What to Do When Your Spouse Is Sabotaging Your Finances

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Side view of couple having a hard time paying their bills
By Geoff Williams

You may love your significant other, but you hate how he or she spends money. Even worse, you may feel like there's little to nothing you can do about it.

And maybe you're right. After all, you know your situation far better than anyone. Maybe a divorce, bankruptcy or foreclosure is looming.

But many experts say that if your spouse is constantly behaving in ways that are wrecking your budget, there's a thought process to adopt and steps you should take to see if you can keep your household finances from completely falling apart. So before you give up on your significant other – and the idea of ever getting your finances under control -- try this first.

Change whomever is paying the bills. There are many ways someone can mess up a household budget, or, to be blunt, commit financial abuse. If your spouse is the one mucking things up by paying bills late, then take the reins. Likewise, if your spouse doesn't pay the bills, and is going on shopping sprees and never paying attention to the bank balance, consider suggesting that he or she begin the bill paying.

It may sound like a crazy idea, putting the reckless spender in charge of paying the bills. But as Paul Moyer, a Greenville, South Carolina, resident who has a personal finance blog, SavingFreak.com, and does financial coaching, says, "the best progress I've seen from budget saboteurs is to have them start making up the family budget."

At least for a while, it may be worth testing out. "By putting them in charge of drawing up the budget, they get a full view of exactly what their spending is doing," Moyer says. "The vast majority of people do not want to put their family in trouble."

Accept that you may be to blame, too. This one is hard, especially if you know you're a responsible person who doesn't impulse shop and monitors the money carefully. But maybe you monitor the money a little too carefully, causing resentment in your spouse, who then subconsciously or purposefully tries to spend his or her way to freedom.

Or maybe you never communicate with your spouse, leaving your significant other in the dark and unaware of your tight budget.

That latter scenario happens a lot, says Anthony Leonardi, founding partner at Paladin Family Wealth in Rye Brook, New York. "Typically one spouse – normally, but not always, the male – takes the lead on areas involving finances, while the other spouse handles the nonfinancial aspects of running the household," Leonardi says.

Of the partner who has no clue what's going on, he adds: "Either they trust that their spouse has everything under control, or they just don't care to know, preferring to keep their head in the sand."

So if you've been ignoring red flags for a while, maybe you need to accept some responsibility for what's happened as well.

As April Masini, online advice columnist at AskApril.com, says, "What most people consider sabotage doesn't usually happen in a vacuum. And if you say it happened behind your back, ask yourself if you turned your back."

She says that if you've been willfully ignoring a husband or wife's "questionable financial moves, it's unfair to call it sabotage. Both spouses have a responsibility to stay informed."

Ban your partner from paying the bills. Maybe your hair is sand-free, thanks. Maybe you haven't ignored anything. Maybe your significant other has a real problem with money, but is otherwise your soul mate (or close enough).

Then it may be time to take charge, completely. Some couples do it.

Betsy Pass, an operations coordinator at TrueWealth LLC, a wealth management firm in Atlanta, says that a co-worker had a client implement an envelope policy. "The spouse received a monthly cash allowance that was kept in an envelope; whenever the allowance was spent, that was it until the next month. Surprisingly, the spouse liked this method because he or she knew the exact amount of money he or she could spend and plan accordingly," Pass says.

Gary Borowiec, a financial advisor at Atlas Advisory Group in New York City, has a client whose husband gambled, and 17 years ago, the wife ultimately had to take over the finances. Today, the husband still attends Gamblers Anonymous and is a highly respected professional at a great company, Borowiec says.

"Only a handful of people ever knew what happened," Borowiec adds.

"The key is to identify the problem, get help for the addict, and then take care of the financial damage as soon as possible," says George Guerin, a certified financial planner in Denver, who has also worked with clients married to gamblers.

Communicate. If there's a theme in all of these steps, it's to talk to your spouse about your money problems – or his or her money problems.

Mathew Dahlberg, who owns the wealth management services company Main Street Investments, in Kansas City, Missouri, says he's seen his share of scenarios in which one partner is committing some sort of financial abuse with the household budget. He believes these problems can often be solved by talking things out and considering each other's point of view.

"I often advise couples that unless they get more in tune with one another's feelings toward money and their marriage, they will not continue to be married for much longer," Dahlberg says, adding that couples are often shocked to hear this from him, since he isn't a marriage counselor.

But he probably almost could be. At least, you can't argue with his logic when he says that while talking things over is crucial, it's easier said than done, and it can take time to sort through everything.

"The communication problems in these [types of] cases are more deeply rooted," Dahlberg says. "There can be years of layers of misunderstandings, misconstrued intentions and ultimately resentment that needs to be peeled away and discussed."
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