Ask Nicole: Can My Husband and I Agree on How to Spend Our Money?

My husband and I both want a “set it and forget it” approach to money. However, our ideas of how we should “set” our money are a little different.

I want to pay ourselves first by setting aside money for a 529 (we have two kids under 3), a Roth IRA (we’re both on track for retirement and getting our sweet sweet employer match, but we could save more), and a CD ladder for the roof we’re going to need in ten years.

My husband wants to pay ourselves first by buying a pizza when we’re tired, and call it a success if our account balance is higher at the end of the month than it was the previous month.

We’ve both been living grad student frugal lives until very recently, and our lives are full of a bunch of new variables (new kids, new house, new job for one parent while the other parent considers returning to the workforce). We have a three-month emergency fund, own our cars outright, and our combined student debt is less than half of our AGI.

What we don’t have is a lot of extra money left over after expenses (maybe $400 per month). How do we agree on what to do with it? Don’t say “communication.” We are trying to do that. We need like, a worksheet we can both agree is valid, or a list of possible expenses to worry about, or a starting template. Something to communicate about.


So… the original question you sent me was a bit longer than this, and with your permission I edited it and reshaped it into the above. I was being a bit sneaky when I made my edit (sorry for not telling you!) because I wanted the answer to look as obvious as it felt when I got your email: build a budget that includes a 529, a Roth IRA, a CD ladder, AND pizza!

You and your husband seem like ideal candidates for YNAB, which will serve both as your template and help you come up with a list of possible expenses to worry about. YNAB’s “give every dollar a job” system will help you figure out how much money you can set aside for your new roof, your kids’ education, your retirement, and those nights when you would rather order takeout than try to come up with dinner on your own. Since you don’t have a lot of extra money left over, you might find yourself in a situation where you can only put $10 towards the roof every month, or only buy a single pizza every month — but that’ll be the thing you and your husband will have to communicate about, after you start using YNAB’s template.

Unfortunately, YNAB is not free. If the $6.99/month subscription feels a little too pricey for your budget, I have two suggestions:

  1. Sign up for YNAB’s 34-day free trial, learn the system, and use what you’ve learned to create your own YNAB-style spreadsheet.
  2. Skip the free trial and build a spreadsheet that lists monthly income/expenses with both anticipated and actual costs (like this free Google Docs budgeting spreadsheet).

Once you have your budget, you’ll know exactly how much you can spend on pizza and exactly how much you can put towards your children’s 529 funds — and if you overspend in one area, you’ll be able to look at your budget and figure out where you need to cut back to keep everything balanced.




Maybe not.

Figuring out how you and your husband can put a little bit of money towards each of your goals is great, and I absolutely recommend using YNAB or a similar template/spreadsheet to get that conversation started, but if personal finance were as simple as making a budget and sticking to it we’d all be living debt-free lives in circumstances that perfectly matched our current level of income.

I mean, yes, making a budget and sticking to it is possible. It can also be difficult, especially if your income doesn’t cover much beyond your current expenses. You already have a three-month emergency fund, which gives you a better chance at sticking to your budget (since an unexpected expense and/or period of unemployment won’t completely derail you), but there are still going to be those nights where you and your husband realize there’s no food in the refrigerator and you have to get dinner from somewhere but you already spent your pizza budget for the month.

So you start meal planning. You look at your grocery budget and figure out how many meals you need to prepare, and how many servings each meal needs to include, and how many Sunday afternoons you need to set aside for batch cooking (if you want to save money by making your own frozen entrées). After your first month of meal planning you’ll start budgeting for both meals and low-cost snacks (which you can also batch-cook and freeze in advance) because you’ll quickly learn that if you don’t save your leftovers for tomorrow’s dinner you won’t have anything to eat (or any time to cook) and you’ll end up buying takeout again.

But maybe one night one of your kids decides they don’t want to eat their dinner, or another night you get an email from an old friend suggesting you all meet up when they’re in town (which means dinner and a sitter), and I know that Billfold commenters have asked that I stop harping on the whole “everyone worries that they spend too much on food” thing (because, okay, not everybody does), but if you’re on a tight budget you’re much more likely to overspend on food than you are on, say, clothing.

Food is also the one major expense that doesn’t come with an exact dollar figure; your mortgage payment is always the same, your electric bill is generally the same plus or minus a few bucks, but food (including both groceries and restaurants) can vary by hundreds of dollars month to month. THIS IS WHY WE WORRY ABOUT HOW MUCH WE’RE SPENDING ON IT.

I know it sounds like I’m veering off topic, so I’ll get to my point: if you and your husband take my advice and build that template and come to an initial agreement on how your money should be spent, you’ll have to figure out what to do if/when you overspend on food. Especially because you’ve identified that as the category in which you and your husband disagree on how much to spend. I don’t want you to feel like your husband is always “winning” simply because we need to eat multiple times every day. Nor do I want you to get into the habit of opening a near-empty refrigerator and saying “well, I guess we could have scrambled eggs and toast for dinner but pizza sounds way better so let’s do that.”

So. Here’s my real advice. One parent — and it’s probably going to be the parent currently staying at home with the kids — will need to take charge of the meal planning (which is not the same thing as taking charge of the cooking) as well as the meal communication, e.g. can you pick up a gallon of milk on the way home? You’ll both want to get familiar with a range of low-cost, low-prep, kid-and-freezer-friendly meals, if you aren’t already; thankfully, there’s a whole internet for that.

You’ll also both want to get familiar with the idea of checking your budget/template before you make decisions — and you might even want to create both a cash budget and a food budget. The cash budget tells you where your money goes. The food budget lists what you’re going to have for dinner every night, and when you’ll have to set aside time to cook vs. when you can reheat leftovers. (It’s super easy to set that up on a spreadsheet, and if you end up eating more servings than you expect and don’t have leftovers, you can delete the “leftovers” entry and move everything else in the budget up a cell.)

It does come down, in the end, to communication — but it’s communication assisted by spreadsheets and templates, which is what you requested. You aren’t going to get “set it and forget it,” because you aren’t earning enough money to be able to forget where some of it ends up, but you can get “set it and talk about it.”

I hope it helps, Help.


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