When Teri and Phil came into the counselor's office, they were in crisis.

They'd brought debt into their marriage, but had never had a handle on how to reduce it. Now they were spending several hundred dollars a month more than they made. Not having a budget, they didn't even know where their money was going. They didn't have enough cash to do anything for themselves or their three children.

As a result, their marriage was in trouble. They barely spoke to each other.

Knowing how much you can spend is vital to the health of your relationship as well as your bank account. But deciding how much that is may not be a simple matter.  

For one thing, people enter marriage with different patterns of spending, saving, and giving. Trying to merge two systems often leads to conflict. Here are examples:

  • Angie is perfectly comfortable charging large amounts of money -- and letting charges accrue for months or years at a time. Garth prefers not to charge anything -- or at least to pay off the entire account at the end of each month.
  • Karl and Trina grew up in families that took different positions on whether it's okay for Christians to borrow money. Karl believes it's fine to take out a loan for a car. Trina doesn't agree; she thinks cars should be paid for with cash.

You and your spouse need to agree on your spending habits, which means coming up with a plan of compromise that you're both comfortable with.

How can you do that?

Some couples simply look around at their friends and neighbors, then base their outgo on what they think other people are spending. But in our materialistic culture, keeping up with the Joneses is a great way to get yourself in trouble financially. Instead, take a look at these five guidelines to consider when deciding how much to spend:

1. Always spend less than you make. This could be 80 percent of your take-home pay. Or, if you really want to be cautious, try 70 percent.

What happens to the remaining money? If you're spending 80 percent, put 10 percent in your tithe and 10 percent into savings and retirement. If you decide to spend 70 percent, put 10 percent into tithe, 10 percent into savings, and 10 percent into retirement.

Why not spend it all? Psalm 24:1 says, "The earth is the LORD's, and everything in it." When we recognize this, we understand that none of "our" money is really ours. God entrusts it to us to use as stewards. Being good guardians of those funds includes giving a portion back to God and using a portion to prepare for the future.

2. Establish a budget. This will help you consistently spend less than you make. Try basing it on a three-month average of your expenses.

To begin, find out exactly what you’re spending and where. Many couples have found it works for each spouse to keep a notepad or extra checking account register handy so that each transaction can be written down. At the end of the week or month, compare your two records. Use the average of what you’re spending in each area.

Don’t be surprised if this is an eye-opening – even unsettling – experience. You may find that you’re spending far more in a particular area than you thought.

The two of you may need to reconsider your priorities. Spending $1.50 a day on a cup of coffee and $6 on lunch, for instance, really adds up over the long haul. You might agree to reallocate this money to another category.

3. Set limits and stick to them. Once you’ve established your budget, it’s time to implement it.

Let’s say you’re overspending in one category by $50. That money has to come from somewhere. Look in your other categories and get the money from there.

The goal is to stay within your total budget. You may want to build in a “Miscellaneous” category or a cushion to cover overspending or unforeseen expenses.