Counting the Ways That Budgeting Has Added Up in My Marriage

Several years ago, my wife and I sat across from an experienced married couple squirming in their seats as though they feared we were about to deliver some terrible news. But the source of their discomfort was what they were about to drop on us.

You see, we were not yet married, but engaged, and the couple across the table was our mentor couple in our premarital class. Upon review of our personality profiles and piles of personal baggage, they felt it their duty to discourage us from further pursuing the sacred vows of matrimony. They’d never seen a hopeful couple more innately disparate, more inevitably destined for failure.

We are indeed vastly different, but one thing my wife, Andrea, and I share is a penchant for resisting authority. So with the blessing and support of family and friends, I’m thrilled to report we celebrated our 13th anniversary in April with our two wonderful boys, Kieran and Connor, ages 8 and 10.

We have never forgotten, however, the well-intended admonishment of our mentor couple. Indeed, we see much of life from vastly different perspectives, foremost among them our view of things financial. Apparently, we’re not alone. More than 50 percent of marriages end in divorce. More than 50 percent of those splits cite financial disputes as the primary reason for the breakup.

100 percent of marriages deal with money as a daily necessity.

This thought has occurred to me often, and I’ve come to realize that budgeting ranks up there with prayer and counseling as a precious few factors that have helped keep us together. Here are the top 10 ways budgeting has saved, and continues to save, our marriage:

10) Budgeting forces us to collaborate. It seems that as parents of young children, the level of commitments among work, school, church, sports and the arts leaves us functioning more as independent business partners than spouses. We’re almost always in short supply of adult conversation and genuine collaboration, and (strange as it may seem) budgeting gives us the context for both.

9) It offers healthy accountability. Ronald Reagan famously said, “Trust, but verify,” and while 100 percent verification of trust in our marriage would be stifling, we’ve found periodic accountability to be a healthy way to build faith and trust in each other. Our joint budgeting effort means all of our expenditures are accessible to the other. Scrutinizing every penny spent would be unfair (ahem, note to self), but knowing everything is visible is likely to encourage us each to spend more responsibly.

8) It humbles us. I’ve not found a more helpful tool in the pursuit of a successful marriage than humility, and since the use of money is so pervasive in our lives, small mistakes are the norm. Rarely a week goes by in which we don’t each humbly acknowledge that we erred in some capacity, humbly submitting our mistake to the other. And of course, a good budget is designed to withstand these small mistakes.

7) It provides an opportunity for reconciliation. These small errors in our budgeting provide fertile ground for a destructive tendency: that we’d develop a scorecard, real or implied, and shame the more regular offender (because there normally is one in most households). So for us, it’s very important that a humility ground rule is established: Anytime an offending spouse submits in humility to an irreversible mistake, forgiveness and reconciliation is the only way forward.

6) It gives us reason to celebrate. For each mistake, there are several successes in each budget cycle. The long-term success of our marriage is often built on a series of small victories, and we should never withhold an affirmation for completing a project under budget or enjoying the security of a buffer when an emergency arises.

5) It cuts down on surprises. So many aspects of our life are subject to variability and volatility. We can’t necessarily reduce the number of those surprises, but we can certainly reduce their negative impact by being financially prepared for them. Financial strain, and especially shock, pushes many marriages to (and over) the brink.

4) It makes us better parents. All of us parents could probably agree that it’s possible to spend too little OR too much on our children, right? We’re responsible to determine what the right levels of spending are for our children, and budgeting allows us to deliberately set aside appropriate levels of funding for education, clothing, sports, music and fun.

3) It shows our dependence on each other. Andrea and I do think differently, and this inevitably leads to divisive thoughts like these: “You know, I think I could do this better on my own!” But this decries the very essence of marriage as an institution in which each partner’s primary objective is to serve the other. The process of budgeting puts our (literal and emotional) dependence on each other on full display. That makes us vulnerable, but it’s good.

2) It preserves a healthy level of independence. The income production in most households is almost never perfectly equitable. Andrea sacrificed a successful career in the financial industry when she chose to stay home with our young children. This has been an incredible blessing in our family, but it’s also a breeding ground for insecurity and manipulation as I might have a tendency to overestimate my contribution to the family’s finances and underestimate Andrea’s. It is imperative, then, that part of our budget is the preservation of a certain amount of financial independence for each spouse. To offset this income inequity, we’ve established “His and Hers” accounts with unilateral privileges. Many shun budgeting as too restrictive, but properly implemented, it actually gives us room to breathe financially.

1) It preserves date night! One of the interactions I’ve enjoyed most throughout my career was with a client who is a generation or two my senior. He and his wife have five kids(!) and appear to be more in love today than they’ve ever been. I got up the nerve to ask this gentleman his secret to marriage and parenting. His answer? They never fail to set aside time—and money—for each other as a couple. He made a convincing case that we are better parents when we deliberately set aside time to be together, away from the kids, and not just for date nights but also for long weekends and even weeklong vacations to remind ourselves that before we were parents we were lovers. This proved difficult for Andrea and me because by the time we got to the end of most months, we’d already spent our discretionary cash on the rest of life and felt like we were taking funding away from other things to line up a babysitter and enjoy a night or weekend out. So now, much as we have preserved His and Hers accounts, we also have an Ours account.

Budgeting is not the slightest bit romantic, but it has the ability to promote and preserve the romance in our marriages and keep us on the right side of that daunting 50 percent divorce statistic.

This commentary originally appeared January 12, 2012, on Forbes.com.

Tim Maurer is the director of personal finance for the BAM ALLIANCE. Tim is a regular CNBC contributor and writes for Forbes.com. 

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