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Can you change a spouse's spending habits?

can_you_change_a_spouses_spending_habitsQ: I come from a family with a very disciplined approach to finances, but my wife's background is just the opposite. While I try to save, she spends freely from our joint account. It's messing up our budget and it's also creating tension between us. Do you have any advice?

A: It's not an uncommon problem. As you suggest, one's approach to finances can be very different from another's, and these differences often stem from one's upbringing. What seems natural to one person can seem completely wrong to the next, and that can put a strain on both your pocketbook and your relationship.

To bridge that gap, there are two things you should address: communicating financial goals and how you set up your bank accounts.

Communicating financial goals

When it comes to different approaches to finances, it's not necessarily the case that one of you is right and the other is wrong. However, coming to an understanding of how you both really want to manage your finances may take some patience and thought.

Start by listening to why your wife feels it is right to spend more money, and find a way to explain what it is about your background that makes you more frugal. Work toward finding common ground and striking the right balance.

Simply saying it is prudent to save money probably won't make much of an impression on someone who likes to spend, but you can attempt to make it more appealing by describing the type of life you envision. Detailing how much more comfortable your lifestyle will be in the future if you save money puts the emphasis on the benefit, not simply on the discipline of saving.


Tip: Help frame the discussion about why you should be saving now. Read Starting your career? How to start a retirement fund in your 20s


Setting up your bank accounts

Many couples assume that getting married means they should share all their financial accounts, but that isn't always the case. The following structure may help you work toward a more stable financial situation:

  1. Keep checking accounts separate
    Two people spending out of the same checking account can be chaotic under the best of circumstances. Using separate checking accounts can help you both keep your records straight and give you each some latitude in your approach to finances.
    Tip: A checking account that minimizes overdraft fees can be of help. Some banks cap the number of overdraft charges too. Read Best checking account to minimize an overdraft fee to learn more.
  2. Keep savings accounts together
    If you are both contributing to long-term savings, then you can combine your accounts at that level, as opposed to trying to coordinate daily checking account transactions.

  3. Deposit pay into savings, not checking
    If you both work, a key can be having direct deposit go into your savings account, not your checking accounts. Then you can fund your checking accounts with budgeted amounts out of savings. This can help make money less readily available to spend and build savings into your budget.

  4. Use tax-advantaged vehicles for long-term savings
    It may also work to push some savings into qualified retirement plans like an IRA or 401(k). Besides the tax benefits, these accounts have restrictions on when you can withdraw money and thus may rein in the temptation to spend. To a lesser extent, long-term CDs may help do the same thing.

These structural changes could help improve your household savings and, in turn, help relieve some of the tension. All the while, continue the discussion about your long-term goals. That not only underscores the incentive to save, but it can also remind you both that you are in this together.

Got a financial question about saving, investing or banking? MoneyRates.com invites you to submit your questions to its "Ask the Expert" feature. Just go to the MoneyRates.com home page and scroll down to find the "Ask the Expert" box.


More resources on checking accounts:

The cost of sloppy banking habits

Our 2018 survey shows higher checking account fees can be avoided

Compare checking accounts: 7 tips for finding the best checking account

Should you be a checking-account hoarder?


More resources on saving:

Learn how much to save to meet your goal: savings goal calculator

Compare savings accounts, money market accounts and CDs

Learn about banks that consistently offer the highest interest rates: America's Best Rates survey


More resources on saving for retirement:

Financial Checklist: How to invest in your 20s

Retirement savings calculator

9 savings accounts with sweet tax breaks

How much do you need to retire? - aka Can I retire on a million dollars?

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