Dear Penny: Will My Wife’s Reckless Spending Ruin My Retirement Plan?

A woman holds numerous shopping bags and gift boxes to show excessive spending.
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Dear Penny,

I'm a union worker making a decent wage. My wife is a school teacher with a second job on the weekends. We have separate checking accounts, and we have one together.

She spends so much at the grocery store and wherever else she spends money. She thinks that if we have an extra hundred dollars, she needs to spend it. 

I want to retire next year. I'm trying to save as much money as I can. She thinks I need to put all of my paycheck into the joint account, but I put a little over half in the account and try to save the rest. She has no idea how much I make. 

If I would put the whole thing into our checking, I know I wouldn’t be able to retire. She spends so much money, and I don't know what she spends it all on. It’s driving me crazy.  

My wife says it all goes toward bills, but she bought her daughter a newer car that we pay on every month. It's hurting our relationship. How can I get her to stop spending so much money?

-M.

Dear M.,

Maybe your wife is a reckless spendthrift. Or maybe she’s exhausted. I’d imagine that happens when you’re a teacher who works a part-time job on weekends while also doing the grocery shopping and paying the bills.

When you’re overwhelmed, you’re prone to making poor decisions about money. You may make more impulse purchases or spend more in exchange for convenience. It’s also harder to hunt for bargains when your energy is depleted. You only have so much brain space. So if you’re going to ask your wife to change her spending, think about whether you can lift some of that burden from her shoulders.

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It’s easier to rein in spending when you have a goal. “I want you to spend less so that I can retire next year” isn’t going to resonate with someone who’s working two jobs. What’s in this for your wife?

Approach your wife about your mutual financial goals. You want to retire soon, and I’m guessing she doesn’t want to work forever. Maybe a shorter-term goal for her would be to reduce expenses so she can quit her weekend job.

If you can agree on the big-picture goals, then you can discuss how to get there. This will require both of you to be honest about your finances: how much each of you earn and spend, as well as any debts you have. You need to go through several months’ worth of bank and credit card statements together so you can see how much goes to necessities vs. extras.

You may discover that your wife’s spending isn’t quite as out-of-control as you think, especially if she’s responsible for paying most bills. When one partner manages the family finances, it’s easy for the other one to ignore how much costs have risen.

If your wife truly does have a spending problem, it’s just as important that you work together. Maybe you could take over the bulk of bill-paying and shopping in the short term. Breaking a bad habit is easier when you give yourself less room to screw up.

I’m not sure whether you mention the car purchase as one example of your wife’s spending habits, or if the car payment alone is putting a strain on your budget. If it’s the latter, your wife should tell her daughter that she needs to make part of the payment. Otherwise, selling the car should be on the table.

Your wife may be resistant to talking money, particularly if she has a spending problem. Be honest with her. If you can’t talk openly about finances, your relationship is at risk.

Moving forward, you need to have some ground rules about money: You’ll review your expenses together at least once a month. Each of you gets a set amount to spend every month however you want. But you won’t go over your personal budgets without getting the other spouse’s OK.

Your wife may need to curb her spending habits. You may need to compromise some, too. If your savings are lacking, maybe you could aim to retire two or three years from now instead of next year. Or perhaps you could get a second job to get your savings back on track.

But don’t expect your wife to make big changes just so you can retire on your timeline. The ultimate goal here is financial security for you both.

Once you finally get your finances in order, you want to keep them that way. Here are several moves to make now.

Robin Hartill is a certified financial planner and a senior writer at The Penny Hoarder. Send your tricky money questions to [email protected].