If your marriage is anything like mine, you've done all kinds of things to nurture the relationship, you prioritize date night, you schedule a session with a therapist when necessary, and you've read The Five Love Languages. Maybe you've made a date of Happy Hour and a trip to Fascinations. I recommend all of these tactics. But there's another strategy I endorse, one that I've never read in any book or on any website. It's one my husband and I started using before we had kids, and before we were even engaged.
It's free. It's accessible.
It's the spreadsheet.
When I was 29, I moved across the country with everything I could fit in my Jetta and a very tenuous job offer. Within two weeks, the job fell through. During those same two weeks, I met Dan, who would later become my husband.
For the first time in my life, I was in love, but I couldn't take a job in another city because that would mean leaving Dan. Meanwhile, I was tearing through my savings like a toddler on a squeezie pouch bender. So, I did what any professional adult would do.
I asked my parents for money.
Dan was horrified, (rightfully so) and offered another solution – a spreadsheet. Somehow, I'd made it through college and graduate school without understanding how to use Excel. First, he showed me how to create columns and rows and enter formulas. Next, I had to fill in all the blanks. Being Jewish, this is the closest I'll ever get to Confession.
When we went over income, I had to explain I hadn't been working on days I'd been invited skiing, Saturdays, Sundays, or on short notice. When we reviewed my recent expenditures, I revealed my compulsion to buy an adorable, new pink hat (it was on super sale), why I deserved the lattes I bought on the way to work (I did work, sometimes), and why I needed Nordic race skis – in case I entered a cross-country ski race. Nearly a decade later, I still haven't done a ski race.
Sharing everything about my finances – including my childish belief that my parents would always be there to bail me out – made me feel extremely vulnerable. It also created an opportunity for Dan to understand me better and to help me get my act together. Ultimately, I gained control of my financial life and saved twelve thousand dollars in one year – a quarter of my income – toward the down payment on the house we bought just before our wedding.
When we moved in together, we merged our finances. Quickly, we realized we had a major problem. I earned less and spent more. My husband, on the other hand, earns more and spends less. While money is a loaded topic for many couples, our particular dynamic escalated the tension acutely.
Our love nest was awash in fear: my fear of feeling guilty about spending money or feeling deprived, and his fear that I'd spend our entire mortgage on cute hats and espresso drinks.
I wondered why my parents never seemed to fight about money. Married for over forty years, I've heard them argue about nearly everything else. The graph below demonstrates my theory that couples who fall on the green line (such as my parents) have fewer tensions around money than couples who fall on the red line (like Dan and me). As shown, my father is the higher earning, higher spending partner, while my mother earns less and spends less.
I worried Dan and I were destined to argue about money forever, but the spreadsheet saved the day, once again.
On the first Sunday of every month, we diligently sat down with our spreadsheet to map out our budget, our projected earnings, fixed expenses, and variable expenses. For years, we used this system to ensure that we were on the same page about our finances, that we were spending our money intentionally, and that neither of us felt anxious or trapped. Meanwhile, when we had concerns, we had a chance to discuss them.
Everything was great… until we needed a new spreadsheet. Five years and two kids later, on a bright Sunday morning, we were expecting friends for brunch. While I raced to prep food, clear piles of paper, and return rogue dolls to the toy basket, Dan scrolled through Twitter with his feet up on the couch. I paused my cleaning frenzy intermittently to give him the stink eye and a task.
As the potatoes browned and the frittata baked, our mutual resentment grew. I was sick of watching him relax when the trash needed to go out. He was tired of my demands. Finally, he took the kids for a walk, leaving me alone with breakfast and my rage.
I texted my sister.
“IS IT NORMAL TO WANT TO MURDER TO YOUR HUSBAND WHEN YOU'RE HAVING COMPANY??"
Thankfully, she clearly saw what I couldn't; that my husband and I lacked a shared set of expectations. Once our friends left, the kids were napping, and our tempers had cooled, I broached the topic. My husband acknowledged my demands felt never-ending. I explained I felt he wasn't pulling his weight.
Again, a spreadsheet saved the day. Within minutes of our conversation, my husband emailed me a Google Spreadsheet titled “Guest Cleanup Tasks." It lists every task we need to do before hosting company, organized by room. Over a year later, we pull it up every time we host a gathering.
I love that we have a common understanding of what needs to be done and that Dan now takes an active part in completing some of those tasks. He much prefers consulting the list to find a task, to being bossed around by me. This simple spreadsheet has taken most of the stress out of entertaining.
Clearly, I am a huge fan of spreadsheets in my marriage. But it's not really about the spreadsheet. A spreadsheet is just a vehicle through which to gain insight into your own values and the values of your partner. A spreadsheet is a means of creating dialogue – and ultimately, understanding – one of the cornerstones of a loving relationship.
As the Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh said, “Understanding is love's other name. If you don't understand, you can't love." I would venture to add, “If you haven't done a ski race, don't buy the fancy skis."