What to Do When You and Your Spouse Disagree on Debt
The weekend I read the Total Money Makeover, my life – and my debt – changed. I just didn’t know it yet.
Dave Ramsey was speaking at one of my mother’s professional conferences and gave out his books. I tagged along for a quick trip to Detroit and read the entire book in one weekend.
Debt snowballs, baby steps, $1,000 in savings – it made perfect sense to me. I was on board hook, line, and sinker.
My husband was not.
At this point, we’d been married just under three years, and by all outward appearances, we were successful. Three college degrees between us, gainfully employed, and a condo downtown – walking distance to the lake. We even travelled to exotic locations with the help of our timeshare.
Sure, we had bills. But we paid them every month – on time.
According to FICO, we were rock stars. In reality, we were just deeply in debt.
We never felt the need to budget because we made more than we spent. At this point, our financial analysis consisted of one question: can we afford the payments? We never questioned our habits until I voluntarily resigned from my job to manage our first business venture. We opened a laundromat in response to a desire to address economic instability in underserved communities.
Our income dropped by a third in one afternoon. Less money coming in forces you to pay attention to expenses, and budgeting as a couple didn’t come naturally. We would develop elaborate spreadsheets with color-coded sections and auto-updating modules, and then forget to look at it for months at a time. At this point, we had about $45,000 of debt. I wasn’t working, and we’d decided to take on a significant amount of new debt to open a business. We needed a better plan.
A lightbulb switched on when I read the Total Money Makeover. I was incredibly excited to share the revelation with my husband. But his reaction was sobering – he thought it was ridiculous.
So there you go. We were two very intelligent people with two very different perspectives on how to handle our household finances.
After a few rounds of intense debates and no movement from either side, I decided to do what I could.
After paying all bills, we had $450 left over to apply towards debt. Instead of going back to our elaborate budget spreadsheets, I created a simple, one-page overview of income, expenses, and outstanding debt. I included a blank section to write down our variable expenditures like gas, food, and miscellaneous items. This time, I printed out the budget and taped it to the fridge.
That way, when we walked into the kitchen, that printout often caught our attention. Sometimes we even talked about it together.
Other times, we just stared at it silently. Who knows what the other was thinking?
It became a reminder of what we were doing each month. As the progress displayed on that printout improved, we slowly stopped disagreeing quite so much, and realized that our progress was more effective when we worked together. We had to join forces to get out debt.
It took more than a year before I could definitely say that my husband stopped rolling his eyes whenever I mentioned Dave Ramsey. He’s still not a fan. Our road out of debt was not a straight shot. Over seven years, we added debt to that initial total.
By the time we finally finished, we had paid off $107,000 in consumer debt.
Looking back, I know the following strategies helped us finally come together to accomplish our goal:
- I made cutbacks in areas that didn’t impact him. I learned to do my hair at home. I forced myself to grocery shop on a regular basis so that we could prepare meals at home more often and eat out less often. I also located free or low-cost ways to have fun without spending a lot of money. I didn’t insist that he make any changes to accomplish a goal that he didn’t fully support. In time, he made his own adjustments.
- I listened to his objections and incorporated some of his ideas. He didn’t agree with suggestions like stopping the 401(k) contributions or only keeping $1,000 in savings. We focused on the actions we could agree on. There’s no room for a my-way-or-the-highway approach.
- We celebrated small wins. As we paid off one credit card and then the next, we might simply crank up the music and dance around the living room. Celebrating the small wins brought us together as a team who made progress together.
- We worked through mistakes or poor decisions together. I didn’t assign blame when we took a detour that didn’t work out.
- I took his suggestions at times, even when I disagreed. This was my way of showing my husband the respect he deserved.
We still don’t always agree on financial decisions. But we’ve learned that when it comes to our personal finances – as with all things in our relationship – we’re on the same team. Life is better when you can figure out how to work together.
Having trouble working out money matters as a couple? Want more advice? Check out these amazing books and articles:
- Couples Money by Chris and Marlow Felton
- One Bed, One Bank Account by Carrie and Derek Olsen
- “How to Stop Those Nasty Money Fights in Your Relationship” by Catherine Alford
- “3 Tips for Couples Who are ‘Money Opposites’” by Holly Thomas