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The Responsible Couple’s Guide to Setting Up a Joint Budget

For Love & Money is our weekly series exploring how we navigate one of the most intimate and rarely talked about aspects of our relationships: our finances.

When Sam Lewis and his wife Noreena got engaged in 2012, they knew they wanted to be together through thick and thin. The first big challenge they would face together was pulling off their dream wedding on their own dime. 

In the end, though, all the spreadsheets and meticulous calculations turned out to be good practice for a lifetime of budgeting together. “We had a great wedding debt-free, and that’s a great position for a couple to start off on,” Lewis says. Plus, the budgeting process, albeit stressful, helped them ask important questions that would define all of their future budgets together, namely: What do we want to do with our time and money? And how do we go about achieving that?

The exercise also changed the course of Lewis’ career. After serving in the National Guard and working as a recruiter for over 20 years, he decided to become a financial planner. Soon, he learned from working with other couples that while most people assume talking about money will inevitably lead to conflict, it’s actually not talking about these things that can lead to real problems.

However, Lewis says that because his budget with his wife is fairly equitable, automated and agreed upon, they don’t have all that many discussions about money anymore. So what’s their secret? They attribute it to trust in each other and a process that involves a combination of joint and separate banking accounts. Specifically, Lewis and Noreena maintain four joint accounts (two savings and two checking) as well as separate individual checking accounts for autonomy. 

Their joint long-term savings account has enough cash for four months of expenses in case of an emergency, like losing a job. Their joint short-term savings account is for unforeseen costs along the way, like medical expenses. Their joint checking account is for all of their fixed expenses like their mortgage and electricity bill, whereas their joint miscellaneous spending account is for the less fixed expenses like groceries and childcare.

It may sound complicated, but Lewis insists it’s the exact opposite. “It takes a total of five seconds to make these transfers when we get paid,” he tells me. “If an unexpected bill comes up, we already have strategies for handling those things without having to reinvent our budget.”

Instead of using rigid budgeting guidelines like the 30-30-30-10 rule, Lewis has landed on a system that’s more flexible: Annually, he estimates their expenses based on the previous year, inflation and whatever goals they’re working toward, like retirement or a vacation. Then they divide these projections between them at a 55 to 45 percent ratio since Lewis makes slightly more money. They really only have to rework their budget if one of them has a significant change in their income. Otherwise, they automate whatever deductions they can from their paychecks, and whatever is left over of their income goes into their own individual checking accounts, which they can spend however they want.

“She doesn’t make me come to her for permission if I want to get a set of golf clubs. That will come out of my money,” Lewis says. “I see people fight about that sometimes, and I think that’s what’s important about financial planning — getting both parties on the same page about what they think is fair, so that one partner doesn’t feel like they’re providing more than the other. Or sometimes you have partners who won’t voice those concerns, and it stews below the surface before it eventually erupts.”

Every quarter, the couple also has a sit-down discussion about all of their accounts — shared and individual — while they review net worth statements together. “We get to see the balance of each other’s accounts and make sure one partner isn’t going out of bounds on what we’re planning toward,” Lewis explains.

For couples who don’t know where to start, Lewis recommends writing all of your spending down for two months, either in a spreadsheet, through a budgeting app like Mint or YNAB or on paper the old fashioned way. Then, after 60 days, review where your money is actually going. 

From there, make adjustments for future goals. But he emphasizes that writing it all down is key. “It breathes it to life. You’re not thinking, ‘I have $30 to spend on clothes.’ That is money you’re putting aside somewhere,” he explains. Finally, automate how much you want deposited from each paycheck into each account, so you don’t have to think about it, and consider apps like Qapital that round up on purchases to set aside money for special expenses. “That money is kind of out of sight, out of mind. So when we spend on those things it feels guilt-free,” Lewis explains. 

Unlike her husband, Noreena, is far less passionate about budgeting. “This stuff is important to me and it’s important generally for a family, but it’s not my skill set,” she says. “I care about it deeply, but I don’t want to do it.” She also admits she’s felt frustrated before about having to stick to a budget. But over the years, she’s learned that her impulse to pushback is usually coming from an emotional place.

So when Noreena gets cagey about their budget and starts to feel like she shouldn’t have to contribute so much of her current earnings into their ROTH IRA or some other shared, long-term goal, she asks herself, “What am I really upset about? Is there something that’s bothering me where this is an easy scapegoat?” 

Because ultimately, it’s not so much about sharing a budget, as it is sharing the burden of everything it accounts for.