According to the old song, love and marriage go together like a horse and carriage. But money and marriage? For many it's more like oil and water. Not exactly a winning combination. According to Gail Liberman and Alan Lavine, personal finance experts and married-to-each-other co-authors of "Love, Marriage & Money" (ISBN 0-7931-2661-4), the key to not fighting about money is to talk (not nag), talk (not preach), talk (really talk) about it.

If you ignore money problems, they won't go away, but your marriage might. "Money is the No. 1 cause of arguments," Liberman says. And, according to Lavine, money issues cause half of divorces.

Whether money problems relate to credit, budgeting, or a saver partnered with a spender, you can point the finger of blame most justly at lack of communication. "People don't realize that festering problems in marriages often relate to money and the attitudes people have about it," Liberman says. These attitudes might be deeply ingrained: If you were raised in a poor family, worrying about money may be the norm. If you were raised as a spender, your natural tendency is to keep on buying, regardless of the checkbook balance.

Poor money management is the No. 1 problem that brings people to the Consumer Credit Counseling Service of Olympia-South Sound in Tacoma, Wash., according to counselor Yvonne Starks. "A lot of people don't have budgets--they just go from one payday to the next." The need by some for immediate gratification just adds fuel to this already-raging fire.
      People don't realize
      that festering problems
      in marriages often
      relate to money and
      the attitudes people
      have about it.

Keep financial-
related documents
in a central place,
equally accessible
to both partners.

Talking the talk
"It's very important when people start to get involved that the subject of money be addressed," says Liberman. "Talking about it may help your understanding and diffuse potential arguments later on." If a couple is contemplating marriage, Liberman urges them to go one step further. "Get your credit reports so you know in advance if one of you has problems." Sound scary? Not as scary as going in blind. If you can't resolve money issues before the wedding, chances are things won't be any too rosy after the honeymoon (especially if you charged it all). Here are some guidelines:

Get organized. In order to communicate, you have to be able to find what you need to discuss. Lavine advises couples to keep financial-related documents in a central place, equally accessible to both partners. Important papers should be in a fire-safe box. It's OK to split up financial duties, as long as the other spouse is aware of what's going on and understands why decisions and choices were made.

Neutralize conflict. Before you start talking about money, Lavine says first check to see if it's a good time to talk. If one spouse has had a bad day, don't make it worse by talking about money concerns. When you do talk, Liberman suggests communicating from a "feelings" point of view. Say "I feel bad when this happens," instead of, for example, "You stupid jerk."

Get moving. "Because men tend to work things out in action," says Lavine, "going for a walk can be a good time to discuss a plan of action. Or go to a local seminar that can help loosen you both up."

Agree to disagree. Where there's talk about money, there always are disagreements, Lavine says. "Communicate that you understand the viewpoint, but say you don't agree with it." This allows the lines of communication to stay open for future discussions.

  • Set goals. Do you want to get out of debt? Buy a house? Save for college? Write down your goals. Put them in priority order. Then plan your strategy.
  • Agree not to sabotage each other. You're in this together, so don't use money as a weapon or punishment. If one partner keeps dipping into the savings account, consider opening a dual-signature account. Before either partner can withdraw money, the couple has to first discuss it. "It's easier to avoid it and let the money sit," says Starks.
  • Factor in some fun. No matter how strict your budget, be sure to allow for some fun money. According to Starks, people need more than just working and paying the bills. "If couples don't have money for some fun, they're going to fail." Even having dinner out once a month can make the struggle more bearable. And, once you've come up with a workable saving and spending strategy, plan something you both enjoy as a reward for all your hard work.
"We each keep our own checking account so that each of us can buy, or not buy, what we want," says Liberman. "We also maintain a joint checking account to handle joint expenses."

Walking the talk
Learning to communicate and setting your goals is an ongoing process. So is changing some behaviors. Here are some things to shoot for:

  • Track your spending. "People should call a halt to their everyday spending and start to write things down," says Liberman. Once you see where your money is going, you can make more-informed choices on how (and if) to spend it. If you find you're spending $25 a month on cappuccinos, maybe you can reroute the money into a savings account.
  • Plan to save. Starks encourages her clients to start a savings account to cover such expenses as clothes, Christmas, and insurance. If you have automatic deposit of your check, use payroll deduction to save a set amount of money each payday. "Even if you don't have a lot of money, try to start saving," says Liberman.
  • Build an emergency fund. Aim toward building an emergency fund equal to three to six months' living expenses in a readily accessible savings or money market account at your credit union. Only withdraw money to cover unexpected emergencies caused by illness or unemployment. Replenish the account as soon as possible.
  • Control your credit and your debt. Experts advise that you limit your debt payments, excluding your mortgage, to no more than 10% to 15% of your take-home pay. Strive to pay off or reduce your debts (especially those with high interest rates) by paying more than the minimum monthly charge. Once you're debt free, redirect those payments to build your savings accounts.
  • Review your insurance coverage. The purpose of buying insurance is to protect yourself and your family in times of need. Make it part of your yearly plan to jointly review your health, life, disability, homeowners, auto, and personal liability policies to make sure you're both sufficiently covered.
  • Invest in living happily ever after. Once everything else is covered, it's time to start focusing on investing in your future. Keep money for short-term goals (vacations, cars, house) in a savings or money market account at your credit union. Consider investing money for long-term goals (college, retirement) where it can grow, such as in stocks or stock mutual funds.
       If you're considering
      marriage, get and
      share your credit
      reports so you know
      in advance if one
      of you has problems.


How to Communicate

Looking to compromise on a money matter without a full-fledged fight?
  • Only one person may talk at a time.
  • State exactly what you want--clearly.
  • Listen carefully to the response.
  • Repeat back what you think you heard your spouse or partner say.
  • No name-calling.
  • Make your points by using the words "I feel" and "I need," rather than putting down your partner.
  • Say what you agree with.
  • Say what you disagree with.
  • Take turns figuring out ways to compromise.
Source: "Love, Marriage & Money"

©1998 Credit Union National Association, Inc.