How much can I spend on groceries this week?" I asked Michael, my husband of one month.
"I don't know," he answered casually. "Spend whatever you need to."
I clenched my jaw. Having never been good with numbers, I always claimed I'd marry a man who was good at math and let him handle the finances. Since Michael always managed his checkbook without a problem while we were dating, I assumed he'd handle our joint finances with the same ease.
Coming from a home with a financially organized father, I'd heard more than I cared to about how to spend—and not spend—money. We should be able to spend our money however we choose, I'd thought. People who have budgets never have any fun. Michael agreed with my philosophy. No budget for us. We were going to enjoy life.
I wish someone would have explained that there's more than one way to create a budget. During the first few months of our marriage, we were bringing in plenty of money, tithing faithfully, and saving diligently for the future. But when it was time to pay the bills, we always came up short.
To the casual observer we appeared to be making wise financial choices. Most of the items in our apartment were gifts—an almost-new refrigerator from friends who were moving, a bedroom set from my grandparents, and a hand-me-down mattress. Plus we weren't in debt.
But the growing stack of receipts from Starbucks, Target, and our favorite Chinese restaurant told me we soon would be. With both of us spending from the same checking account it was becoming more difficult to keep track of how much was going out versus coming in. Voicing my concern to Michael only made him feel pressured to make more money. Since we weren't living an extravagant lifestyle, it never occurred to either of us that we were overspending.
"I just don't get it," I complained one night. "Where does it all go, and how come you can't keep track of it?"
"I don't know," Michael replied. His body language told me he felt as if he was failing as a husband. Feeling bad, I apologized. But we both still felt an uncomfortable tension brewing over money.
Having put a big dent in our savings to pay our monthly bills, we realized it would dwindle quickly if this became a habit. And if we spent it all, we had no other reserves. That thought made us panic.
"We can't live like this," I told him one night in tears.
"I know," he said quietly, wrapping me in a hug. "We make good money. I just don't understand what happens to all of it."
A few days later I decided, to my chagrin, that we needed to try a budget. I found a link to online budgeting software that seemed almost too easy to use. It was designed to help people decide how to spend their money beforehand instead of tallying up the damage afterward.
I showed Michael, and we agreed to give it a try.
We became determined to find out where our money was going. Because this program was designed to help us regain control of our finances—and set up our own categories for spending—we didn't feel it was as constricting as the budgets my dad had suggested.
"I never realized we ate out so much," Michael said to me as we went through old receipts to help us map out our spending plan. By uncovering "hidden" spending we were quickly able to regain control of our finances.
We now keep track of how much money we have, and we make sure the important things—such as bills—are paid first. By weighing our current expenses against our future goals (such as buying a house), we have the freedom to go out to dinner now and then, or even take a vacation, knowing we can actually afford to do it without stealing from our nest egg.
I no longer expect Michael to handle our finances alone. "I'm so relieved," he admitted when I approached him about balancing the checkbook and mapping out our budget together. "Now that we have a joint account there is so much more to keep track of. It will be easier if we work as a team."
Living within our means gives us a peace of mind that we didn't have in our first several months of marriage. Instead of creating tension, our finances now unite us in our common goals of spending wisely, giving generously, and saving for our future.
Our marriage—and our bank account—are a lot better for it.
Copyright © by the author or Christianity Today/Marriage Partnership magazine. Click here for reprint information on Marriage Partnership.