Money matters matter in a marriage


You like the same kind of movies, the same restaurants, th same stores, even the same music.

Things are going so well that the M-word -- marriage -- has started to come up.

But before you pop the big question -- or answer it -- there's probably one more M-word to ponder: money.

"Are we compatible financially?" It is an issue many fail to fathom before taking the plunge.

"We find that most people who have problems in relationships also have money problems," said James Frannea, director of Consumer Credit Counseling Services (CCCS) of Orange County, Calif. "One usually leads to the other."

Some money troubles result simply from feelings that are nuances of human nature. Many couples, for example, are attracted to each other because they are opposites in the personality department. While that might make for great excitement and romance, it doesn't always make for sweet music financially. Experts on money and relationships suggest you take stock of the following issues:

* Know yourself. Are you a saver or a spender? Can you set aside money for big-ticket purchases, or do you have to have something right away even if it means charging it?

Some people prefer a frugal lifestyle and like to donate to charities, while others like to eat, dress and travel in style.

You can't begin to evaluate fully how your potential spouse views money if you're not aware of your own feelings about it. If you're not sure of your spending habits -- or worse, you don't want to face up to them -- the National Center for Financial Education (NCFE) has a questionnaire that can help.

* Know your mate. "People won't tell you the truth about how they view finances," said Virginia Foster, author of "The Quest for Love and Money" and a Santa Ana, Calif., marriage counselor. "You have to look at what they do, not what they say."

That means paying close attention to spending habits. Does he talk about saving money, buying a house and investing, but drive a sports car, wear expensive suits and eat in fancy restaurants on a $40,000 annual salary?

Family background is another good indicator. Are her parents hard-working and thrifty, or conspicuous consumers who live beyond their means? Attitudes about money are formed at home and are difficult to change without a lot of hard work.

* Talk about money. "Communication is the absolute key to financial success with couples," said Paul Richard, director of the NCFE. "It doesn't matter if you're newlyweds, about-to-be-weds or folks who've been together an awful long time."

An important first step before marriage: "It's a good idea to bare absolutely all debts and know exactly where your potential spouse stands on paper," Ms. Foster said.

Obviously, an unwillingness to do so is not a good sign. Unfortunately, talking about money is the most difficult thing for many people to do. "We'll talk about our sex lives before we'll talk about our financial affairs," said Vickie Cowell, education director of CCC.

The first step is to make discussion a priority. You may want to set aside one hour or two each month to work on the family budget and talk about longer-term goals, Ms. Cowell said.

* Learn to compromise. Just as you consolidate household items such as furniture, cookware and bath towels, you also need to merge your values about money.

And compromise is the best way to go. If you're used to saving 10 percent of each paycheck, but he doesn't save any, settle on each of you saving 5 percent for starters. And set a goal of increasing that amount over time.

Also, work off each other's strengths and weaknesses. If one of you is better at record-keeping, let that person write out the checks for the monthly bills. The more time you spend solving these issues now, the less time you'll spend arguing about them later.

* Share responsibility. This is another critical area, says Dr. George Tucker, a Newport Beach, Calif., psychologist.

"Even in couples where the husband and wife are making the same amount of money, men seem to feel the onus of responsibility for things," Dr. Tucker said. "When things are going poorly, oftentimes it becomes the man's fault."

Most spats about money escalate because the partners blame each other for their woes, rather than working together to solve them.

* Establish a financial plan. The best way to begin life together is to get the money matters down on paper. That means setting up a monthly budget, establishing a regular savings plan, drafting a list of goals and detailing how you plan to achieve them.

Don't feel strange if you don't want to combine some of your financial affairs. You may want to explore maintaining separate checking and savings accounts and even credit cards. But keep an eye out for fees. Maintaining separate accounts can be expensive.

Along the way, don't forget the little things, such as consolidating your auto insurance and health-care benefits where you can, and changing beneficiaries on life-insurance policies.

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