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We're Terrible At Budgeting! Can You Help?

Dear CMR,

As a married couple, we put together a budget to help us save money, but have a hard time sticking to it. How can we be more disciplined?

Signed, Sucker For Sales

Like most everything else in life and marriage, our plans to be disciplined and strategic in using our money can take a back seat when that great deal on a big screen TV or that once-in-a-life-time vacation opportunity happens. Sometimes it is OK to capitalize on a unique opportunity that may only come around once. But you should go into every decision openly discussing the opportunity and the consequences. And before you make a decision, be like-minded about the choice you make. So, what can you do to ensure the commitment you made together to live on a budget remains strong? Here are a few keys to successfully living on a budget!

  1.  Create a budget that is honest, clear, balanced and accomplishable. 

If it’s not, you will find yourself fighting, floundering and struggling to stay on track. I had a married student tell me a few years ago that she and her husband had a “budget” that left them $500 deeper in debt every month (planned!). Every month, their credit card debt and school loans increased, and the panic was growing. I shared with her that their strategy was not a “budget;” it was a sinkhole, and they needed to go back and take a hard look at how they were spending their money. And yes, I said it with love! 

As we talked, I asked about cell phones, going out to eat, cable television, getting hair styled or nails done (now I’m starting to step on toes!), laundered shirts, leisure travel and their entertainment strategies. Every item was somewhere in their expenses. My advice to them and maybe you, is perhaps they shouldn’t be. Especially when starting out, some of these may be luxuries that should only come in the future as incomes increase and other expenses are reduced. This is the “just not right now” principle!

2.   Ensure you are communicating your financial expectations as a couple

This goes back to talking it out before the budget is created, and the unexpected happens, and then talking it through every month to see if you are on track. If you are strategic in talking through all areas of your budget and even planning for the unexpected, when the unexpected happens — and it will — you will be ready to tackle it together! So, what should you talk about? I have good friends who at the beginning of the year, do a two or three-day “retreat.”  They literally go away together to talk through the year, that year’s budget, what expenses or opportunities may be coming their way, and they try and envision what might be challenging in the year ahead. As they talk, they set goals for the year, including how much they would like to see go into retirement, what they would like to accomplish through their giving, what each of their priorities are, and how much they should be saving. They always leave a little time for fun and romance so the retreats aren’t all work! 

We all know Ephesians 5:25, where men are instructed to “love your wives.” What a great way to show love and care for your spouse by keeping them informed about the budget, spending and your household’s financial plans. The same is true for wives. What better way to show your husband respect than to keep him in the know regarding your finances? I guarantee that honest conversations and prayer about your financial decisions and budget will help build trust, confidence and communication skills across all areas of your marriage!  

3.   Build accountability into your budget.

I serve on the board of the Christian Community Credit Union and have learned much about financial checks and balances in the management of other people’s money. Not only is it, by law, part of the credit union’s governance and management, it’s also the right thing to do. This is also true for you as a couple when it comes to managing your money and budget. Put a system of checks and balances in place for your budget so that both of you know what’s coming in and what’s going out every month. Build in opportunities to talk about your giving, your expenses and your plans for the future. It will help ensure you are talking about the right stuff. 

If you are struggling to stay on budget or not seeing eye to eye, know that there are numerous counselors and financial advisors out there who can provide wisdom and insight into budgets, debt and saving. Organizations such as Kingdom Advisors can provide names and information on faith-based financial planning. Or check with your pastor for the resources available in your church or community. I know many young couples who have sought out other mature couples who can help provide advice and counsel and perhaps some accountability in the budgeting process. It will be great for you and good for them as they can share and mentor from their own experience. And know that we all need advice and counsel at some point in our lives. Perhaps others will learn as much from you as you do from them.

4.   Don’t fall into the instant gratification trap!

Most of all, don’t fall into the cultural trap of instant gratification. Our culture and the world tell us that “stuff” is what it’s all about. But it’s not! And I’m not saying that “stuff” can’t be fun. It can, but it is easy to get “stuffocated” quickly in life. If you are patient, wise and strategic as a couple, you can find that balance in your life and a budget that can help bring peace and joy for the long journey ahead!