Taking Over My Family’s Finances Changed My Perspective on Money

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  • My husband always managed our finances, while I paid the bills.
  • After an unexpected expense, we decided I would take a turn handling the family’s money.
  • Now that I do, I’ve found I think differently about spending money, today and in the future.

Payday is in four days. Between now and then, I’m determined to spend less than $100.

This isn’t because we only have $100 left. There are no dire consequences on the other side of that $100. I’m determined not to spend over $100 because it would mean dipping into the money I’ve set aside for emergencies, vacations, my husband’s birthday dinner, and so on. It’s all a carefully considered, complex system of automatic deposits, payments, and financial goals.

A year ago, this system didn’t exist.

While I tried to be thoughtful with our household spending, when it came to money, I built my ideas on vague knowledge rather than granular details. I took care of our outgoings: the grocery shopping, the medical bills, donations to my children’s school, etc. I didn’t resent my husband for this setup. His paycheck eclipses mine by a lot. He works hard to earn money, so I’m comfortable bearing the mental load of spending it. But because I took on that load, he carried the load of managing our finances.

He preferred it this way. Since my husband struggled with anxiety, as far as he was concerned, giving control of our money to the person who spends all of it wasn’t an option. And for over a decade, we were both comfortable with this arrangement.

But over the last year, my husband’s anxiety around money began affecting his health, and I began resenting the implication of our roles. Yes, I was the lower earner and the “spender,” but I’m also a personal finance writer and temperamentally better suited to handle the stress that comes with money management. I couldn’t help but feel that unconsciously, we’d set things up the way we had based on gender more than anything else.

Unexpected debt inspired us to change our strategy

Things came to a head a few months after we put in a new backyard. We’d saved for the pool and budgeted for the landscaping, but we’d failed to consider the deck chairs, the picnic table, the twinkle lights, and the bewilderingly expensive poles that hold them up. I could go on, but you get the picture. Unfortunately, we didn’t get the picture until it was too late, and we had a credit card bill we couldn’t pay in full at the end of the month.

A revolving credit card balance is a major trigger for my husband. As the optimist between the two of us, I reminded him that in the grand scheme of our income, $5,000 of debt isn’t going to break us. But these reassurances didn’t mean much coming from someone who … didn’t really know what she was talking about. After all, how could I? I regularly checked our accounts, but understanding the ins and outs of our financial structure was his job.

For his part, my husband was baffled. Since he didn’t do much spending, he didn’t understand where all our money was going. While I tried to explain it to him, I could see he didn’t understand. I decided it was my turn to take over our finances.

When I told him what I’d decided, he said, “But you’re the one who spends all the money. I don’t know that you should be in charge of managing it.”

I responded, “That’s exactly why I should be managing it. You’re making our financial decisions without understanding how much money we need, and I’m making our spending decisions without understanding how much money we have.” And so, we made the switch.

I think about money very differently now

Our finances were never bad, and they have neither improved nor deteriorated under my watch. My husband still struggles with financial anxiety, but he finds it less stressful not to carry the sole responsibility of our finances, even if doing so gave him a stronger sense of control.

As for me, my attitude toward our household spending has changed dramatically. I’ve found that much of my past spending reflected some significant assumptions. Assumptions like, “I just sold a big article. I can afford to take my friend out to lunch.” Or, “We’ve hit a major income milestone; we’re getting to the upper portion of the middle class. Upper-middle-class people don’t need to be thrifty with their kids’ back-to-school shopping.”

These days, I’m actively working with and towards our money goals, so my spending reflects the reality of our finances, not the idea I’ve built of them in my head. For instance, Target has completely lost its allure for me. I don’t need a $40 basket tote for the beach if we can’t afford to take a vacation to the beach this year. And we can’t afford a vacation to the beach if I don’t set money aside for it each month. And if I go over my allotted household spending buying nonsense like basket totes, I won’t have enough money to put towards those monthly vacation savings.

I learned something else when I took over our family finances as well, and that’s how emotionally draining it can be. It’s a bit like riding in a car. Sure, being a passenger who doesn’t have the power to steer the car around sharp turns or punch the brakes when the traffic suddenly jams is stressful. But when you’re in the traffic jam, passengers don’t have to pay attention to the taillights of the car in front of them or evaluate the lanes to see which is moving the quickest. Passengers can play on their phones and whine about how badly they need to use the bathroom. It’s the driver who must stay alert and resist the siren song of their text notifications. Because when it comes down to it, a passenger’s gasp doesn’t stop an accident. The driver does that.

I’m the driver now, and while I don’t love the stress, I have a new appreciation for the partner who carried it for over a decade. And it’s an honor to remove that weight from his shoulders and take my turn.

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