Budgeting for two: how to build a budget with your SO*

Aditi Shekar
July 24th, 2017 | 5 minutes
Budgeting for two: how to build a budget with your SO*

*SO = Significant other, siggy other, your better half in this relationship.

You’ve met that couple. Tom and Maya, Alex and Renee, Scott and Scott. They seem to have it all figured out. The house in the hills, the fancy car, the never-ending vacations. How do they afford it?!?

Here’s how — they have a financial plan that includes a budget. Usually when you mention the word budget, it can instigate feelings of anxiety, dread, and even hysteria. You want me to stop spending money, don’t you?!

Not exactly.

A budget is a tool for you to grasp how much is going in and how much is going out. And it’s even more important when you’re navigating two peoples incomes and expenses. Some of us prefer to do it on a daily or weekly basis so we can stay on-track with our spending, while others are completely happy checking in less frequently or just knowing how much they can spend each month. Whatever your preferred mode, taking the time to build a budget with your SO will reduce over-spending, help you avoid money arguments, and generally reduce dissatisfaction with your finances.

Okay, but how do I do it? Especially now that I have a SO to coordinate with?

I’m glad you asked. Building a budget together follows five steps:

  1. Figure out your monthly income and expenses.
  2. Design your ideal budgets individually and then together using the simple framework we’ve created at Zeta.
  3. Pick 3 three commitments to work on together to get from your current budget to your ideal budget.
  4. Track your monthly expenses.
  5. Iterate on your budget every 3–6 months until you reach your ideal breakdown.

To help you work through these steps, we’ve created a Build-A-Budget tool to guide you along. You can check it out here. It works for couples who have fully merged finances or those who have both shared and individual expenses.

Now let’s break down each step in further detail.

1. Figure out your monthly income and expenses.

INCOME

To estimate your income, you want to focus on “net income” — i.e. the amount of money that you receive in your paycheck. Net income refers to the money you have left over after deducting taxes, healthcare, and retirement plan contributions. Plug all this info into your Zeta Budget.

EXPENSES

To calculate our expenses, you’ll look at both fixed and variable expenses. Your fixed expenses include things such as your mortgage or rent, car payments, student loans, and so forth. These expenses remain relatively constant month after month. Variable expenses fluctuate month to month. These may include entertainment, groceries, gifts, and so on.

A FEW NOTES:

  • Generally, it is ok to estimate numbers if you don’t have exact amounts. However, it’s worth noting that most people underestimate their expenses when guessing.
  • Don’t include your personal expenses in your shared budget!
  • Under estimating variable expenses is usually where people go wrong in budgeting! Think twice about which expenses you might not have considered within this category.

2. Design your ideal budget, individually and together.

Next we’ll build your ideal budget (what we wished we spent or saved). Starting with an ideal budget helps us understand what our goal should look like and then begin charting a path towards that goal.

Adjust your expenses to help you reach your ideal budget. For example, if saving is a big goal for you, we’ll make your budget more aggressive and save more. If you’re spending more than you make (because you’re unemployed or have a pile of savings to fund your living expenses), you’ll be able to make those adjustments.

It’s helpful to maintain individual budgets as you’re working through this exercise with your SO so that you can each customize your budgets to your money personalities.

3. Pick 3 commitments to move from your current budget to your ideal.

If you’re struggling to make your ideal budget work, sit down with your SO and walk through what changes you need to make together or individually.

A few tips to consider:

  • Work on the highest-leverage areas first — which typically means looking at your biggest expenses (such as rent or eating out).
  • Don’t feel like you have to do it all at once. Just going through this exercise is you getting on the right path. Take small steps or large steps based on what you’re comfortable with, individually and as a couple.

Once you’ve had the conversation, pick 3 goals that you can work on individually and together and finalize the budget you want to start with. You’ll be able to make adjustments in future months.

4. Track your progress.

Some couples are totally happy just knowing general numbers to stick to while others like to see how they’re performing on a weekly or monthly basis. Either way, you’ve already done much of the work! It’s now about seeing how well you’re doing against your goals. My husband and I review our finances monthly — we use Zeta to see how we’re doing both individually and together. We then focus on 1–3 behaviors we may need to change to support our goals and list them in the monthly review. For example, last month we realized we were eating out too much and decided to trade off dinners for a travel budget instead.

5. Repeat in 3–6 months.

Most of us may not be able to immediately hit our “ideal” budget at the first go. In fact, it usually takes couples anywhere from 6 months to a year to achieve their ideal budget and build the right systems to stick to it. You’re going to want to revisit your budget every 3 to 6 months to keep yourself moving in the right direction.

One couple I spoke with utilize a quarterly planning session where they cover everything from finances to longer-term goals. Another couple setup a Sunday morning routine where they grab brunch and sit down to talk through their finances on a weekly basis. Whatever your system, make sure you pick one! Couples are much more likely to be successful when they have such a system in place.

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