit of transparency and respect. In a healthy relationship, those shouldn’t be too hard to come by.