How to Handle a Spendthrift Spouse

October 29, 2013

spouseWe all hope to improve our financial situations over the long run. But what do you do if you have a spendthrift spouse who isn’t on board with your plans for financial improvement?

It’s sad but true, that while people seek out all kinds of common ground in a marriage partner, the one area that is often completely neglected is the finances. We often assume that if we’re compatible in other areas that we will also be compatible when it comes to money. Unfortunately, that’s not always true. In fact, a married couple can be poles apart when it comes to money.

If that’s your situation, how can you overcome it? Here are some places to start.

Creating the Money Meeting of the Minds

In many marriages, there is a business-as-usual approach when it comes to money. Each spouse handles money in their own way, and often ignores the direction that the other spouse is taking, particularly if it’s a very different one. But that kind of arrangement ultimately ends in disaster. Even if one spouse manages money responsibly – saving money, investing, and avoiding debt – the less responsible spouse’s habits can end up pulling the couple down.

As with any issue that could divide a couple, you need to have a meeting of minds where money is concerned. That doesn’t mean that the two of you need to adopt identical money habits, but you should begin moving in the direction of general agreement – at least in regard to major financial decisions.

Some areas of particular interest include:

  • Agreeing on paying off any debt that you have, and how you will go about it.
  • Maintaining an adequate emergency savings account.
  • Making provisions for retirement, even if you’re not in full agreement as to specifically how much.
  • The type and cost of the home you live in.
  • Major spending decisions – you might want to create a dollar threshold here in order to specifically define what constitutes “major.”

Again, you don’t need to necessarily develop identical financial habits, but you should begin moving toward common ground.

Merging Your Finances

If one spouse is strong with money, and the other isn’t, it can often help to merge your finances to a greater degree. This can include eliminating separate checking accounts in favor of a joint account. Or making sure that your emergency fund is also a joint account, and you both contribute.

Though separate finances can work well between certain couples, it can also provide cover for a poor money manager to overspend and under-save. By creating joint accounts, you put the “we” in your marriage, at least where finances are concerned.

Building a Winning Financial Future

When two spouses have such different views of finances, it is often rooted in wide variations in each spouse’s view of their financial future.

The spouse who is a good money manager, may have a dream of a future that is based on financial independence. The other may have no dream at all, and is mostly focused on living in the moment.

If you are the stronger spouse financially, you may be able to bring your spouse closer to your way of thinking by laying out a well-detailed vision of your future together. In doing this, you’re creating a destination – a better future where you will both be happier. This could be a way of creating a defining goal that your spouse has not had up to this point. And that could change everything.

Establishing Accountability

We’ve all heard the saying, while the cat’s away, the mice will play – but that’s also how people can develop poor money habits. If you are free to spend your money any way you want, with no accountability to anyone else, it’s easy to get sloppy.

You’ll be able to solve this problem by making each other accountable to one another. You can do this by establishing a rule that monthly credit card statements and bank statements will be available to one another on a regular basis. People often behave better with money when they know that someone else will see what it is that they’re doing.

Setting Up Forced Savings Plans

One of the best ways to get a spendthrift spouse to work better with money is through forced savings plans. These are common with retirement plans, like 401(k) plans, but they can also be used to channel money into savings accounts and various investment funds.

By allocating at least small amounts of money to be transferred into savings and investment accounts on a regular basis, you don’t even miss the money. It’s a way of overcoming a lack of ability to save in a more direct fashion.

But forced savings plans have another tangible value. As the savings and investment accounts grow, you begin to see progress. If your spouse has never saved money before – and begins to see their accounts growing in value – that may create an incentive to save and invest the never existed before.

Building Flexibility into Your Finances

A spouse is sometimes a spendthrift because they prefer to resist any regimen that is rigid in nature. For this reason, if you have a spendthrift spouse, you have to find ways to build flexibility into any financial plans that the two of you agree on.

For example, you may have to be content at making progress in building up savings and paying off debt, and letting some other things go. You can do this by setting up a budget that will provide for savings and debt reduction, but also allow money for free spending.

The provision for free spending could be the glue that holds your entire marital financial plan together. In general, you will be moving in a positive direction in that your savings and investments will grow, and your debts will gradually be paid off. But by providing plenty of room at the margins you may keep the spendthrift spouse from feeling like they are in a financial straitjacket.

Think of it as the proverbial tree that bends but doesn’t break. That’s how it has to be in a marriage, especially when it comes to money.

If you’ve worked through difficult financial situations with your spouse, leave a comment and tell us about your progress!


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Kevin Mercadante is professional personal finance blogger, and the owner of his own personal finance blog, He has backgrounds in both accounting and the mortgage industry. He lives in Atlanta with his wife and two teenage kids and can be followed on Twitter at @OutOfYourRut.

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2 Responses to How to Handle a Spendthrift Spouse

  • Michael

    I take the blame for allowing it to go on. My wife has caused me to file bankruptcy several years ago. Got credit cards in my name without me knowing. Ga
    Got a card in sisters name run up 20k. I paid off or still paying with 2nd mortgage. I had car repossessed. I managed to get back. I could go on. I took over and removed from bank. She got my numbers and steals money. I work out of town. Have a 13, 10 and 3 year old. I buy grocery leave cash for extra spending and leave cc for emergency. She spends cash and max out card 1 day after I leave go work. I do love her but the only solution I have is get a divorce. It is a sad day.

    • Kevin Mercadante

      Hi Michael – I’m sorry to hear about your predicament. If it’s any consolation, I saw that kind of situation a good bit when I was in the mortgage business. Some purchases blew up because one spouse didn’t know that the other had put them deep in debt.