I came across a cartoon recently that describes an all-too-real reality for married couples. A wife has answered the phone, but decides to pass off the conversation to her husband, who is standing nearby. “Let me put my husband on,” she says. “He’s responsible for making all of our poor financial decisions.” Okay, so it’s not going to have you rolling on the floor, laughing as tears stream down your face. At the same time, this little snapshot hints at the tension that can arise in marriage over finances. In fact, research indicates that money is near the top of the list when it comes to issues that cause conflict in marriage. Perhaps you are experiencing the ongoing arguments that stem from differing ideas on where to spend your paycheck. Maybe you’ve fought recently about whether or not you should save or splurge. Maybe you’re worn out by the stress that comes when there’s month left at the end of the paycheck. And maybe you’re tired of seeing your spouse as an adversary instead of an ally when it comes to managing money. What can you do to work as a team?
From both personal and pastoral experience, I’ve identified a number of starting points for working together to manage your money well, and to alleviate the stress that comes from financial concerns.
The first principle you and your spouse must own is that whether we live in an ocean-front condo or rent a studio apartment, we are not owners of anything. As Christians, we acknowledge that everything belongs to God, and therefore, we are stewards of all we have. The parable of the tenants (Matthew 25:14-30) teaches us, among other things, that we are servants that God has entrusted with his wealth, to manage for his glory. One practical implication of this is that setting a budget is a necessity for married couples. Budgeting is a way of determining your priorities, and being intentional about managing the money God entrusts to you. I encourage couples to use a template that, in most cases, can remain largely the same each month. Include categories such as food, utilities, allowance, saving, household items, and anything else that you may need. Each month, you may include categories that are specific to that month. Before the month begins, sit down and determine what income you bring in, and how the money will be spent each month. This will force you to identify the money you must spend now, and the expenses that can be put off until later. I suggest that each person must agree to the budget, and when that agreement is made, you stick to it unless you mutually agree to change it.
Paul reminds the church at Corinth that because “God loves a cheerful giver,” each person ought to “give what they have decided in their hearts, not reluctantly or under compulsion” (2 Cor. 9:7). The principle here is financial giving is a response to God’s grace; the New Testament transforms the principle of tithing a set-percentage to grace-inspired generosity. As a couple, you ought to discuss how much you can give generously, and build that amount into your budget. If you decide to give “if there’s any money left,” you’ll find that you rarely contribute generously. In addition to giving to the ministry of your local church, identify causes that are dear to you as a unique couple, and give, as an act of worship.
If you are like many couples, one of you is a spender, and one of you is a saver. One of you finds the enjoyment in splurging on a treat, while the other wants to pinch every penny. There are strengths and drawbacks to both approaches, and the reality is that both of your viewpoints matter to a marriage. When it comes to money, it will go a long way to learn the discipline of saving. Saving a cushion of several-months worth of expenses can help you in case of an emergency. Saving for your kids’ tuition will prepare you for that moment that comes all too soon, when they leave the nest. Saving for your retirement can ensure that you are prepared for the expenses associated not just with retirement, but with aging. There is no right or wrong amount to save, and while our future rests in God’s hands, there is wisdom in preparing financially for the unknown. Proverbs 10:5 captures this principle well: “He who gathers in summer is a prudent son, but he who sleeps in harvest is a son who brings shame.” Saving while the opportunity presents itself is wise!
There are different opinions on the biblical position on debt, even among experts. The bible says that “The borrower is a servant of the lender” (Prov. 22:7), and at the very least, this means that anyone owing a debt to another carries an obligation to that person that can become a burden. Whether this means that Christians should never take on debt is a matter for debate. However, at the very least, this text warns us to handle debt with a high degree of caution. In a North American “instant-gratification” culture, we often take on debt for non-essentials that we cannot pay off. Consumer debt snowballs quickly, particularly as interest and fees accrue. So, if you must use debt (and most will, if we purchase a home, or take on student loans), do so with a high degree of caution. Handle consumer debt like a hot potato – get rid of it as quickly as you can, paying off the whole balance every month. It feels like getting a significant pay raise the minute that you pay off your debt!
If money is causing tension in your marriage, it’s time for an open and honest conversation – money need not be a strain on your marriage! Talk with one another about how you are stewarding the wealth that God has given you, and work as a team to use your resources to God’s glory.