Navigating marriage’s financial minefields

November 7, 2011

By Jason Alderman
As with all challenges in a marriage, often what starts as a small issue can fester and grow into a large problem, given enough time. It’s not surprising that after being together a few years, some couples realize that the financial quirks they initially found amusing or simply ignored in their spouse now dominate their marital disagreements. In fact, money issues tend to top the reasons for divorce.
If you’re having financial difficulties, long before they escalate step back and examine how and when you and your spouse discuss – or don’t discuss – your financial situation, and explore ways to ease the tension.
Put it on the calendar. You’re both busy and have probably divvied up the chores, including who pays the bills. But even if you completely agree on money matters, the family “accountant” should keep his or her spouse in the loop – if for no other reason than so they can easily take over managing the finances in an emergency.
Set up monthly or even weekly meetings to discuss things like bill payments, progress or setbacks regarding savings goals, budgeting for upcoming expenses (property taxes, insurance premiums, back-to-school supplies, etc.), and strategies for coping with unforeseen expenses (car repairs, emergency dental work, bailing out a family member, etc.)
Don’t postpone painful discussions. Say you accidentally bounce a check or miss a payment. Don’t wait until your next conversation to address it or try to hide the problem – you’ll only make matters worse and create an atmosphere of mistrust. Sometimes it’s best to rip off the bandage with one quick tug.
Be on the same page. When the news isn’t good – say your 401(k) balances tanked last quarter or one of you got laid off – communication is all the more important. Whether you need to temporarily tighten the budget or make a major life-altering decision like postponing retirement, talk it through and prepare to compromise so neither party becomes the bad guy.
Realign your goals. Couples often start out with one game plan but then life deals an unexpected hand and goals change. Periodically touch base on how you both feel about such major events as family size, home ownership, career changes, financing college for your kids (or yourselves), appetite for financial risk, and when and where you’ll retire.
Follow your budget. Some of the worst financial battles occur when one or both parties sabotage the family budget. If you don’t already have one, numerous free budgeting tools are available online. Check out the U.S. Financial Literacy and Education Commission’s www.mymoney.gov, the National Foundation for Credit Counseling (www.nfcc.org under “Consumer Tools”), and www.mint.com, among other sites.
Seek help. If you’re no longer on the same page regarding how to handle your finances and can’t reach compromises, you may want to consider outside help.
The National Foundation for Credit Counseling (www.nfcc.org) can help you find a local non-profit credit-counseling agency.
Find a financial planner or advisor at the Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards (www.cfp.net), the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors (www.napfa.org) or the Financial Planning Association (www.fpanet.org).
Like any other joint venture, marriages can derail when partners don’t communicate. Make sure that doesn’t happen to you.

Jason Alderman directs Visa’s financial education programs. To Follow Jason Alderman on Twitter: www.twitter.com/PracticalMoney

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