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Budget Wars

How a Spender (him) met a Saver (me) and learned to manage their money together.

I get more mileage out of a quarter than a Hyundai gets out of a gas can. You see, I'm a born saver. I started saving money so early in life that by the time I was twelve years old I saved enough money to fund a trip to Spain to visit my cousins. I took three rolls of film with me and only took six pictures, thereby "saving" two-and-a-half rolls. Okay, I guess I used to be a little compulsive about saving. I know how to save money so well that I built a career around teaching others how to do things like feed a family of seven for only $250 a month, pay down debt, and establish a workable family budget.

My husband, Bob, however, is a born spender. When he was a kid, his paper route money never even saw the inside of his pocket. This pattern continued into his adult years, when he became a fighter pilot in the Air Force. He could still spend money faster than his Stealth F-117 could go from zero to 500 mph. For you Air Force novices, that's pretty fast.

So what happened when this spender landed in the life of a saver and swept her off her feet? Well, I'll put it this way: Bob decided that he'd rather dodge flying missiles in Baghdad than come home and tell me he forgot to use the coupon on the pizza he brought home for dinner. In our early marriage, Bob unceremoniously deemed "budget" the "B" word. The mere mention of that word sent him scrambling.

Now, don't get me wrong. Bob and I have a lot in common. We both enjoy gourmet coffee and dark chocolate, and we like moving often with the military. When we fly, both of us also like to rate the airline pilot's landing on a scale of one to ten. Amazingly, we always rate the landings the same (most pilots average a seven). As a matter of fact, we agreed on just about everything when we got married—except for money. And yet, we wanted to manage our finances as well as we rated a pilot's landing.

Bob and I are not the only couple with contrasting viewpoints when it comes to money. Finances are mentioned as the number one topic couples argue about in marriage and are cited for most divorces. Money matters can be a real problem, even if two "savers" are married to each other because they still have to decide on their financial goals and priorities. We found that an effective tool to work out our financial differences was that dreaded "B" word—a budget.

Bob and I knew that if we didn't get a firm grip on our extreme approaches to money, we'd have to face some ugly consequences one day. Our spending consequences would include juggling bills and nasty calls from bill collectors while an over-emphasis on saving would only cause stress on our marriage. As the saver, I had to adjust my expectations for Bob. Was it reasonable for me to demand he lunch at McDonald's only on Tuesdays when they give free super-sizing? Yes, but we both needed to get a grip.

It wasn't easy for the spender in our relationship to get into the budget habit. We had some harrowing take-offs and hit turbulence while in flight. Initially, we went off and on our budget, struggling one month, doing it right the next. I'd blow up when he came home with a used VCR that worked great and only cost $25 because he didn't check the Consumer Guide first! No, it certainly wasn't clear skies, but with prayer and perseverance we found balance, and peace once again reigned in our home. That is, until we had five children in seven years, but that's another, very long story.

If financial health is on the list of goals for your marriage, then the following tips can help you establish a working outline for your budget. With a little creativity, prayer, and some hard work, you can aim high and fly with the best.

A Workable Budget

Hey, where did all the dough go? Begin your budget discussion when you are both relaxed. Breathe in, breathe out. Now that you're relaxed, you can create your own budget worksheet by writing the following general categories see below:

Tithe-10%
Savings-10%
Clothing/Dry Cleaning-5%
Education/Misc-5%
Food-10%
Housing/Utilities/Taxes-30%
Insurance-5%
Medical/Dental-4%
Recreation/Vacation/Gifts-6%
Transportation-15%

The percentages and categories offered are only a guideline.

Make three vertical columns beside the categories and title them: (1) Current Spending, (2) Spending Percentages Recommended, and (3) Actual Budget. Fill in the first column by figuring the average spent in each category for the last six months. Establish your total monthly income and fill out the second column based on the percentages given in the guideline. Leave the third column blank for now.

Bringing home the bacon. The bacon is household income after state and federal income taxes and social security. Income includes salary, rent collected, interest gained, dividends received, income tax refunded, and other sources of regularly collected money. However, income does not include loose change found under sofa cushions. That would be considered a "windfall"—unless your last name is Trump. Enter the total on the bottom line of your budget worksheet, under all of your expenses.

He said, she said. "I think we're doing all right!" he says. "I think we're doing pretty lousy!" she says. Now, is a good time to decide where you truly are in your finances. It's hard to argue with the facts on the paper. Take your net income and subtract your current spending to establish your overall spending pattern. Are you spending more (through credit) than you make? Did you realize you're buying $243.78 worth of pizza each month? Are there unexplained gaps in your current spending levels? Do you tithe? Did you realize that you frequented the ATM machine that much?

Hidden bills. These are not bills that the spender in your family hides in the back of the desk so the saver can't find them. Hidden bills need to be factored into your expenses and include items that may not come due on a monthly basis: insurance premiums, property and other taxes, retail credit, doctor and dentist bills, magazine subscriptions, etc.

Budget Busters

Of course, once you get your budget set up, there are a few problem areas that can throw it off course in a matter of seconds. Here are a few tips to avoid these pitfalls.

Fearing credit card debt. Some couples have a policy of "cash only" and set up an envelope system. Every two weeks, they place the budgeted amount of cash in envelopes marked, "food," "entertainment," "gas," etc. When the money runs out, they're done until the end of the two week period. A regular peek at the amount of cash left in each envelope is a vivid reminder of the budget commitment. If credit has become a habit, then you might even do something dramatic, like cut up your credit cards.

Impulse buying. Nothing busts a budget like impulse buying. If you don't have the cash to splurge by going to your favorite Italian restaurant, then don't go. If you buy compulsively at the mall, then do your marriage a favor and stay out of that place. If you're an online buyer who spends money you don't have over the Internet, then pull the plug.

Thirty-day rule. A good way to short-circuit impulse buying is the thirty-day plan. If it's not in your budget, then wait thirty days, thereby delaying the purchase. During that month, find two other items that are similar and compare prices. If it's still available at a good price and it fits the next month's budget, then buy it. You'll likely find that you buy less stuff because the delay gives you the opportunity to get beyond the impulse.

"Comfort" spending. Many couples find themselves indulging in comfort spending on clothes, sports equipment, expensive restaurants, excessive entertainment, to name a few things. But this is another budget buster you can't afford. Even cutting back on some of this kind of spending can add up positively. For example, if you really can't afford to go out to eat four times a month, then only go twice.

Gifts. Think about the gifts you buy for relatives, teachers, baby showers, weddings, birthdays, and anniversaries. This doesn't even cover the biggie: Christmas. The first thing we should do is evaluate the "why" of gift giving. Do we really have to give a material gift in each circumstance? What about baked goods, instead? Think through each of these gifts to put them into perspective and save your budget at the same time.

Vacations. A nice romantic getaway can seem like a dream and turn into a nightmare when you get the credit card statement. Some advance planning can keep this from becoming a budget buster. Consider all travel costs, including tickets for the theater or amusement park, tips, meals, and souvenirs. If you have to sink further into debt to accommodate your vacation, then simplify your plans until they fit your financial limits.

They're Singing Our Song

As a couple, you might have a favorite place to eat, a movie the two of you watch, or even a special song. Bob and I particularly love the "Veggie Tales Theme Song": "If you like to walk with potatoes/If a squash can make you smile . …" It brings tears to my eyes even as I write.

Your budget will be just as unique as the two of you are as a couple. It will be based on variable factors such as your family's size, geographical location, debt load, and income. For example, housing can be a big variable due to your geographic location. Using the recommended percentages as a budget guideline, custom-tailor an actual budget that you and your spouse can live with. Now is a good time to shop around on insurance or take other proactive measures to streamline some areas of your budget. There are plenty of great resources to show you how to cut back painlessly on household expenses. Check out The Tightwad Gazette by Amy Dacycdzn, or my new book, How to Save Money Every Day (Bethany House Publishers). Be sure to check out the foreword written by a certain reformed spender who just happens to fly jets.

Pray Together and Stay Together

Bob and I determined that when it came to our approach to a family budget we would try and stay on the same page even though we're human and knew there would be rough spots. We had plenty of discussions. Okay, sometimes we did more than simply "discuss" our differences. Sometimes we argued, sometimes we cried, sometimes we took deep breaths and went out for a walk around the block. Sometimes Bob withdrew into another world, vegging out in front of a video and wallowing his sorrows in "Larry the Singing Cucumber." But we always reconciled these issues. It took several months to work through some of those early topics, but it was worth it.

We realized that we wanted to be good stewards, even though we approached money differently. As you go through the sometimes painful process of establishing and sticking to a family budget, it is important to commit these issues to prayer. James 1:5 is a verse we prayed regularly over our finances. It says, "If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all men generously and without reproach, and it will be given to him."

Part of the wisdom God gave us was how to implement the new budget into our lifestyle. We soon learned that living within our means took discipline. Self-control was a fruit of the Spirit we prayed for daily. We found that keeping books was the best way to keep our budget on target. To make record keeping easier, we decided to pay for all items over ten dollars with a check or a debit card that took the money directly from our checking account. Once a month, we pulled out our checks and credit card statements, tallied these expenses, and compared them with our budget.

We also realized that we didn't need to get carried away with the idea of putting our budget to work. We found that living on an austerity program strained our relationship, and we didn't want to become so detail conscious that the budget controlled our entire life. So we allowed an occasional indulgence, implemented budget cutting techniques slowly, and modified the budget as needed. As time passed, we fine-tuned some aspects of our budget and then had an annual check-up to keep it running smoothly.

Through the wisdom of a family budget, Bob and I found a way out of consumer debt and eliminated a lot of conflict in our relationship. We also found common ground. Now, Bob loves to pay half-price for movie tickets and I'll even pay full price for really good coffee and chocolate. But the best tip we can offer if you are in a spender-saver marriage is to pray as a couple and stay focused on God's will for your finances. As you do, you will experience God's provision and blessing in a dynamic new way, and in time, you will be the master of your money, rather than the other way around. mp

Ellie Kay is the author of Shop, Save, and Share and How to Save Money Every Day (both Bethany House). She, her husband, and their five kids live in New Mexico.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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Budget; Debt; Marriage; Money
Today's Christian Woman, Summer, 2001
Posted September 30, 2008

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