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Guest Blog: Who Really Pays the Bills?

David Bakke

March 28, 2012

Is it possible to save a relationship that’s straining under money problems? And how can couples prevent money spats from escalating? To answer those questions, Credit Card Guide welcomes Guest Blogger David Bakke. Bakke is a financial contributor for Money Crashers a money management blog that covers budgeting tools, credit cards, banking, investing, and more.


A recent American Express survey yielded some interesting statistics regarding couples and their finances. When it comes to who pays the bills, 70 percent of women say they manage the household budget, yet the majority of men say they file the income taxes (74 percent), pay the property taxes (62 percent) and make credit card payments (61 percent). Though men have traditionally taken control of family finances, it’s unclear now if this trend continues, as both men and women seem to feel they’re mutually in charge.
Honest discussion about money in your relationship is key. My marriage ended in divorce a few years back, and the main reason was money. I was a saver, she was a spender. And her spending habits were swept under the rug until we amassed a significant amount of credit card debt. The arguments were not pretty, and what was probably a salvageable relationship ended too soon because we let things build up inside instead of addressing them upfront.

No matter how you divide up the financial responsibilities in your relationship, here are some tips for staying on equal footing with your partner.
1. Organize your finances
One point that I found troubling about the survey is that it suggests that the topic of finances among couples is not a very organized, approachable subject. If 70 percent of women say they’re in charge of the household budget, but 62 percent of men claim to make credit card payments, then who’s really paying the bills?

I suggest tailoring the financial responsibilities to the talents of each person. If someone is better with numbers and accounting, let them pay the bills. If one has more knowledge regarding investing, let them handle that aspect. But it’s important to make it clear who’s in charge of what.
2. Have the money talk
Finances are a sensitive topic and should be treated as such. However, being able to freely discuss all things financial in your relationship is a key to long-term success.

Schedule an appropriate amount of time for the discussion, and make sure you can talk without interruptions. Be careful not to judge — if your partner feels that you’re doing so, the talk is likely to shut down pretty quickly.
Once you’re both comfortable, it’s time to directly address all financial topics in your shared life. Among these are credit card debt and what you can do to manage and eventually eliminate it, your partner’s ideas on both saving and spending, and ways to successfully plan for retirement. Be sure to make joint decisions and set realistic goals.
3. Handle disagreements
Money woes are a leading cause of divorce in this country, so it’s important to establish some guidelines for handling disagreements. Guidelines will obviously vary by couple, but a few basic tenets include allowing both sides to completely have their say without interruption, being committed to finding a solution, and not raising your voice during a disagreement.
4. Create a joint budget
If you and your spouse do not currently have a budget, it’s time to create one. This will go a long way to help keep arguments to a minimum and build for a solid future.

However, making a budget for a couple is more complex than if you’re single. You both need to commit to spending less than you make, but this can be a dicey topic depending upon the spending habits of each person. If you like to play a round of golf a few times per week and your partner just doesn’t spend that much, your partner may feel entitled to large purchases whenever he or she sees fit. So, among other things, you’re going to have to set rules for the types of purchases that require permission and which don’t. Otherwise, things can easily be brushed aside and lead to lying and financial infidelity.
5. Celebrate successes
Because money discussions can lead to disagreements and discord, when you do reach a financial goal, celebrate it together. For example, if one goal is to eliminate all credit card debt in a year, and you find yourself six months in and ahead of schedule, take your partner out for a romantic dinner. This can build momentum and help you reach your other goals.
6. Quickly identify mistakes
If either partner makes a mistake, such as missing a payment or going over a credit limit, don’t let the error fester — but don’t overreact either. Address it quickly, figure out how to prevent it from happening again and move on. If you’ve had the money talk, openly discussing mistakes should not be an issue.
Final thoughts
Sit down with your partner in the near future, and start honestly discussing your financial picture. You’ll be happy you did.

How are finances handled in your household?