For Richer, For Poorer

Six conversations to have with your mate to make sure finances don’t ruin the romance



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If you think talking about money is uncomfortable, you’re in good company. A 2012 survey by the American Institute of CPAs showed that 55 percent of adults surveyed who are married or cohabiting do not devote regular time to talking about finances. But these noncommunicators also argue an average of three times a month about financial issues, making it the most heated topic in relationships— more so than other common subjects like children and work. Here are six conversations to have with your sweetie before you tie the knot—and unite your credit scores, for better or for worse.

 

Debt Strategy

You and your parents worked really hard to get you through college without student loans. They may have paid for college, or maybe you worked two jobs or had financial aid. But what if your husband wasn’t so lucky? Or what if he chose student loans and a fancier college? It’s his debt, his problem, right?

Wrong. Perhaps his graduate degree is going to earn your family more income down the road. Or maybe his pricey alma mater won him some valuable contacts in the business world. If so, you just might benefit from those student loans too.

“The biggest problem I see is not having a strategy,” says Shay Prosser, a former financial adviser with Merrill Lynch and now CFO of Get It Together, which provides financial education for individuals and businesses. She recommends sitting down with credit reports as a first step. “This is your history in black and white, how you’ve paid your bills, how much debt you have, any student loans.” You and your partner can see your outstanding obligations and liabilities and form a strategy for saving and paying down debt together. Whether one person owes more or another makes more, Prosser suggests that financial balance works better if it’s the “family’s money” versus “your money and my money.”

 

Monetary Values

“Money is hard,” says marriage and family therapist Dr. Anne Hancock, founder of Charlotte’s Wellness Counseling Center. “Couples come in with financial issues, but really it’s a disconnect between people. People are willing to spend $50K on a wedding but never have a conversation about what they value.”

Hancock suggests discussing these questions with your significant other: What do you value? How will it determine how you as a couple will spend your money? Are you working and earning to make your family comfortable, to travel the world, to have extraordinary life experiences, to accumulate things? Then, examine your credit card statement together. Does it match your values?

If you said you value experiences yet up to your eyeballs in mortgage payments, that’s a potential disconnect. If you like to travel, it could be hard to justify that vacation spending to your partner if he or she prefers to spend money on a house and furniture. Not everyone can afford to do both. It’s up to you to decide if what you discover is a catalyst for change or merely a tool for self-awareness.

 

Spender Versus Saver

Whoever writes the family checks often gets labeled The Spender, which can be an unfair moniker. If you look closely, that money is going to Duke Energy or the landlord. A monthly meeting to look at the bills and payments can help dispel any finger-pointing, as does a frequent comparison of spending versus priorities.

Often, couples will have different ways of accomplishing the same thing. In Prosser’s home, her husband is The Not Spender. “He feels like if we spend as little as possi- ble, we are saving,” she says. She is a Saver, socking away 20 percent every month. “I don’t care if the checking account gets low at the end of the month, because I put some away and pay the bills early on. But if he saw a low balance, he’d freak out. It caused friction until we sat down and talked about it.”

“It’s really important to tackle money problems together,” says Hancock. “A lot of times, people get scared, because no one says, ‘It’s OK; here’s how we are going to deal with it.’”

 

Bringing Home tHe Bacon

“When we hire an employee, we go through [a candidate’s] skill sets and allocate tasks based on talent,” says Prosser. “In marriage, we forget to do that. In the U.S., it’s compounded, because somehow it tends to be the man’s job even if the woman is way better at it.”

If one person is really good with money, then by all means, let him or her take charge. But the responsibility should be based on skill, not gender, and monthly communica- tion is still essential. Even if you’re going to stay home with the kids, you’ll need to know what kind of budget to stick to and how it will affect your lifestyle. Partners offer support, and they respect each other as equal partners in managing money and keeping the ship afloat and on course.

 

Little White Lies

Have you ever told your partner that a new purse was on sale? That the greens fee was less than it was? Ever gotten out cash at the grocery store without disclosing that you have a little extra spending money? Do you have a hidden nest egg or some investments your spouse knows nothing about?

A recent study conducted by the National Endowment for Financial Education found that 58 percent of its 24,000 respondents say they conceal cash from their spouse, 30 percent hide bills, and 15 percent hide bank accounts. Just because lots of people are doing it doesn’t mean it’s not serious. Sixty-three percent of men and 70 percent of women agreed that being honest about money was as important as being monogamous. And 16 percent of couples that lost trust in their spouses’ financial honesty ultimately chose divorce.

“Full disclosure doesn’t mean you have to have a group meeting on every trip to Harris Teeter,” says Prosser. “But you do have to think in a businesslike manner and value each other’s opinion.”

Prosser recommends agreeing on a reasonable amount of play money for your budget, be it $100 a month or $1,000.

 

Don’t Assume Your Partner Will Change

If you’re just finding out about some steep credit debt, how do you know if it’s cause for alarm? “Look very hard at what kind of debt they have and what is their strategy for getting out of it,” advises Prosser. “Did they accumulate it before you even met? Is this spending a pattern? Has it happened before and someone had to bail him out?”

“You need full disclosure,” Hancock recommends. “A lot of people will ask for help by saying, ‘Pay off my debt.’ That’s not what I’m suggesting. But acknowledge that you have a problem and ask for support. Then the two of you can resolve to do it differently in the future.”

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