Top Arguments: Money & Budgeting for Neurodiverse Couples

This is part of a longitudinal series covering the top causes of arguments in marriages.  Because neurodiverse couples *probably* have many of the same favorite topics of disagreement – but with the special twist that comes with neurodiversity.

Today we’ll talk about money.

While it’s possible to have any number of arguments about money, in my experience most people with autism fall into one of two groups, which leads to one of two types of money arguments.  

Here are the topics we’re covering today:

Joint, Separate, or Both?  Let’s talk about what’s fair.

Before we talk about the two main types of money struggles neurodiverse couples tend to have, let’s talk about joint accounts, separate accounts, or both.  Below we’ll outline what we’ve seen work best for the couples we know. But regardless of how you manage, make sure you’re fair. Fair does NOT mean splitting the money 50/50.  Fair doesn’t even mean going off a percentage of income (for example, if Partner A earns 60% of the total family income and Partner B earns 40% then Partner A pays 60% of the bills and Partner B pays 40% of the bills).  

Fair means that both partners have the same amount of money in their retirement accounts.  You’ll both be old and you’ll both need to survive.  Fair means that if you have a child with special needs, that child has a separate trust fund so that neither parent is financially burdened with the child’s care if you end up divorcing later in life. Fair means that if one partner earns less because they are devoting more time to housework, childcare, or other family responsibilities, then they get some sort of credit for the unpaid labor when deciding how to allocate funds.  Fair means that if one person gets to spend a lot of money on a special interest, the other person gets the same amount of money to spend on whatever they want (even if it seems silly to their partner).  Fair means that money used to provide for the household or children does NOT come out of discretionary money from the neurotypical partner just because it’s the neurotypical partner who cares more about those things. 

Don’t Focus too Much on Fair

So after the paragraph above about what’s fair financially, I’m going to add here that it’s important to not get too hung up on what’s fair.  We’ve found it useful to use concepts like Negabucks useful for giving credit to Tim for fixing the dishwasher and Robin for repairing the kids’ clothes.  But ultimately, keeping score is unhealthy for a relationship.  It’s more important that it feels fair than that it be fair.  John Gottman (relationship researcher) found that in a heterosexual relationship, the wife’s sense of the division of labor being fair had a significant impact on the overall happiness of the relationship and quality of the sex life.  We imagine it’s similar with money – it needs to feel fair.

The Number Crunchers

Some people with autism are extremely good with numbers.  They remember to the penny what something was supposed to cost and when they get to the register and it’s the wrong amount, they argue with the checker…and win.  These Aspies tend to be more in control of the budget because they know exactly how much was spent on every item and in every category.  But this can lead to problems because their partner feels squelched by the detailed surveillance.  Even if an Aspie doesn’t intend to control their partner, to neurotypicals, being asked detailed questions about what they spent can feel like criticism.

The easiest solution to this is to have a separate account for the neurotypical (or less number-saavy Aspie if you’re both on the spectrum) with discretionary money.  The amount should depend on what this partner is responsible for.  If the partner needing a little financial freedom is responsible for grocery shopping, the discretionary money should include the grocery money for the month PLUS additional money to be spent however they choose, with the amount dependent on your overall income.  When we were in poverty after Robin’s strokes, we each got $5 a month to go wild.  But if you’re earning $6000 a month, the discretionary amount needs to be a lot more than $5 in order to feel fair!

The Zen Spenders

Some people with autism are very fuzzy on numbers.  They trust that when they go to buy something, the money will be there and that the price is reasonable.  It can be very confusing to the partner of the Zen Spender because most Zen Spenders aren’t splurging on expensive treats, they are just continually leaking dollars.  And just like a drippy faucet can waste thousands of gallons of water, a Zen Spender can spend thousands of dollars on small purchases that add up over time.

Tim is in the Zen Spender category. We spent many years trying to find a solution and finally realized that we would be much happier if he had a debit card for a separate account with his discretionary money. That way, it would decline if there was no money available. He still has a debit card to the family account, but he only uses it when requested by Robin.  Robin keeps track of the budget and transfers him money based on how much we have.  We have had zero money fights since we switched to this system.  Robin worried that Tim would feel like he was giving up control but in fact, Tim felt like he was finally free from Robin’s constant haranguing about the budget.

Have a Playbook

We’ve found that in areas where we don’t see eye to eye, it’s very helpful to have an outside playbook as the middle path we are both willing to follow.  Then when we’re stuck in gridlock, we can go to that playbook and see if we can both accept its advice.  I’d recommend each partner read a few financial/budgeting books and websites and find one or two that they think are reasonable, and then see what your significant other thinks.  Try to find something outside of the two of you that you can both generally agree on.  Remember, this doesn’t mean you HAVE to follow this playbook.  Just that you can if you want to.  

The Budget Software We’ve Liked Best

The other question that comes up over and over is what budgeting software works best for Aspies.  We’ve tried several and we’ve found that for us, YNAB provides the best balance between flexibility and structure.  Their philosophy of focusing on your own priorities rather than someone else’s is also important for people who march to their own drum.  We find that a lot of financial folks think that everyone needs the same goals and should spend and save in the same ways.  But different families have different needs.  Our medical bills are unusually high (usually coming in just under the cut off to actually take them off our taxes, which is so annoying!)  We also prioritize spending on our kids’ interests because we’re strong believers in extracurriculars being the key to their development and therefore future happiness.  

Here is our affiliate link for YNAB and if you decide to use YNAB via this link, we get one free month per new subscriber.  Even if you don’t use their program, they have excellent free budgeting classes that can help get you both on the same page.  They also have a great book explaining the concepts for people who prefer that learning method.

Printable Contract

Today’s printable is a contract to read, fill out, and sign together.  It has blanks for formalizing your priorities and resources so that you can refer back to it later.  We use contracts frequently in our marriage so that we’re on the same page in future discussions.

Get this marriage-saving printable for only $4.99/month!

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