'Where does all our money go?' Stop the blame games and get financially fit

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By psychologist Angie Willcocks

When couples fall in love and decide to marry, they often just assume that their partner shares their views about money. Often this isn't the case, and money is one of the main topics that couples argue about, no matter how much (or little) they earn. I'm frequently fascinated by all the different ways people think about and handle money, and I sometimes wonder how any couple ever makes it work! There are all sorts of different models that couples can adopt to handle their money; from totally separate accounts (and no idea how much the other earns) to one shared account with all of the money pooled. There are also variations on where the money comes from, who earns more, and whether or not both partners work outside of the home. The situation very often changes when kids come along, and this is a time that many couples start arguing about money.

The model I most often see in mining and quarrying families with children involves one partner earning most or all of the family income. The argument that I often hear is centred around the question of "where does all the money go?" It might seem like a generalisation but I wish I had a dollar for every time I heard a husband say: "I earn all the money and she spends it all" or "I have no idea what happens to all the money I earn".  If this sounds familiar, read on!

As I've already said, I sometimes wonder how any couples manage to get along financially. Most of us don't get taught specifically about money and finances as children, which means we generally take our cues from the environment we're brought up in. This might be good, but often it isn't. Even with the very best of intentions, parents can 'teach' some unhelpful beliefs and behaviours about money. Also, a lot of emotions are caught up with money, probably because of its survival value. I've seen the most outwardly sensible people who have very strange beliefs and behaviours about money; from the wealthy person who worries excessively about spending money, to the debt-laden 'successful' business man who thinks he 'deserves' the very best of everything money can by.

Think about your own beliefs and behaviours

One of the first steps in reducing arguments about money is to think about your own beliefs and behaviours. It's surprisingly simple and yet not many people do this. Think back on your history with money, and perhaps write down your thoughts. Consider questions like: as a kid did I feel 'rich' or 'poor'? Where did I learn about money? Did I grow up in a house with a lot, enough or not enough money? How was money talked about? How was money talked about in my home? Was money important to my parents? 

Next, think about how you approach money now. What sorts of beliefs do you have about money as an adult? How do your childhood experiences with money affect you now? Ideally, when you've done this, you should ask your partner to do the same and then take some time to talk together about it. I know this sounds like a really heavy and serious thing to do, but it doesn't have to be. Try starting the conversation by saying something like: "I've  been thinking about why we argue so much about money, and trying to understand my share of what's going on." There is often a lot of blaming and criticising in arguments about money, and this exercise can start to shift that pattern and encourage some understanding and compassion for each other.

Some other tips are:

  • Set shared financial goals, and make sure they're SMART (I explained the concept in this column: Want to be happier? Here's how to make it happen)
  • If you work long hours and/or you work away and feel like you don't know or have any say in where the money goes, take responsibility and get informed! In my experience the primary earner can have an unrealistic view of how much it costs to run a house, and frequently underestimate how much basic living costs. If you never go grocery shopping, next time you're available go shopping with a list (prepared by the usual household shopper) of all that is needed for the week (including nappies, loo paper, washing powder, dishwasher tablets and dog food etc.). This simple exercise can be very powerful for some couples. Similarly, if you never buys gifts (let's face it, this is often a woman's job) find out how many birthday presents are needed for the year, and approximately how much is spent on each person.
  • Often the person looking after the finances tries to cover up or avoid how much things cost, for fear of an argument, but this doesn’t help long term. It's more effective to be upfront about what is being spent where (by the way, you may need to do your homework first for this, because many of us actually don't know where all our money goes from week to week!).
  • Go over your bank accounts for the past three to six months (depending on how often you pay bills) and record everything you have spent and what you've spent it on. You can do this individually or together as couple. Initially this exercise is just to collect information, but it can also lead to reductions in spending in relatively simple ways. I recently did this exercise myself and was shocked to see how much I was spending per month at my local supermarket, mostly because I had fallen in to the busy person's trap of running to grab bits and pieces several times a week (and of course grabbing 'extra' bits and pieces each time!). I changed this immediately, by getting more organised with my grocery shopping, and very easily reduced my monthly grocery bill. 
  • Be clear about what you see as important in life and be willing to have the hard conversations with your partner. I recently talked to a mum who desperately wanted her kids to be privately educated. Her husband didn't share this goal, and she knew he'd object if he knew how much the fees were, so she didn't tell him how much the fees were and just sent their child along. The husband was constantly hitting the roof and asking "where is all the money going and why aren't we getting ahead?" and she'd just shrug her shoulders. It would have been much better to be upfront about her deep desire for their child to be privately educated, because her avoidance actually led to mistrust within the relationship.
  • We all know we're 'meant' to have a financial budget and we're 'meant' to stick to it.  In my experience very few people do, and so I won't bother telling you that you have to! There is, however, a fact of financial life that we can't avoid: you have to spend less than you earn to get ahead. If you spend more than you earn you will accumulate 'dumb' debt, like credit cards. Be brave and go over your expenses and income and see what the numbers are. Hopefully you come out in the black, but if not, you'll have to look for ways to spend less. If this doesn't seem possible, get immediate financial advice (i.e. My Budget).
  • I have noticed that it works well for couples to have three bank accounts: one joint account that the big, main, family expenses come out of (like the mortgage, household bills et) and two individual accounts for personal expenses. Some couples find it works to put the same percentage of their income into the joint account. If there is only one income earner, the non-income earner should still have access to their 'own' money.
  • Seeing a financial planner can help. I know this is really scary for people, especially those who haven't been brought up this way. Most financial planners understand the strong emotions that go along with money, and a good financial advisor will be kind and supportive, not critical and snobby. Like with any professional, shop around until you find one you like. Make sure they are accredited.
  • For free advice on setting 

    up a household budget and 

    tracking your spending, visit 

    the Federal Government's Money Smart website.  
  • Stop the blaming and criticising each other and work together to get this issue sorted out. Let past mistakes be past and start from today.

Finally, if you really can't talk about any of this with your partner, and you're frequently arguing about money, please get some counselling sooner rather than later.

To read other columns written by Angie Willcocks during her six years with Mining Family Matters, please click here. And remember that we offer a free email Q&A service with our psychologists, so just click here to ask a question about relationships, parenting or your career. All advice on Mining Family Matters is for general information only and should never be regarded as a substitute for professional health services or crisis services. To talk with a trained volunteer telephone counsellor at any time of the day or night, call Lifeline on 13 11 14. To contact the info line at beyondblue: national depression initiative, phone 1300 22 4636.

Angie Willcocks is a registered psychologist with a private practice in Adelaide – for details about Skype consultations please email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. She’s an expert in tackling issues such as depression, anxiety, postnatal depression, child sleep routines and relationship difficulties. She has a Bachelor of Health Sciences in Psychology and a Masters of Counselling Psychology. She is also the co-author of The Sensible Sleep Solution: a guide to sleep in your baby’s first year, which can be ordered from her website www.angiewillcocks.com.