Wedding season is officially in full swing, and couples everywhere are combining lives — bringing together their families, homes and sometimes even their bank accounts.
One of the hardest parts of a marriage or any other type of long-term relationship is managing the money: The guilt or worry that comes with spending money that's no longer “yours,” but “ours”; the questions about why this month’s Visa bill is sky-high; and the resentment you feel when your partner comes home with a new outfit that was paid for, in part, by your paycheck.
So what do you do when your partner is a spender and you're a saver? When your spouse’s idea of a long-term goal is saving for next summer’s vacation, not the kids’ college tuition? Or when you make the maximum contribution to your 401(k) and still toss and turn at night worrying about your retirement, while your partner sleeps soundly without a retirement plan at all?
It’s a sticky situation, no doubt about it. That's why “The Big Payoff: 8 Steps Couples Can Take to Make the Most of Their Money — and Live Richly Ever After,” (Collins) a new book by Sharon Epperson, a CNBC correspondent, really hit home with me.
“Payoff” examines key financial points you and your partner need to be in agreement on:
Keep separate accounts
There are more than a few benefits of a three-pot system, in which you each have an account and then share a house account for joint expenses, but mainly it helps eliminate feelings of guilt and resentment. It also lets you each have a hand in the daily finances. And, if the relationship takes a turn for the worst, you each have money in your own name.
Setting up a system like this is simple: Agree to deposit a certain amount (if your salaries are comparable) or percentage (if one partner makes a good deal more) into the shared account each pay period. The rest goes into your individual accounts.
Set a budget, together
As a couple, you have to get your priorities in line. Epperson and her husband sat down and agreed on what percentage of their income would go toward the things that are important to them. Her advice? Make sure you’re divvying up money that you can actually spend.
“I think the hardest part is for people to realize that your budget is not to be based on your full paycheck. It should be calculated after you’ve already taken money out for your savings,” says Epperson. Determine what your take-home pay is each month, then subtract about 10 percent for contributions toward savings. That leaves you with money you can throw toward things like transportation, debt, and mortgage or rent payments.
Major steps like buying a house, having children and retiring all play out better when you’ve taken the time to plan for them in advance.
“What I think is so important is to sit back and plan so you can lead your life a little more calmly,” explains Epperson. “When you have a game plan, you have a cushion, and with that comes a lot of peace of mind.” Talk about both your short-term goals (like that summer vacation), and your long-term goals (like retirement), and make sure you both have a similar picture of the future. And don’t forget to put some “just in case” money in a savings account that you can access in a pinch. There are some things, like layoffs or injuries, that just can’t be planned for.
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Live within your means
It might sound simple, but I don’t just mean freezing the charge card in a block of ice. It’s easy to get in over your head, especially when it comes to housing.
If you’re ready to buy, and you’ve run all the numbers, go back over them and see if you’re missing anything. Did you account for lawn care? Taxes? The cost of living in that area? People too often forget to run this side of the equation, and end up struggling to meet the expenses that come with home ownership. The stress of this can put a real strain on any marriage. If you have to make sacrifices to make ends meet, be sure both partners are on board.
Talk about it
You can easily eliminate the problem of an insanely high credit card bill or an embarrassing bounced check by keeping each other informed of major expenditures.
It’s up to you to define “major,” but don’t let problems fester until it’s too late. If you’re angry about something, no matter how trivial, hash it out — but do it calmly. If that’s a goal deemed unachievable, enlist the help of a financial planner or adviser. Epperson and her husband did.
“One of the things that came out of that meeting was real goals. Our goals were really just immediate, and having an initial meeting forced us to start talking,” she explains. A good adviser will offer an initial consultation for free, so you can go in, lay out the facts of your situation, and find out how he or she can help before you have to pay up.
With reporting by Arielle McGowen.
Jean Chatzky is an editor-at-large at “Money” magazine and serves as AOL's official Money Coach. She is the personal finance editor for NBC's "Today Show" and is also a columnist for Life magazine. She is the author of four books, including "Pay It Down! From Debt to Wealth on $10 a Day" (Portfolio, 2004). To find out more, visit her Web site, www.jeanchatzky.com.
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