Doing Family Right

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Marriage: Money & Marriage—The First 5 Years

Money & Marriage—Making Both Last Beyond the First 5 Years

When it comes to finances, especially in the early years of a marriage, it’s so easy to do things wrong. With so much credit available, the natural tendency is to get caught up with the perceived purchase power but carelessly get carried away far beyond wisdom and means. Many young couples make spending decisions without realizing that they are going to be paying for it for years to come. And the cost isn’t confined to their pocketbook, either. The greatest hit is often to the relationship itself. Stress. Tension. Regret. Mistrust. All this can lead to more friction than a relationship was designed to handle. Core trust can often be broken especially if one spouse talked the other into the purchase in question. You want to do all you can to avoid this sort of pressure.

Maybe you’re reading this and saying, “Help! I think we are messed up financially already.” Or maybe you haven’t gone too far down that road yet but you want to avoid the debt potholes. Either way, the more healthy financial principles you can apply the better. The following is some basic budgeting guidelines that will help your marriage grow beyond the first five years and do better financially as well.

Make a Simple Budget – Don’t Make Excuses, Just Do It!

The first step is to create your household budget. If the word ‘budget’ freaks you out, call it a spending plan. Whatever you call it, it’s got to be done because if you don’t have at least a rough roadmap of where you’re trying to go financially, you’ll end up lost, hit every pothole in sight, and end in the ditch economically. Don’t fool yourself. You don’t want to go there.

Every couple has to talk through the issues of money, bills, income and expenses. They need to come to understand their spending habits and their saving goals. Priorities must be agreed on and set. Here is a set of questions that you should begin talking through with your spouse to create financial unity:

  • What are your short-term and long-term goals financially?
  • How will you set your spending priorities?
  • What are needs and what are wants? How do we determine?
  • How much credit should we be allowed to use as a couple?
  • Who is the saver, and who is the spender?
  • How important is savings and what percentage of our income should we start with?
  • Will you each have your own discretionary money monthly that you can spend as you want?
  • How will you make your financial decisions?
  • How are you going to track income and expenses?
  • Who is going to be the spouse responsible for paying bills and monitoring spending?
  • Who should you trust to get good advice from on basic budgeting and financial planning?

There are a lot of spending decisions that need to be figured out in the first few years of marriage. Talk openly. Be realistic. Don’t fool yourself. Don’t live at a level of spending you honestly can’t afford.

Financial troubles come when you don’t look realistically at these questions above. Here are a few more specifically on getting your “BUDGET” started. When you’re putting together your first budget, walk through the following steps.

Budget Steps

  1. Start by writing down how much money comes in from all sources each month?
  2. Next, write out all your monthly expenses for all your regular payments – rent, car, school loans, phone, TV, cable, Internet, utilities, phone and more.
  3. Then, estimate a reasonable amount for monthly spending on the other necessities like food, gas, clothing, etc.
  4. Add in those annual costs like health care, house, car and life insurance that you might pay annually but need to budget monthly.  What is the average cost monthly of these yearly expenses?
  5. Are you saving 5-10%? Add in some for saving even if it is saving for a project or a bigger agreed upon purchase. Put that in the budget too.
  6. Add these all up and compare the total to your income. Realize that what is left over is what is truly discretionary.
  7. How much money do you have at your disposal for any extras? How will you spend whatever is left over?
  8. What kinds of things are you going to allow yourselves to splurge on?
  9. Now make the tough decisions of what you will need to cut to make your budget work.

When you crunch the numbers, you may find that you really don’t have much to play with after all the necessities are covered off. But it’s better to know that up front and make decisions accordingly than to spend recklessly or spend with credit and dig yourself a hole that could take years to climb out of.

Many couples get this process backwards: they start having fun and spending freely as if they have surplus money when they really don’t. Then, at the end of the month it’s, “How are we going to pay the rent?” They haven’t thought it through. That’s why you need to budget at least for the first 3 years. Don’t fool yourself!

Set Spending Limits

When Donalyn and I were first married, we actually set a limit on how much either of us could spend without first getting approval from the other. In our case, over 35 years ago, we did not allow ourselves to spend more than $10 without getting permission. Relax, that’s more like $30-40 now. This number may vary on your level of income at the time and when one of you is the impulse buyer. Regardless of the figure, the principle remains valid. Stay with the limit for the first 2-3 years until you can grow to trust each others purchasing habits. Those first few years are a time of growing in your understanding of your own spending patterns and building trust with one another. Though this guideline may seem overly restrictive, a spending limit actually frees you to grow as a couple financially. Plus, it ensures that you’re on the same page. If you do get yourself into trouble, it won’t be as deep and you won’t be playing the blame game, because you made the decisions as a team.

Learn to be Content

We live in a world where we are inundated with powerful and winsome advertising that breeds discontent in us as consumers. As a society, we are not very good at being content with what we have. We don’t like taking the time to save for what we can’t afford right now, and credit is always available to make it so we don’t have to wait. But it comes at a huge price, not just financially, but relationally.

A young couple would do well to learn to be satisfied longer. Patience is key. You need to learn to be content on less. As a society, the generation that is getting married today is incredibly affluent. Many have grown up with more money, experiences and stuff than any other generation in history. When they become adults and start their own families, they expect to have the nice house, the cars and the toys that their mom and dad have, not realizing that it likely took their parents twenty or thirty years to acquire all those things. But they want it now. Credit cards make it so easy. It’s a dangerous line of thinking.

Instead, come to the place in your worldview as a couple that you are happy for the time being with the reality that you may be in a basement suite or an apartment for a while. You may have to drive a clunker for a car for a season. We did. In fact, it wasn’t even that long ago for us that my young teenage daughter put a bag on her head because she didn’t want to be seen in the car I drove off the lot with and used for 12 months. Hey, what’s wrong with a ’76 Valiant? We also had a couch that we called “hide-a-board” that was given to us on its way to the junkyard. But while in school, it’s all we could afford. But that is what we started with, and it made us appreciate it all the more when we were able to afford the upgrades.

Contentment also requires you to be wise in distinguishing between needs and wants. If I am driven by my wants, I will spend a lot of money on things that aren’t necessary. First purchase what you really need and have agreed on; then if you have extra you can indulge in some of the wants. Check this statement out. Herein lies the secret of circumstantial happiness. I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.*” (1st Century Philosophy of Paul from Tarsus as sent to followers in Philippi).

You Ain’t What You Own

Finally, I want to suggest to that so often, we measure our success by what we have. Outside image, the stuff of life, doesn’t bring happiness. A lot of affluent people are tragically unhappy with what’s really important – their marriage and family lives. Money doesn’t change that. Having stuff doesn’t change that either. It just makes you far more in debt as a young married couple trying to have what you can’t afford.

You ain’t what you own. What do I mean by that? In this world that constantly tells you, “You will be somebody if you own this car, you’ll be somebody if you have a big house, and you’ll be somebody if you have all these things around you,” you need to know that life is not about what you own. We push so hard to keep up with the “Joneses” only to find that they were in debt to their gills too. We lose sight of what is really important. It is interesting that Jesus spoke more about wealth and possessions than Heaven and Hell. Mix in these thoughts if you dare. “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.*” That is truly counter-cultural.

I have seen too many couples that were good people, in love and full of hope for their future together, get caught up in chasing all that money can buy and lose their relationship in the process. You must make the decision that your priority is going to be your marriage and your family life, not the pursuit of bigger and better things.

Don’t hang your worth as a couple on the number of zeroes in your bank account or on how well your car compares to your neighbors’. Life is too short to spend your energy on those things. I have been in five of the poorest countries in the world, and I’ve seen people living together in great satisfaction and unity as a family in dingy little mud huts or grass shacks with dirt floors. We are blessed with so much, but at the end of the day, I’d take a solid marriage and happy family over more stuff in a heartbeat. I suspect you would too.

(*Philippians 4:11,12, Luke 12:15)

For more information on this topic, listen to Podcast 67: The First Five Years of Marriage

Image used with permission from

© Dr. Dave Currie – November 2010