During the first deployment of our marriage, my husband and I were not on the same page about the household budget.
My husband’s military pay was our only income. I had quit my job for the previous PCS move, and stayed home taking care of a toddler and a baby while working on my master’s degree. We had enough money to cover our regular expenses. But every unexpected car repair or damaged appliance set back any progress I made on our savings account.
When the toddler threw her sippy cup into my computer, shattering the screen I used for homework, the replacement laptop cost most of a paycheck.
When our family car died during a road trip to my parents’ house, the emergency repairs took another paycheck.
My husband was in Afghanistan, and our only way to communicate was by sending letters—yes, snail mail—back and forth. I tried to keep him updated about major expenses, without burdening him with too much financial stress. But near the end of deployment, I realized we were not remotely on the same page.
I first realized there was a problem when he started talking about his deployment “nest egg.”
Reader, there was no nest egg.
During his previous deployments, he wasn’t married. He would suspend his cell phone while he was away, so his only bill was a monthly truck payment. He didn’t own a house or support a family, so every paycheck he earned during deployment went straight into his bank account. At the end of those deployments, he was welcomed home with a deployment “nest egg” worth thousands of dollars, which he could spend or save however he chose.
That was soooo not the case after our first married deployment!
Despite my attempts to save money, our bank account was not much higher than it was when he left. We had to cover a mortgage, my tuition bills, and lots of diapers, along with all the unexpected home and car repairs along the way.
I had done my best to save throughout the deployment, getting furniture from thrift stores and hand-me-down clothes from friends. But at the end, I felt disappointed and defeated that I couldn’t give my husband the bonus money he expected.
He was frustrated with this financial setback that he hadn’t anticipated. I was frustrated because I couldn’t pinpoint anything I had done wrong. It was painful to discuss, and it took us a while to get our finances back on the same page.
How to make budgeting more fun
Work together on the same team: It’s easy to view finances as a win/lose situation, where one person can only “win” if the other is losing out on opportunities, investments, or buying new things. When we re-evaluated and faced our household budget together, it was more satisfying. It felt like we were working together towards a common goal, where we each wanted the other person to “win,” because then we would win as a couple too.
Make budgeting a treasure hunt: We had to find a way to make our household budget less competitive and argumentative. Instead of blaming each other for past choices or expenses, we needed to make it a fun challenge. In my book, Open When: Letters of Encouragement for Military Spouses, I wrote this advice in the letter called “Open When You Need a Budget:”
“Think of your budget as a puzzle to solve, or a treasure hunt where you are trying to find all the hidden drains on your bank account and ways to keep all your money in the bank. Work together to compromise and find a reasonable plan that works for both of you. Planning a budget is something you can do to benefit each other and build your life together. Work together and let your marriage benefit from budget conversations. You and your spouse both have so much to gain when you plan your finances together!”
Using a shared budgeting app: When only one person is managing the money (especially during deployment), it can be difficult to see things in the same light. We found that a shared budgeting app helped us get on the same page. We can track our spending from joint accounts, while also watching our savings grow towards particular goals like a vacation or major life event. A budget should be a savings and a spending plan. Putting all transactions into a shared app makes it easier to see what is going on, with less finger-pointing.
Saving up for unexpected emergencies: We all know the “deployment curse” will probably strike as soon as the service member leaves home to train. Prepare for car breakdowns and housing repairs by building up an emergency fund for your family. When there is an emergency cushion, it takes the stress off anyone experiencing a costly repair. If you prepare and save together, you can weather any storm together.
If you and your service member struggle to see money in the same way, or often argue about household spending, consider these ideas to make your budget less of a tug-of-war, and more like a treasure hunt!