My husband, Peter, is a lawyer, and recently accepted a job with Legal Aid, a non-profit organization that provides legal services for the working poor. In states nationwide, community legal services groups are expanding their personal bankruptcy practices as this economy continues to soften, and he’ll be working with many families in financial crisis.
As we spent hours talking about the clients he’s going to work with and their difficulties making ends meet, we began thinking about our own finances. Are we saving enough? Peter drives 30 minutes to work and back each day; if gas prices continue to go up, do we need to cut back in other areas to pay for that increased expense? Our savings are dwindling as the stock market falls. Should we be concerned?
For most of my life, I’ve watched the financial news without a lot of interest. I lived in New York City, and everything was more expensive than the national average, and that was just part of living in the Big Apple. But subways and busses meant that I didn’t drive a car, so rising gas prices didn’t seem to affect me directly.
In the last year, I’ve gotten married and moved to Iowa—and I’ve become a lot more aware of the fine line most American families walk to stay in the black, why the price of gas matters and how difficult it is to talk about finances, even in an otherwise strong relationship.
Money is often a conflict area for couples–nearly half of Busted Halo® respondents said that the current state of the economy has made money discussions with their spouse or significant other more tense, and more than 40% said talking about finances makes them emotional.
Not talking about money is one reason that the personal savings rate has been declining for years, economists say, and according to a 2006 survey, about 42 percent of people 18 to 49 report they are likely to spend more than they can afford.
What To Do?
Especially for us young adults, we’ve never experienced a prolonged financial slow-down. Do we know how to handle it?
Nicole, 25, says she’s in the midst of a career change, “so that has made me much more anxious than I already am. The conversations [with my significant other] have become more tense and emotional. I think about money quite a bit, but am afraid to discuss it, because I know he and I have very different opinions.”
Older couples are feeling the tension as well.
Joan, 59, says she and her husband try to project monthly expenses so they aren’t floating debt on their credit cards. “We’ve decided to put our credit cards ‘away’ … My husband is working 12 hour shifts and all the overtime he can get, so we don’t have much time to sit and discuss finances. We agree to limit spending by shopping at resale stores as much as we can.”
Recently, Peter and I sat down with our finances. Using the Finish Rich Workbook, we spent an entire weekend organizing our files into a four-drawer filing cabinet, tallying up our earnings, and culling through a year’s worth of credit card bills to figure out how much we spent, and where the money went.
The organizing part made me feel good. It’s a lot of work to get those credit card bills into separate folders, and to find the social security statements, IRA reports and organize old tax returns, but it’s a strong suit for me: I color-coded things and made descriptive tags for the file drawers so we know what’s in each.
Then the hard part came: We had to sit down and discuss the fact that we were on track to spend more than we earn this year. We needed to cut back, but what counts as a necessity and what counts as a discretionary item?
“My boyfriend and I have totally different perspectives on money,” says Heather, 23. “He thinks that it should be used to enjoy life and to invest to make more money. I think that it should be spent on all needs and SOME wants, and the rest should be saved for a rainy day. I learned that not everyone needs money in the bank to feel secure, but I sure do!”
Elizabeth, 38, says her husband “sometimes feels that I am nonchalant about spending the money that he works hard for. This is a misinterpretation, but I can’t always make him see that at the time.” Her first inclination, she says, is to clam up.
Peter and I didn’t clam up. Sure, there were some tears (mine) and some frustration (his), but we talked—and talked, and talked—until we had a budget. We agreed to a list of fixed costs (items that were non-negotiable and necessary expenses) and then bargained over the rest of the expenses.
The outcome? If I made sandwiches for us each day, we can save $75 a week on weekday meals at work. If Peter goes to the library instead of buying books online, it’ll add up.
Just talking about finances isn’t a magic cure. Nor is setting up a color-coded filing system. Spending less and saving more is a daily commitment. But if you’re one of the millions of American couples who is concerned about finances, taking these first steps will improve your relationship—and your bottom line.