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All aboard: How to win the budget battle with a reluctant spouse

Published: Saturday, Aug. 23 2014 8:10 a.m. MDT

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A good marriage doesn't mean the spouses agree on everything, but different views on budgeting can lead to problems that a husband and wife might not expect.

Matt Becker, a certified financial planner in Pensacola, Florida, who writes the blog Mom and Dad Money, says disagreements on budgeting can make it difficult for couples to work toward long-term financial goals and stability.

"You need to know what (money) is coming in and where it is going," he says. "What kind of life are you trying to build? Being purposeful is very difficult to do if you are not tracking your spending in any way."

But failure to budget and its resulting tension is common in today's family life. A recent poll by Gallup found that Americans are not managing their economic lives to reduce stress and increase security. According to the survey, 23 percent of Americans are "suffering" financially and 38 percent are "struggling." Only 39 percent say they are "thriving."

Experts say budgets can go a long way toward bringing couples and families together into the thriving category. Only 1 in 3 Americans (32 percent) currently "prepare a detailed written or computerized household budget each month that tracks their income and expenditures," another Gallup survey from last year found, but experts say families don't have to start with a complex budget to begin seeing results.

Even if a person is the only one in the family interested in keeping a budget, there are things he or she can do to improve finances and maybe even involve a reluctant partner.

Unbudgeted family

Big life changes can often bring couples to the budgeting bargaining table — things like a new job, a baby on the way or a move. But if life-changing events don't make people consider altering their ways, sometimes the condition of living the unbudgeted life brings its own pains and realization that changes need to be made.

Amanda H. Christensen, a Utah State University extension family and consumer science faculty member, says without a budget there is a lack of control. "And that means our ability to control life is taken away," she says. "We are being controlled by our money instead of us telling money where to go. There is tension in the home. Kids are unhappy when they are told 'no.' Spouses are unhappy when they are not financially where they want to be."

This cumulative type of pain causes some people to learn how to budget, certified financial planner Kate Holmes in Las Vegas says. "They realize something is not working," she says.

But, unlike the motivation that can come from a big and mutually life-shifting change, cumulative pain may not hit both spouses at the same time nor to the same level.

That's because, Holmes says, opposites attract. "Usually one person is a spender and the other is a saver," she says. "Spenders can be resistant to budgeting."

On your own

Holmes says the saver should never call out the spender on how the money is being spent. That only makes people defensive, and the couple will not come together on a budget.

A more effective method, Becker says, is to find areas to reduce spending without the other spouse's direct participation. For example, he says, in tracking expenses "maybe you will notice that you spend a lot on cable."

This doesn't mean cancelling the cable and upsetting the other spouse. But it could mean calling the cable company and trying to negotiate a lower price.

Other suggestions could involve the budget-conscious spouse taking a lunch to work rather than eating out.