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Question from a “frustrated and angry” reader named Nicole: My husband and I have been married for nine years. In that time we have not been able to save one penny. He insists on travelling each year to visit his mother overseas. He has four maxed-out credit cards and some debt in collections. I’ve have asked him to let me control the money to make sure everything gets paid and we save, but he refuses. He keeps telling me this is the year we’re going to buy a house and stop paying rent but I don’t believe him any more.

How can we get on track with a savings plan? How much should we have saved by the age of 40? How do we distribute our earnings that we make? I make about $3,600 a month after tax and he makes $2,400 a month, on average.

Answer from Shannon Lee Simmons, a financial planner and founder of The New School of Finance in Toronto.: As a financial planner, I hear this a whole lot – that two partners aren’t on the same page financially and are not working together. Let me answer your direct questions first and we will get to the larger issues of teamwork later.

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Shannon Lee Simmons is the author of the book Worry-Free Money: The Guilt-Free Approach to Managing Your Money and Your Life.

How much should you have saved by the age of 40?

You may not like this answer: As much as you were able to.

Typically the hardest financial years for families are when the parents are between the ages of 25 and 45. Those are the decades that include weddings, jobs and career changes, sometimes unplanned, buying cars and potentially a home, maybe there are kids, parental leaves and daycare. These are usually the most expensive years and people haven’t hit their peak earnings years yet. Those who start off with post-secondary school debt will be paying that off during their twenties and perhaps into their thirties.

All things considered, sometimes the goal is to just break even during this time, let alone to start saving for things like retirement. I don’t like to give specific amounts because that makes people feel like failures. In addition, I see debt repayment – above the minimum required – as a form of “retirement” savings because that’s a financial win in the long-run. My point is that there is no magic amount. I’d say, the best goal is to try to be consumer debt-free by the time you’re 40 (excluding mortgage or necessary car loan) so that the 25 years after that you can put the money that used to go to debt toward retirement. So focus on debt first.

How should we distribute our earnings?

Great question. The answer is equitably, not equally.

Step 1: Add up all the fixed cost of living and shared savings: rent/mortgage, utilities, cable, internet, phones, minimum debt payments, etc. – the things you must pay each month whether you like it or not. For savings, add the money that you want to put toward debt or toward another savings goal. Let’s say your rent was $1,500, utilities $200, $100 for cable/internet and $500 for minimum debt payments and $600 in savings to go to paying down debt. Your fixed monthly expenses plus savings would be $2,900.

Step 2: Add up your shared variable expenses: Groceries, gas, takeout, etc. Let’s say yours worked out to $1,100. So $600 for groceries, $200 for gas and $300 for takeout/dining out. What’s left over should be money that each of you can spend on your own personal variable spending.

Step 3: Split your fixed expenses and shared variable expenses equitably (not equally).

The total monthly after-tax income in your home is $6,000 ($2,400 plus $3,600). Your income is 60 per cent of that ($3,600 of $6,000) and your partner’s is 40 per cent ($2,400 of $6,000).

You’d pay 60 per cent of the fixed expenses and shared variable and your partner would pay 40 per cent. Keep in mind, this is ideal from a household financial planning perspective but there may be some family law solutions you may want to work out with a lawyer if you’re paying down debt that isn’t yours.

In our example, you’d pay $1,740 (60 per cent of $2,900) to the fixed expenses and $660 (60 per cent of $1,100) to the shared variable expenses. Your partner would pay $1,160 (40 per cent of $2,900) to the fixed expenses and $440 (40 per cent of $1,100) to the shared variable expenses.

This would leave you with $1,200 ($3,600 minus $1,740 minus $660) for personal variable spending money or savings and your partner would have $800 ($2,400 minus $1,160 minus $440).

This is fair and because you’re both paying the shared variable expenses, it doesn’t matter who picks up milk at the grocery store, the tab at the dinner restaurant or puts gas in the car.

How to get your partner motivated to save?

Sometimes people don’t save because they truly don’t have enough money to do so. The first thing I’d do is make sure the split of the bills is equitable – as opposed to equal – and that you’re sharing the cost of the shared variable expenses as well. Second, I’d think about sitting down with an unbiased third party (such as an advice-only financial planner) to work out what you could and could not afford to do as far as a purchasing a home goes. If that’s your partner’s major motivation, perhaps seeing what could be possible if he saved more would be very motivating. Or, perhaps seeing that his dream of home ownership is far away due to current spending habits could help to curtail the spending and boost motivation. Either way, a third party could probably provide you both with clarity, perspective and support in a way that doesn’t feel like the same conversation you’ve been having for some time.

Sharing finances with another person can be tricky to navigate. The best thing to do is to keep having honest and open conversations with each other and get an unbiased third party to help you make a plan.

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