"You don't love someone for their looks, or their clothes, or for their fancy car, but because they sing a song that only you can hear."
- Oscar Wilde
Money issues are the number one source of marital problems. Another source of conflict in any relationship is poor communications. It is therefore understandable that couples would view budgeting with suspicion. After all, discussions about budgeting are the nexus of money and communications.
But which approach is likely to yield better results in the long run: (a) writing down your budget priorities, tracking your progress, and routinely discussing them with other family members? or (b) thinking in abstract terms about your money, guessing how much was actually spent, and only talking about money when there's a crisis or a disagreement?
The obvious truth is that a budget is an excellent vehicle for discussing money in a calm, rational way. It reflects your values and priorities. If your life and/or your finances are intertwined with others, then working on a budget together is a great way to ensure that your opinions about money are being heard and understood. It's also a great team building exercise for your household.
As to whether couples should budget separately or combined, I personally don't think it really matters. Do whatever makes sense for you. The important thing is that budgeting takes place and is discussed. But if you budget separately, don't assume that you can be an island. I learned a long time ago that if money is shared between people in any small way, disagreements will inevitably arise, and if these disagreements are not discussed, they will breed resentment and conflicts.
When I was in college, for reasons that defy all logic, our dorm decided to share milk. We had a large number of cereal eaters, and I think the idea was to pool our money together to purchase milk so that we would always have it when we wanted it. This led to endless arguments. Besides the obvious carping about people not paying their fair share, there were also complaints that people overpaid for milk at convenience stores, that people borrowed and didn't repay, and that certain people paid money but never took their time to buy milk. This was the only financial commitment we shared, and yet it made everyone so uptight! It only takes a small amount of money to get people worked up.
A year or two into our marriage, I told my wife that I wanted us to budget and track our money. At first, she was a bit skeptical of this whole idea, but I explained that I was only trying to help us make better decisions and ensure that we spent our money on the things that were most important to us. Gradually she warmed up to the idea, in part because I never criticized her spending and never complained if receipts or cash were missing. I wasn't trying to create a money police state! In fact, several years went by before I brought up anything at all related to our budgeting.
In the meantime, our simple budget saved us from countless petty arguments that might have occurred. I hate to admit it, but there were many times when I saw a large grocery bill or something like that and thought to myself, "Wow, her spending is totally out of control." Then I would quickly find out that in fact this was the same spending level we had always had. One large grocery bill in one week is the same as two smaller bills in the same week. I always felt like such a total jerk for jumping to conclusions. Over time, I learned to stop being so judgmental.
My wife also began to appreciate our growing transaction database. In seconds, she could find the name of a plumber we used 5 years ago, see how much we had typically spent at a particular restaurant, verify whether a check from six months ago had ever been cashed, or compare our current electric bill with all previous years.
But after several years, I decided it was time to discuss a problem with our budget. I told my wife that our charitable giving was less than 2% each year. She told me this could not possibly be the case, but I had the numbers to back it up. We agreed this was not consistent with our values and we both changed.
Do you see how budgeting can be a force for good, both within your household and for others? It doesn't need to be about controlling or arguing. It can be a positive force in the world if you choose to make it so.