I believe today that having had a budget in place for the past 10 years has strengthened my marriage. But there have been times when I was less than sure that that would ultimately prove to be the case.I bought into the idea of establishing a budget in January 1992 because I could see the value of gaining some insight into where the money my wife and I earned was going. But I was not inclined to be a stickler on the numbers. If I had put in a long day at the office, and was invited to have a few beers with co-workers, I was comfortable in forming a quick conclusion that the experience was “worth it” whether it was covered by the budget or not. So I would go ahead and spend the money, presuming that I could figure out a way to fit it into the parameters of the budget afterwards.Those who have kept budgets know that there are usually lots of ways to do this. No budget heading provides a precise description of its scope. When you spend $15 on a travel book, does that come out of “Books” or out of “Vacations?” If, like me, you press up against the limit of spending in the books category regularly, you will want to assign the $15 to “Vacations.” And perhaps you will want to assign the money you spend on an unexpected round of beers to “Health” rather than “Eating Out” on grounds that you need an occasional such outing to cope with that job of yours.I've never been able to work up much enthusiasm for figuring out precisely what category an expense should come from. My wife is different. For her, all of the fun of the budget process was in seeing us meet those particular spending allocations at the end of the month. She didn't really care how much we allocated to “eating out” or whether that covered spending for beer nights or not. But once we agreed on a number, she wanted the spending reality to approximate the allocation for the month. She never felt comfortable with my suggestion that we just take the money needed to make up in the shortfall in the “eating out” category from some other budget category where we had extra money at the end of the month.There's some merit in both positions. Some flexibility is needed to make a spending plan bearable. Allow too much flexibility in your budget, however, and you reach a point at which it's almost like having no budget at all. You spend on whatever you want, rationalizing as you go each new failure to meet the spending allocations you planned.Creating a budget turned a new chapter in my and my wife's ongoing effort to understand the personality of the other marriage partner. In the days before the budget, there was me--loosey goosey on all sorts of subjects--and my wife--seeking certainty where she could find it. I didn't insist that she be loosey goosey, and she didn't insist that I seek certainty. We co-existed in relative harmony, staying out of each other's way when issues came up that might bring our personality differences to a head.Once we wrote a budget, though, many issues could no longer be ducked. Mr. Budget demanded to be reconciled each month, and we had to work through our personality differences whether we wanted to or not. In the old days, I would not have mentioned to her how much the unexpected beers cost me, and she wouldn't have asked. But once we had a budget, there was no way to avoid the issue. If I cared about getting the budget right, I had to share the numbers with her. And, if she cared, she had to ask.Issues that otherwise would have remained underground were pulled to the surface of our marriage interactions. I wonder if one reason why many families don't act on recommendations to write budgets is because they sense that getting two people to agree on the implementation of one can cause friction in a relationship. In the long run, though, it can be a good thing to be forced to address differences rather than continually look the other way. Our need to reconcile our budget each month required that my wife and I talk through our differences. We experienced opportunities to came to understand the point of view of the other marriage partner that we would not have experienced if we had not adopted a plan to govern our spending.We still have differences on budget implementation questions. But ten years later the opinions of both my wife and me on these sorts of issues are better informed by an understanding of the partner's position on them. She is a little more aware of the need for flexibility, and I am a little more aware of the need for accountability.This working out of differences comes into play not just when the budget is being implemented, but when it is being written too. Let's say that my wife would like to allocate $300 per month to the Furniture category, and I would prefer to allocate $100 to Furniture and have $200 extra for vacations. In the old days, our way of resolving such differences was to spend $300 per month on furniture and to spend the $200 extra on vacations as well. The path of least resistance was to spend more. Spending wasn't just a way of acquiring things. It was a way of avoiding discord.Once you begin writing budgets together, however, you need to come to agreement on a specific number that will appear next to each budget category. Reaching agreement with a party with differing views means taking the time and effort to understand that party's position better. So writing a budget can present an opportunity for achieving enhanced intimacy.Mr. Budget doesn't take sides in the disputes that arise between marriage partners. He doesn't say, “Yes, make the purchase,” or “No, save the money instead.” He merely insists that some sort of decision be made, and that there be agreement on the question. He forces the two parties to come together because they can't achieve their mutual goal--the writing and implementation of a budget--without doing so.Mr. Budget is neutral on the issue of who is right, but is persistent in demanding that the two parties come to a formulation that each finds acceptable. He allows the marriage partners to work out their differences in whatever way they see fit, but gives them no choice but to struggle with the issues brought to the surface by their different ways of approaching both money and life issues.Adopting a budget is like inviting a third person into the household, one who offers blunt comments on sensitive subjects. One spouse says: “I was thinking that maybe we'd go to Hawaii this year for vacation.” The other comments: “I see. Well, it's not what I had in mind. But I guess it's true that we've both been working hard lately. It would be nice to have some time together in a beautiful place. Why not?” Then Mr. Budget speaks up. “I think you two are forgetting something important. Remember that day back in January when you discussed this very subject? You decided that you wanted to do all you could this year to cut non-essential spending. This new idea doesn't fit into that scheme at all. Why the big change in plans?”The spouses know that the Hawaii idea represents a backtracking on the plan they agreed on in January, but neither is inclined to make an issue of it. That would force them to deal with the question of why one spouse wants to go to Hawaii and why the other is not so crazy about the idea. It's often easier to go along with the other person's idea so long as the matter at stake is no big deal. Mr. Budget is not so diplomatic. Even if both spouses ignore his frown as the revised vacation plans are discussed, they can't ignore him when the time comes to enter the numbers for the Hawaii trip. Where do they go? There's $4,000 worth of costs to be accounted for, and only $2,000 worth of budget category to cover them. Mr. Budget demands to be heard; you need to close out the numbers for the past month before you can begin spending the next month's allocations. Your only practical choices are to set a time to sit down at the kitchen table and work things out with your spouse, or to decide that Mr. Budget has become such a pain that you are just going to toss him out of the house and be done with him.My wife and I know each other better than we did before Mr. Budget took up residence in our household. It's an aspect of the budget process rarely remarked on in personal finance guides, but one that may ultimately prove to be among the most important of the enhancements that budgeting has brought to my life.
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