How we turned a responsibility into an opportunity.

Money is one of the top sources of marital tension. According to a poll by a British legal firm, “money worries top the list of reasons why married couples split up, with one in five saying it was the biggest cause of marital strife.”

One study found that couples fight about other topics more often than they do about money. But couples in the study rated financial arguments as “more intense and significant.” In other words, it’s not necessarily the frequency of money arguments that causes problems, but the weight those arguments carry.

One antidote to money stress is creating a budget—something a lot of Americans don’t do. According to a 2013 Gallup poll, only 32 percent of Americans said they prepare a detailed written budget. A more recent study by U.S. Bank found that about 41 percent of people reported using a budget. Even with the increase, that’s still less than half of the population.

I’ve seen the power of budgeting at play in my own life. In the first few years of our marriage, my husband and I weren’t nearly as diligent with our budget as we should have been. That changed recently when we got serious about reaching some financial goals. The first step was renewing our commitment to following a written budget. And that step has made a huge difference—not only in our momentum, but in our relationship. Here are a few important ways budgeting has enriched our marriage.

Improves communication

Thanks to our budget, we’ve learned to talk about our money in a more calm, collected way. Because all of our income and expenses are documented, we’re able to focus on the facts about our finances, rather than our feelings. This helps keep conversations constructive and strategic. The data is in front of us, and we’re able to approach it as a team because we’ve set the spending parameters together.

According to a 2017 survey by Ramsey Solutions—the company headed by millionaire and money expert Dave Ramsey—regular communication about money goes hand-in-hand with healthy marriages. Couples who said they had a “great” marriage were almost twice as likely to talk about money as those whose marriages were “OK” or “in crisis.”

Of course, we don’t want money to dominate all of our discussions, so we’ve adopted some boundaries. Another Verily writer shared that she and her husband do weekly marriage meetings, and after trying them for ourselves, we found our budget discussions fit naturally into this time. Of course, if something pressing comes up outside of that meeting, we’ll talk about it. Other times, finances come up naturally in conversation, and that’s OK, too. The point is to make sure we’re not so hyper-focused on money that we stop talking about other things.

Builds trust

When sticking to a written budget, there’s no room for secrets. Every purchase is tracked in our bank account and on our budget spreadsheet. We trust each other to stick to the plan. And the longer we hold to that plan, the more our trust grows.

Even fun secrets, such as little surprises for each other, get documented somewhere—we just have to be a creative about doing so without ruining the surprise. When using cash, I can mark a cash withdrawal on the spreadsheet without giving away what it is for. It could also work to make a mental note and document it after the surprise is revealed.

There are plenty of memes and jokes out there about hiding purchases from a spouse, but “financial infidelity” is a very real problem. According to a survey from the National Endowment for Financial Education, “two in five (41 percent) of American adults who combine finances with a partner or spouse admit to committing financial deceptions against their loved one. The survey also finds that three quarters (75 percent) of adults say financial deceit has affected their relationship in some way.”

Thanks to our budget, our financial decisions are out in the open, and we trust each other to follow the rules we set together.

Provides freedom

It may sound strange, but having a budget gives us the freedom to spend. We don’t have to rationalize every single purchase; if it’s in the budget, it’s OK. For instance, if I see clothing for the kids that’s on sale, I don’t have to run the purchase by my husband because we have money set aside for clothing.

Our budget also keeps us from micromanaging each other’s purchases because we each have a designated amount of “fun money.” Each of us can spend that money on whatever we choose. So if I want to go buy some craft supplies and stop for an iced coffee on the way home, or if he wants to order a few books on Amazon, we have the freedom to do so. This money is also good for buying small surprises for each other. Even something as simple as a candy bar takes on new meaning when I know my husband used some of his fun money to buy it for me.

Rachel Cruze, daughter of Dave Ramsey and author of the book Love Your Life, Not Theirs, puts it this way: “The way you look at the budget is key. It’s not a bad word; it’s not a bad thing. If anything, it gives you the ability to live a great life.” She gives the example of going out to enjoy a nice meal because there is money set aside for that purpose. Of course, there are limits. “But when you have the money,” she adds, “You can spend without guilt.”

Allows us to dream

It’s easy to get discouraged when finances are tight, but knowing that we have a plan in place allows us to focus more on our dreams and less on our difficulties. Our budget gives us control over our money, so we don’t feel stuck in a rut. Talking about our goals and dreams helps us stay on target and manage our money more wisely.

It’s no surprise that dreaming like this is good for marriages. As the aforementioned study by Ramsey Solutions points out, “When couples get on the same page—through talking regularly, making money goals, and discussing dreams together—they build a strong foundation for their relationship. Working with each other (instead of against) reduces anxiety and fosters healthier relationships.”

Where to Begin

There are several different budgeting strategies and systems out there, but we like to use a zero-based budget. Basically, that means every dollar is used for a specific purpose. We like to have a little bit of a buffer in our checking account for unexpected non-emergency expenses, so some of our money is assigned to that category. The Federal Trade Commission has a simple worksheet for starting a budget.

One resource I find really interesting is the USDA’s monthly reports on the cost of food. The reports reflect the cost of healthy, home-cooked food at four different expense levels. When I wondered if we were overspending on groceries, a look at this data assured me that actually, we were far from doing so.

Accountability also helps in sticking to a budget, and being married means having a built-in accountability partner. Still, it can be useful to have outside support, too. Sometimes, that comes in the form of like-minded friends. For those working to pay off debt, the #debtfreecommunity online can be another source of support.

As for how to track expenses, we like to use a spreadsheet in Google Drive. Some people prefer to use a notebook or binder. There are also plenty of budgeting apps.

It might take you a few months to fine-tune your budget, and even then, it’s a good idea to make periodic adjustments. According to a budgeting guide from investing site The Motley Fool, “Your budget shouldn’t be the sort of thing you set and forget. Rather, think of it as a work in progress.”

Having a budget doesn’t mean we always manage our money perfectly, but it does help us make better decisions. And the longer we do it, the more I see that budgeting has not only helped strengthen our bank account, but also our marriage.