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How to Stick to a Budget as a Couple (5 Important Strategies)

Tips for how to stick to a budget as a couple, especially if the two of you are spinning your wheels, financially-speaking.

couple on couch smiling, working on budget together, text overlay "how to stick to a budget as a couple for less money fights"

How to stick to a budget as a couple, when it's hard enough to stick to one when you’re the only person involved?

Great question – and one I’ve experimented with over the last 12 years during our couple-hood, engagement, and then marriage.

Which means, I’ve got some helpful tips and tricks to pass your way about how to make this happen (no matter what stage your relationship is in).

Let’s dive in.

How to Stick to a Budget as a Couple

When you and your partner aren’t sticking to a budget together, it can lead to frustration, mismanaged money, and worse – fights.

Here’s just a handful of issues that can creep up when couples try to stick to a budget:

  • One person sticks to the budget, and the other doesn’t (can cause resentment, nagging, and a whole Grinch vs. Whoville situation)
  • Two people do not stick to the budget, and the finances get out of control
  • One person is super gung-ho about the finances, and the other person cares much less about them
  • Two people are super gung-ho about the finances, but disagree with how they should be handled

Lots of different possible dynamics going on when you have two people involved in managing a limited resource, right?

1. Make the Budget Accessible in a Central Location

A shared budgeting location – where you both can see the budget, as well as keep track of where it’s at – is critical.

Getting on the same (budget) page is a lot easier when you both can see the numbers in black and white, and also what you had set the numbers to be.

Which is going to help the two of you work together better to stick with the budget you set.

One of the best ways to do this? Is through a couple’s budgeting app.

You guys can set your budget thresholds for each category (by paper first is the way I would do it – here’s 11 free cute budgeting printables, plus free printable budget binders), and then input those amounts into the shared budgeting app.

Now, you’ll each have access to the funds on your smartphone (and some of the apps are available on desktop).

As each person spends, that amount gets subtracted from the total. And many of the apps even have direct messaging functionality within the app itself – meaning you can communicate with each other specifically about money things.

Here's more information in this article on family budgeting tools.

Hint: don’t have combined accounts? Several of these apps also allow for you to set up which spending/accounts your partner sees, and which they don’t. You guys can set up these rules together, and keep the common budgeting goals and thresholds available for everyone to see.

2. Divvy Up Budgeting Responsibilities

Each of you needs to take ownership over the budget – at least part of it – in order for it to work.

If one of you is committed, but the other is not? Then likely the one person will stick to it but the other person won’t…and this can lead to resentment.

One way to keep each of you committed is by divvying up the budgeting responsibilities.

Budgeting responsibilities include things like:

  • Bank Account Checks: Checking the bank account to make sure there’s enough to cover the upcoming bills coming out (here’s how to organize your monthly bills).
  • Refilling the Budgeting Envelopes: Do you use cash envelope system to budget? Someone needs to refill those envelopes, and you could put your partner in charge of this (hint: if you still want to use an app, but also do the system behind cash envelopes, then check out the Qube couple’s budgeting app). Here’s 8 free cash envelope printable designs. Here's how to transition from credit card to a cash-only lifestyle.
  • Negotiating Specific Bills Down: One person can be in charge of what I like to call the “automatic bill creep”. You know – when your bills quietly increase on you each month and you don’t notice because you automatically pay them (think: the internet/cable bill, your car insurance, and other bills that are in contract for 6 months or so). Here’s a cool money saving challenge for couples idea for how the person in charge of negotiating can reap a reward for doing so.  
  • Calculating Leaks and Leftovers: If you’re not using a budgeting app, then budget calculations are up to someone. Why not you? At the end of a budget period (weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly), go through and calculate how much was spent in each category, then subtract that from how much was budgeted by the two of you, to see where your budget leaks and budget leftovers are. This is very valuable information, and you can use it to talk over budgeting concerns and wins in your next money meeting together (here are 14 topics for your financial meetings with spouse)!

To be honest – this is the area that my own husband and I learned the hard way. You can read about it all here, but basically, I (the money-nerd and recovering Type-A one) gladly took over the budget. And my husband was happy to let me do it.

Only, he stepped back so much and I stepped forward so much that it turned into a situation. One where I was no longer being heard, so I controlled and nagged even more, and he wasn’t listening, so the budget was never met anyway.

Don’t worry – we worked our way out of it because we fixed the money imbalances in our relationship. You can, too!

Pssst: You’ll also want to check out my tips on financial discussion rules of engagement.

3. Give Each of You at least One “Win” in the Budget

If you’re both invested in the budget…you guys could move mountains together.

SO, how do you both get invested in the budget?

After 12 years of marriage – with some floundering of our own in the beginning when it came to managing our finances – I can confidently say this:

When you both get some wins in the budget, then you will both be more invested. And when only one person is getting what they want out of the budget (even if what they want is the “right” way to budget, at least in their mind)? Then only one person will be invested.

This is why doing something like filling out a financial goal worksheet for couples is really laying the foundation to sticking to a budget as a couple.

Psst: you’ll want to check out my free couples financial planning worksheet, and financial exercises for couples.

Some examples of wins for each of you:

  • All the bills are getting paid, and you’re setting aside at least a small amount of money towards something fun
  • Each of you getting an agreed amount of money to spend as you wish, almost-no-questions-asked
  • Each of your debts getting paid down, not just one person’s (unless you’ve determined that it makes sense to combine debts like we did, and pay them down using the best debt payoff strategy)

4. Have Money Meetings

Again, if you guys aren’t on the same page, then sticking to a budget is going to be more difficult.

What if one person knows what’s going on, or has had to do extra spending with bills that came out of nowhere, but the other person goes on spending like normal because they had no idea?

That’s where consistent money meetings will help the two of you out.

I could go on and on about tons of really fun and interesting money meeting themes – I am a self-proclaimed money nerd, after all – but I’ll just give you a few pointers here instead:

  • Get an Annual Perspective: Hold an Annual State of Your Financial Union (includes free printables).
  • Build it into Your Weekly Routine: Spend 15 minutes with your budgeting app or budgeting printable one night per week, right before dinner, to go over where spending is at, together.
  • Do Something Fun with It: Plan a money meeting date night, once a month, and include a money-themed movie or something fun to look forward to together right afterwards. Here are 14 topics for financial meetings with spouses.

5. Budget Based on Your Collective Money Values

In Re-Awaken the Giant Within, Tony Robbins says,

“We must remember that all decision-making comes down to values clarification.”

What is a budget, if not tons of small (and medium-sized) decisions about how money should be spent?

And if you’re making that many decisions as a couple, well then you better understand what each of your money values are, because those are really steering the ship of spending (and possibly creating those arguments).

Hint: budgeting for unmarried couples? Learning about your partner’s money values now is very helpful for figuring out if you guys have a future together. Of course, money isn’t everything – but being able to handle money together is foundational to a strong relationship.

Example money values:

  • Charitable giving
  • Tithing
  • Saving for vacations vs. paying for them as you go
  • Valuing people over things (Suze Orman)
  • Extreme frugality now to be able to live it up later
  • No debt whatsoever vs. seeing debt as a tool
  • “You get what you pay for”
  • Waste not, want not
  • Purchasing experiences over purchasing things
  • Quality over quantity
  • Prioritizing saving for a rainy day vs. YOLO spending (You Only Live Once)
  • Etc.

If you want both of you to buy into the budget and stick to it, then you need to talk about your individual money values and then incorporate both of those into the budget, itself.

For example, let’s say your partner values living in the now, and you value saving for the future.

This is actually a very common couple dynamic, by the way.

You would want to incorporate a healthy savings percentage into the budget, and then also a fun category. “Fun” could be saving up for a specific vacation or event the two of you will enjoy together in the near future, or fun money that each of you gets to spend without much (if any) input from the other.

That way, you’re both getting a “win” from the budget, your money values are each partially being met, and you’ll be more committed to sticking with it.

How Do Couples Budget Together?

Now that we’ve gone over all the important strategies when sticking to a budget as a couple, I want to go over (briefly) how couples can budget together.

  1. Have a talk about money values, and money goals – both individual ones and couple’s money goals
  2. Figure out what you’re combining, and what you’re keeping separate (debts, accounts, categories of spending, etc.)
  3. Figure out whether or not you’re paying everything together, or you’re dividing up by a fair system (such as by percentages, based on each other’s income levels)
  4. Pick a budget duration, such as weekly, bi-weekly/by paycheck, or monthly
  5. Gather all the financial stats, and sit down together to fill in a budget worksheet
  6. Input your budgeting numbers into a couple’s budgeting app, or keep a daily spending log so that you can track how you’re both doing, or fill your cash money envelopes – whatever system you’re going to use to track money spending and management against the budget
  7. At the end of the budgeting period, go back and calculate spending actuals vs. what you guys had budgeted to spend – discuss any wins and concerns
  8. Create your next budget

Figuring out how to stick to a budget as a couple becomes easier when you set the budget up where both of you get a win, and where some of each of your money values is being expressed. Aside from these two biggies, you’ll need to set up a central location where the budget and tracking is accessible to each of you. These three things – plus a commitment to each other’s well-being – make it much more likely your budget will be met.

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Amanda L Grossman

Personal Finance Writer and CEO at Frugal Confessions, LLC
Amanda L. Grossman is a writer and Certified Financial Education Instructor, Plutus Foundation Grant Recipient, and founder of Frugal Confessions. Over the last 13 years, her money work has helped people with how to save money and how to manage money. She's been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Kiplinger, Washington Post, U.S. News & World Report, Business Insider, LifeHacker, Real Simple Magazine, Woman's World, Woman's Day, ABC 13 Houston, Keybank, and more. Read more here or on LinkedIn.