Love And Marriage (And Money)

Today is the second of three posts from a fellow blogger and physician- Rogue Dad MD! While we have never met in person, we talk quite frequently over the WWW. He is wise beyond his years and he posts on medicine, family, finance, and religion. Go check out his website or keep reading and see what you think. This post was originally on his site back in May 2017.

Love And Marriage (And Money)

As part of a bi-religious dual-race multi-cultural marriage, raising children while teaching them different parts of two different religions, perhaps it isn’t a surprise that my wife and I occasionally disagree.

What may be a surprise is that we don’t spend much time disagreeing about religion or race or culture. We do on occasion, but really not very much. You can only have so many debates about who had the better tan, Jesus or Muhammad (PBUH). I refuse to verify her claim that I’m missing out by only eating turkey bacon. There’s no way to settle whether the caliphs would’ve made better backup dancers to Justin Timberlake than the apostles.

No — we disagree about the same things everyone else disagrees about: not folding the laundry; leaving milk on top of the refrigerator; not crossing off enough things on The Honey-Do list. Okay, these are just the last 3 things I got reprimanded over.

Yes – we also occasionally disagree about money.

Wait, What?  A Married Couple Disagreeing About Money??

Now, I don’t qualify as a personal finance blogger, and I’m not giving advice, just sharing my experiences. I’ve read many different financial blogs, and learned from a few (White Coat Investor chief among them).

Maybe it’s just me (and it really may just be me, because I’m really stubborn and argumentative), but most financial bloggers don’t ever seem to mention the potential for strife when figuring out your financial future with your spouse/significant other.

I bring this up in part because I spend some time teaching trainees at my institution about personal finance (with the same caveat – I am not an expert).

One of the points I give everyone, every time, is to try to be on the same page as your spouse/significant other, and not to hide money related issues or concerns. It’s a sure fire way to achieve the opposite of marital bliss.

However, getting on the same page isn’t easy. The discussions can be acrimonious. If you don’t discuss it in the proper context and with the proper attitude, it leads to hostility. Yes, you think you’re doing the right thing by suggesting your spouse buy the concentrated chai mix from Costco instead of going to Starbucks, however sometimes you forget that occasionally you just need someone to hand you a hot chai at the drive-thru window when you get up at the butt-crack of dawn to be at work by 6am for a 12-hour shift (this is purely a hypothetical.  This didn’t actually happen).

I’m not a millennial – I just barely missed that cutoff. I have the impression couples several years younger than us spend more time discussing money before marriage than we did. Maybe that’s because of the recession, increased debt, and harder to achieve high-paying jobs (or maybe I just think that’s the case because of all the 25-30 year old people blogging about how they and their significant other are on a harmonious financial journey together).

So if you defined all monetary goals in advance of your marriage and you and your spouse are in the FIRE crowd (Financially Independent/Retire Early) at the age of 30 – congratulations! You are in rarified air. Go read Mr. Money Mustache.

If not, congratulations! You are like the rest of us, and you have to figure this out as you go.  Keep reading this blog instead (but go read MMM also).

Rogue Wife?

Rogue Mom (I have not received her approval for this nickname, but we’re going with it for now) and I have come a long way in our marriage. We’re coming up on 11 years this month, and I’m not as overbearing and obnoxious about money and spending as I used to be (note the qualifier).

What is one thing I’ve learned? You can’t simply deliver a message about the need to save money or spend less. You have to have understand the financial goals you want to achieve. You have to figure out how to communicate that goal, be able to articulate why that goal is important, and both sides need to be open to having a reflective discussion of what behaviors may help and some hinder achieving that goal.

Yes, learning to agree about money and finances is basically the equivalent of reading self-help books and going through marriage counseling.

Why? It’s important to remember — your significant other may not agree with your goals. It’s all fine and dandy to say you want to eat ramen every day so you can save 70% of your income and retire at 35 (and eat ramen until you die so you don’t have to go back to work as a lawyer) so you can pursue your dream of building blankets for caterpillars to use in their cocoons as they become butterflies.  But if he/she doesn’t want to eat ramen for the next 50 years while you make really tiny quilts in the wilderness, you may have to modify your plans.

Actually, Rogue Mom would be fine eating ramen until we die, so maybe not a great example.

This brings me to budgets, the original point of this post when I thought of it (yes, I hit a detour in the writing process). I thought early in our marriage that we needed a budget. We were in good shape financially with minimal debt and both of us working full-time, and we combined our finances relatively early in our marriage.

We maxed out our Roth IRAs, she always ensured she received her max work 401k match, and we saved some cash. We were doing better than most (way better than most doctors at that stage). Yet we did not have any defined savings goals. FIRE was not in my vocabulary (it just entered my vocabulary last year).

I wanted a budget because I was nagged by a feeling that we were overspending, even though we always had plenty of money and we were saving. So somewhere along the way I used to set up some budgets for groceries, restaurants, etc. When we were close a grocery limit, I would tell my wife. The response I received was generally akin to: we need to eat, so unless you don’t want food in the fridge, that budget isn’t very helpful.  Keep moving.

You can see the flaw in my approach. I was setting numbers without having mutual agreement on why and how much, and I was causing myself anxiety and her stress by placing artificial limits on things that needed  flexibility.

What’s The Objective?

The bigger problem? I had not defined my own long-term savings goals or purposes. So the budget was a way to constrain spending, thus making me feel better, without having articulated why we shouldn’t spend the money.  I couldn’t articulate it to her because I never verbalized it to myself.

I’ve spent more time over the past few years thinking about what we’re saving for and why. I am now much better at sharing why I think that’s important. She doesn’t always agree (she isn’t shy about disagreeing), but we have a mutual understanding of what the other is aiming for, so we can at least adjust our targets together, even if one side isn’t ecstatic or in full agreement with the target.

We abandoned the budget system years ago for a method that is better suited to our relationship and personalities. Early in our marriage we automated our savings and expenses, so as many things as possible are deducted without effort, including things like Roth IRA contributions or 529 contributions as well as things like the electricity bill.

I set up a spreadsheet that looks at our total income, subtract out the savings (retirement, college, etc.) and any fixed expenses (everything from internet to the lawn guy), and we have a number left over.

That number is our disposable income — roughly what we have to spend each month on every variable expense. That covers groceries to getaways. While some categories will be there every month (food), the amount for all of these categories can and will fluctuate. We periodically look to see what fixed expenses can be cut (bye-bye cable/satellite, hello antenna/Roku), and what variable expenses got out of hand in a given month (looking at you, Costco.  Whoops — that’s on me.).

We charge everything possible to a single credit card (not always — future post on my mild version of credit card churning is planned) to make it easy to track spending (I’m very anti-debit cards due to fraud paranoia).

I still keep an eye on the spending, but instead I focus more on ensuring our total variable expenses for the month is under our monthly disposable income.

Automate Your Life — Skynet Approved

We automated our retirement and college savings to hit the goals we agreed on, so the major financial “stress” is ensuring that our variable expenses balance our disposable income over any few month time frame. This actually does require some effort depending on what’s going (high deductible health plans are painful early in the year), but we keep a small cash cushion in the checking account to avoid problems.

This setup works because of a few things:
• We’ve never had significant debt
• We both hate debt
• We never carry credit card balances
• We’re willing to forgo some traditional expensive “nice” things for the things that are more important (think less money spent on furniture so more is available for travel or kids or excursions)
• We have a steady income
• We don’t always buy the cheapest of everything (Cinnamon Frosted Pop Tarts have no generic equivalent), but we are cost-conscious
• I have some flexibility to work extra at times to help offset big expenses (i.e. I can work an extra shift if we plan an expensive vacation)

This setup obviously will not work for everyone, and it doesn’t work 100% of the time for us (but it works way better than my budget).  My 3 loyal readers may think this is a terrible idea. J. Money at BudgetsAreSexy may think we’re out of our mind (I haven’t read much of his writing yet, but going off the website name I am guessing he likes budgets).

We’re also near what I hope is the end of a transition period that has necessitated re-evaluation of some of our goals.  Hopefully in a few months I can share what I’ve learned from that transition, but the above is a reasonable summation of where we were before that transition hit.


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