Cultivating Financial Independence Within a Marriage

You know you have a problem when your husband feels the need to ask your permission every time he wants to make a purchase, even if he’s just buying an occasional cup of coffee on the way to work. Don’t worry – it’s not that he’s financially dependent. It’s because I was (and probably still am to some extent) financially controlling. I like to track where each dollar of our income is shared, saved, and spent. I still check our bank account every day even though we have more than enough. After living paycheck to paycheck as a student, I like to be reminded that we are ok. While I never said he should call me when he wants to spend money, I think my behavior has implied it.

So while I was content, my husband wanted the freedom to occasionally pick up a cup of coffee, purchase new clothes, or spend money on tools without having to ask me. Our income belonged just as much to him as it belonged to me – and yet so often he felt like he was spending “my” money. In short, he was longing for some financial independence.

I often hear stories of female entrepreneurs who originally started their own businesses while stay at home moms to give themselves a sense of financial independence. These women found ways to explore their passions, invest in new skills, and bring in some additional income that helped them gain more ownership over their family’s budget.

But financial independence can do more than give you a sense of accomplishment. It can also ensure that you are staying in a relationship for the right reasons. As the Money Boss wrote in her guest post, “financial independence gave me the freedom and strength to leave an unhealthy situation.” While money troubles may be one of the leading causes of divorce, a lack of financial independence is often a reason why an unhappy partner stays in a relationship. They just don’t know how they could make it on their own and maintain the same lifestyle for themselves and their kids. There are many reasons why developing financial independence can be empowering. 

The key to gaining financial independence – for both partners – is making sure you are both aware of your present financial situation, clear on what’s in and out of scope for your budget, and united on your goals. If either of you see larger purchases coming down the pike, bring them up sooner rather than later – even if it’s just casually – so there are no big surprises.

So, how do you make financial independence possible for both partners? Here are some steps to consider:

1.     Decide what financial independence looks like for you – individually and together. Begin by reflecting on what you’re looking for. Listen closely without judgement to what your partner needs. How can you make both partners feel independent? Don’t be surprised if you have very different senses of what it means to be financially independent. Is there a way to make both versions of independence a reality?
Tip: Take time to reflect for yourself: In what ways do I feel financially independent? In what ways would I like to grow my independence?

2.     Create space for both partners to grow and lessen their income as their own needs and family needs change. I am a firm believer that one of the only constants in a marriage, or really any relationship, is change. Life is constantly changing, and one of the joys and challenges of marriage is growing together in the midst of change. As circumstances change, don’t be afraid to give each other space to try something new.
Tip: Looking to make a change but one or both of you are nervous? Create a pilot period so you can test it out for a few weeks. Decide on a time to come back together, discuss pros and cons, and make a decision so you can step forward with more confidence.

3.     Make sure both partners are aware of your current financial situation – not just when it’s bad. No one can have true financial independence when they are blind to  financial reality. If you’re more of the finance person in the relationship, make sure you find helpful, non-anxious ways to keep your partner informed of your financial situation. Make sure you’re in communication no matter if the situation is good, bad, or just the same.
Tip: One of the best ways my husband and I have found to keep on the same page financially is to meet every month. We make it fun by going out to eat for our Burgers & Budgets meeting. We make it a priority every month, no matter what’s going on in our financial life.

4.     Dream together about where you’re going and how you’ll get there. Once you know where you are, take the time to dream together about where you are going. Being on the same page about your dreams, goals, and how you’ll get there is one of the best ways to ensure financial independence doesn’t cause problems in your relationship. Dreaming together can help you both decide what the curbs and gutters are of your independence.
Tip: Make the dreaming fun – go on a hike, grab paper and markers so you can doodle, or go out for a nice dinner. Let the only conversation topic be where you want to go financially – all crazy ideas are welcome.

5.     Decide together what’s yours, mine, and ours. Like I said in last week’s article, every couple structures their money life differently. If financial independence for you or your partner means the freedom to put money toward some of your individual expenses and goals, it might be helpful to have separate bank or savings accounts  that each person can draw from.
Tip: Get crystal clear about how any separate money is to be used, so there isn’t any confusion. Budget together for what’s “ours” so you have a clear sense of what’s in scope and what’s out. If needed, decide on a limit for discretionary spending ($50, $100, $200) within the “ours” budget so you don’t always have to ask for permission.

 How are you cultivating financial independence within your marriage? Leave a comment below.