Fifty years ago, American households and families tended to look very much alike: There was a primary breadwinner and a spouse that stayed home full-time to keep up the home and care for the children. There was just one income, and usually one spouse managed the money.
Today, families — and family finances — look far different, as social norms and expectations have changed. Households with two working spouses can make the question of money management much more complicated. While many couples want to jointly share in financial decisions and balance financial responsibilities between them, doing so is not always easy.
One spouse might feel more comfortable with money and naturally end up organizing most of the family finances. Or maybe one partner wants help, but the other is new to long-term budgeting and doesn't want to think about it.
There are plenty of reasons joint money management can fall out of balance. If that sounds a little like your household, don't worry: There are also plenty of ways to bring things back into alignment and make sure everyone is on the same page, starting as a couple and then gradually bringing children into the equation.
Why Share Financial Responsibility?
If you're not convinced you and your partner need to work more closely on managing the family finances (leaving children out of it, for the time being), consider this: Almost one third of adults named money as a major source of conflict. If you can learn to work together, communicate more effectively and manage money together, you may be able to reduce stress and strife in your relationship.
It's worth mentioning that each partner needs to understand how all of the household finances are managed should anything happen to the other. Although no one wants to think about worst-case scenarios, you should be prepared for the unexpected.
That means each of you needs to know how to handle the budget, manage your bank and investment accounts, and access important information like passwords, specific instructions, investment strategies and so on.
Developing Good Money Habits
Let's say you're convinced you and your partner need to get on the same page and work together ... but they're not. Maybe they're not very good with money in the first place. That can be a frustrating scenario, but your spouse may simply need your help to develop good financial habits that no one ever taught them.
Being "good with money" is a learnable skill. Smart money management, like tracking expenses and saving, can help your partner feel more empowered around the family finances — and can help you reach your shared goals faster.
Try scheduling a monthly money date to sit down together and go over all your accounts, statements, bills and budgets. Evaluate what worked that month and address what didn't go as planned. Then you can brainstorm together about how to make the next month better.
If your spouse doesn't understand how to budget or track expenses, don't simply do it for them. Show them your approach and personal resources for smart budgeting. Sharing your own financial education can help synchronize your thinking when it comes to setting goals and tracking your progress toward them.
During these monthly money dates with your partner, you can also make lists of financial to-dos and allocate those tasks between the two of you. This goes for one-time needs, like calling to negotiate a charge on a statement, or ongoing responsibilities, like checking bills for accuracy and then paying them.
Start the Conversation
No matter how you bring up the subject, the key to getting your partner involved is to communicate. Be open and honest, and don't hide anything from them. The same holds true when it comes time to clue kids into family money matters — although you'll naturally want to keep the conversations age-appropriate. The idea is to inform them so they can practice smart money habits, but you don't want to burden them with responsibilities the adults in the household should handle.
Make them a part of the conversation and explain how you budget (and why). Ask for their input and opinions where appropriate, like in planning summer activities or family trips. They'll be involved in each, so giving them a say in how the family's money is allocated can help them feel empowered and valued. You can also give your kids a small allowance each week, and show them how they can spend some, save some and give some of their money to causes they care about.
To start the conversation with your spouse (or your kids), it might help to begin with what you hope to accomplish as a family. What are your goals? What are your dreams for the future? Once you map that out together, you can point out that it will likely take money to make those dreams a reality — and you can use your goals as motivation to make smarter financial decisions and manage your household finances as partners.