When my wife and I first got married we fell into the trap of “what’s for dinner tonight?” and “do we have enough money for this item?”, or “what are we doing this weekend/today/tonight?”. We would have these conversations everyday or at random times or worse never make time for them at all. We were finding that operating as a family with a newly combined budget, calendar, and goals was more complex than when we were just two individuals. To address this, we started having weekly family meetings. We designed these meetings to be a opportunity to discuss our family business in a more structured and efficient way.
Deciding to deviate from a normal consumption based lifestyle that is heavily marketed and promoted is hard for one person to do and becomes even more challenging with a family. If you think of planning for financial independence as a system where specific actions and choices have a huge impact on your future, adding additional people (spouse and kids) complicates it even further. One of the ways that we address this complexity is by communicating openly, planning, and sharing detailed information with each other primarily during a weekly family meeting. This is a time where we essentially run a formal business-style meeting to focus on to go over the “business” of our family. This may or may not work for your specific situation, but here are my suggestions for what works for us and what some may want to consider especially if you have a lot of complexity in your schedule or life.
Schedule the meeting
What has worked for us is a meeting we schedule once a week on Sunday before the new week starts. I suggest keeping the schedule consistent, don’t make it an impromptu event, and make it a priority. If you schedule it in advance, and make it a recurring meeting that meets on a consistent day and time, it is more likely you will stick with the meetings. Accomplishing complex planning or goal setting (such as financial independence) during casual unplanned conversations is typically not productive. It doesn’t mean you can’t do this stuff outside of the meeting times, but by taking care of most of the family issues during this time, it prevents the rest of your time together from being consumed by these types of discussions that can wear on you or get in the way of enjoying your time together. At first it may seem like adding a meeting to your schedule just gives you one more thing to do during your week, but I can personally assure you that the time you spend meeting is a great trade-off for the amount of time you will save by being better organized in your family affairs.
Set an agenda
One of the keys to any meeting if you want it to be organized and focused is to set an agenda. For some it may seem like this is too formal, but this will help you remember and stay focused on all of the items that need discussion and planning.
Some of our agenda items include financial updates, current budget status, meal planning for the week, scheduling and planning for major activities and trips, and a weekly action list of things that need to be done. Finances are a critical part of our discussion, but we have also tackled issues such as deciding to have children, choosing names for those children, home renovation projects, travel, and other topics that are important to talk about. The key is that none of these discussions were unplanned and we had time set aside to discuss these issues without distractions. Doing this during a formal meeting time also allows each of us time to prepare our points, arguments, and views with well thought-out support (and in some cases research or supporting documents). A final suggestion is to also start each meeting with a review of the past week to see how things are going and identify any areas that need adjustment or anything that presents a concern.
Find tools that work for you and make it formal
During the meeting you should take notes, update calendars, assign tasks, set menus, make shopping lists and make sure these items are easily accessible. There are a lot of options (including a lot that are free) that can help you with this process. For us we use a lot of Google products such as Google Calendars, Sheets, and Docs that are a part of Google Apps. You can use most of these tools for free, although we use Google Apps for Work since we also use Google for a lot of our business applications. Specifically, here are some of the things we use and how we use them:
Google Docs– For our agenda, proposals, and any longer text document. We share these is our Family folder on Google Drive so that we can all see, edit, and comment before, during, and after the meeting.
Google Sheets– Financials, budgets, and anything that can be conveyed by a spreadsheet including projects or anything that has a data component. I build our Financial Independence charts, countdowns, etc. with Google Sheets. We’ve also used it for things like prioritizing home repair/renovation projects, organizing and ranking potential baby names, and organizing travel or vacation details. I admit I still use Microsoft Excel for some of the more complex things I do relating to FI and money, but everything during our family meeting is usually shared on Google Sheets.
Google Calendars– We do all of our scheduling and activity planning using Google Calendars. We each have our own personal calendars and work calendars, and we also share a family calendar. The nice thing is that at anytime we have an idea of what each of us is doing, what activities are scheduled for our children, and we can see times are open for everyone to suggest a possible new activity or travel.
Remember the Milk – There are an endless number of task management applications and services available, this is just the one we have been using for years to manage our task lists. We have individual task list, shared family task lists, and business task lists on this service. I have tried other apps and services, but this one works the best for us (although I think I use RTM far more than my wife).
Out of Milk – This is a grocery list Android app that we use to create a shared shopping list. It allows you to enter in the name, size and quantity of what you need, and you can indicate right on the list if you have a coupon or any other notes. The app will also track what you have in your pantry, to help cut down on running out for a forgotten or used up item. We update the list throughout the week, but then review it and add to it as we meet and discuss our menu for the week.
Include children in the meeting once they are old enough (it is a family meeting after all)
Family meetings should include all family members, including children (when they are old enough). Our two year old doesn’t really have the capacity to discuss finances with us, but even at this age there are parts of the meeting she can contribute to especially for items related to her (such as activities she enjoyed this week). As she gets older she will be able to participate more, and I think it is important that finances, budgets, and plans are not kept secret from other family members.
Be democratic (everyone should be involved)
Sometimes meetings, especially in the corporate world, are simply an opportunity for one person to dominate and direct others on what they should doing. This is absolutely the wrong approach to our idea of a family meeting. Everyone should have the opportunity to be heard and voice their opinion on any item. Obviously there are some decisions that will need to be made by the adults only, but that doesn’t mean that the younger family members should be left out when they are old enough to understand what you are talking about. The meetings should be a chance for everyone to share and learn, and more importantly learn how to compromise on issues.
Meetings have helped our family significantly over the last few years. We benefit from having a planned menu each week which allows for more efficient grocery shopping, avoids the “what’s for dinner” issue, allows us to cross-reference our menu with the grocery store sales, and results in fewer “emergency” trips to the grocery store throughout the week. We also don’t surprise each other with major or serious topics when the other person is not prepared for the discussion. We are able to address the added complexity in our family (especially with schedule and finances) since we have children. Finally, when you are trying to do something “outside the norm” such as saving a large percentage of what you make so you can reach financial independence, you can tackle some of the complex issues associated with this during a family meeting.
All of these are just some guidelines we use to run our family meetings and examples of what we do during our meeting time. Many of these things should work for others, but you may need to modify some of these items based on your specific family situation. While we do focus on the “business” of the family, we maintain flexibility to change our approach and format as needed. As the kids start taking more active roles in the meeting our plan is to include activities that strengthen our family in addition to simply running a meeting.