Money is a common cause of stress. For couples, that stress can double. So what are a husband and wife to do when finances become a problem?
Here is some advice from financial experts, as well as from a few couples who’ve learned to successfully manage their money together:
- Talk about money. While it might not be polite to discuss money in public, it’s a necessary topic in the privacy of your home. “Make this the year that you have a frank discussion about the money issues in your marriage,” suggests Eric Tyson, author of Let’s Get Real About Money! Profit from the Habits of the Best Personal Finance Managers. In addition to talking about dollars and cents, Tyson recommends discussing your feelings, attitudes and beliefs about money.
Too often, couples don’t discuss money until they have a problem, says Kristine McKinley, a certified financial planner and founder of Beacon Financial Advisors in Lee’s Summit, Mo. McKinley suggests having regular conversations about finances. “Monthly would be great,” she says. “If not that, at least a couple of times a year to make sure you’re on the same page and doing OK.”
- Understand each other’s money personality. “Some people want to live in the moment and be spontaneous with their money,” Tyson says. “Others want to just save, save, save.” When you live together, you have to figure out how to compromise between conflicting money personalities.
David Faust, 45, was a secret spender, and the habit nearly destroyed his marriage a decade ago as debt built up slowly but steadily. “Every time he got a raise, he just spent,” says his wife, Vandana, 44.
Mounting bills finally drove Vandana to file for divorce and start her own home-based accounting firm to build financial independence. The Hendersonville, Tenn. (pop. 40,620), couple managed to stay together, however, when they decided to work together to solve their financial crisis. It took three years to get out of debt, but now the Fausts talk regularly about money, something they never did before.
Financial planning can help both partners understand how much money needs to go toward debt or retirement savings each month. “Sometimes you have to see it on paper in black and white to really understand,” McKinley says. “That way there’s less chance for resentment.”
McKinley also suggests that couples build rewards into their financial plans. “When you pay off a credit card, take a weekend trip or buy a little something,” she says.
- Agree on accounts. Couples tend to fall into three categories when it comes to bank accounts and paying expenses: They open a joint checking account that they share equally; they have separate accounts, divide living expenses and each pays assigned bills; or they have a joint account to which each partner contributes to cover household costs, but maintain separate accounts for individual expenditures. Each way is fine as long as both partners agree on their strategy.
For Hector and Julie Garcia, of Buda, Texas (pop. 2,404), having separate accounts works best. “We don’t have any shared bank accounts,” says Julie, 41, a sales professional. “We’ve found it certainly reduces the fights we have about money.”
An accountant, Hector, 37, maintains a list of joint expenses, and whenever unexpected bills arise, they decide who pays what.
- Decide who’s in charge. Logistically, it makes sense for one spouse to handle the finances. But while one spouse pays the bills and monitors the checkbook balances, the other should not just be along for the ride.
“It’s a lot of responsibility for the spouse taking care of the finances,” McKinley says, noting that problems can arise. “The spouse who doesn’t have any knowledge or is not that active in the finances could be in big trouble if there’s a divorce or the spouse handling finances dies.”
McKinley recommends that, to achieve both marital and financial bliss, both husband and wife be involved in money management, with each having at least a basic knowledge of their financial issues.