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How to pay together and stay together

March 18, 2014

By Jean Chatzky

Bill paying should be a joint effort. That way, both spouses share the responsibility – and the stress – and are ready to take the reigns if something unexpected happens.

Jean Chatzky Photo”My grandma used to hide the bills under the couch,” The TODAY Show’s Savannah Guthrie recently told me. “But Grandpa wasn’t too happy when he found out — and they were all overdue. Lesson: don’t hide the bills or Grandpa will find out!”

Aside from speaking to the importance of an open and honest financial discourse with your partner, I like Savannah’s story because it brings up one of my favorite marriage and money tips: make paying the bills a team building exercise.

What do I mean by this? Generally, both parties in a relationship have strengths. Your frugality may help you shop smartly and get out of debt; your spouse’s investment savvy may help you set up a portfolio that will help you retire in style. Or maybe, vice versa, you’re the investor and your spouse is the frugal one. But sometimes, this division of expertise can lead to a few spats, and it’s not uncommon for one partner to feel as if the other is being too parental — telling you how much you’re allowed to spend and on what, etc. (If that’s not bad for a marriage, I don’t know what is.) However, there’s an easy fix to this, and that’s where taking turns to pay the bills comes into play.

My turn, your turn
Alternating bill-paying duties allows both partners to see the funds moving. The fact that there’s not as much as you thought left over after each paycheck may give you a window into why your partner is so intent that you spend only so much on eating out, so much on clothing, or so much on the car. It may reveal that your cable bill is $50 higher than you remember it being, or that the extra cable box you added to the basement has upped the electricity bill by $30 each month. It may even allow you to see why your spouse is cranky.

Knowing how to do it before there’s a crisis
What’s more, bill paying is a crucial skill to have in case something happens that prevents your spouse from managing the family money. You don’t want this to be a skill you’re lacking. I can’t tell you how many anecdotes I’ve heard involving an injury, illness or worse, death, that puts one spouse in charge — but that spouse has no idea where the other has been keeping the bills, much less how he or she was paying them!

Divide the labor in other areas, too
You may also want to take turns doing the shopping, until both spouses understand how much it costs to outfit the kids for a season, to put food in the pantry for a week, or to buy a reasonable gift for your mother-in-law’s birthday. Otherwise, you may not be able to stem the tide of complaints. Women do 80 percent of the shopping in America today. That puts men at a distinct disadvantage.

A longer time-frame
Finally, if switching off every month or every round of bills seems disjointed to you, try what my parents did: switch off every six months. This is enough time to provide continuity and a clear window into the family finances, but not so much time that the other person begins to feel burdened and overly stressed.

The bottom line is this: in a relationship where finances are shared, it’s important that both spouses know what’s going on. Pay the bills and then double check your accounts so you know what’s inside. Check in on your assets. Create a spreadsheet if one or both of you needs the extra organization. Schedule a money date once a month — even if you’re paying bills together, it’s still important that you’re talking about the debt you’re paying off, the goals you’re saving for and the emergencies that might happen. If you do all this, you’re golden.

Alliant Online Banking’s Personal Financial Management (PFM) tool can make it easy to share a complete view of family finances with your spouse or partner as discussed above by Jean…

PFM enables you and your spouse or partner to:

  • Automatically tag transactions, manually change tags for personalization and use “split-tags” to accurately tag a transactions that fits under multiple budget categories.
  • Monitor cashflow to better track fixed and variable expenses incurred.
  • Track progress toward income and expense goals, making it easier to stay on track and achieve them.
  • Manually add non-Alliant asset and debt transactions for a complete 360 view of your family’s finances.
  • Evaluate and track your family’s comprehensive net worth, with graphical displays of asset and debt breakdown for better visualization and to help you make better financial decisions.
Don't have an Alliant Online Banking PFM account? Create your account today: log in to Alliant Online Banking, then go to Budget & Planning and select Financial Management