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Need a Money Renovation?

In March, we surveyed 2,400 couples and found that, when it comes to home renovations and household finances, more than half described themselves as "do-it-yourselfers."

Surprised? We weren't. Especially considering that one of the foundations of Foolishness is the willingness to take the controls -- despite the protestations of financial service professionals who would rather you cede the decision-making to them.

For too many years, money management (and home renovations, for that matter) was widely presented as too complex for individuals to tackle without the guidance of a good professional. In the 10 years of Folly we are celebrating this month, The Motley Fool has offered a different view -- that if they choose to do so, Fools can manage their finances just as well, if not better, than full-priced brokers and commission-based financial planners.

That's all well and good, but when it comes to getting two people to agree on anything, from the color of Corian for the countertop to an acceptable amount of investment risk, things get a bit dicey. That much was clear in our finances/fixer-upper poll. About a third of Fools who responded said they disagree with their significant other on how to handle life's little and big chores.

What follows is my attempt to show twosomes how to spruce up their finances -- together -- and set a few ground rules to help make the project go smoothly.

Did you know that laying drywall together can make your marriage stronger?

Twosomes could learn a few things about tackling money issues from a very unlikely source -- hand-tool maker Great Neck Saw Manufacturers. In a recent survey, the company found that 54% of couples actually enjoy working with each other on home-improvement projects. Nine percent of handy couples said that fixing up their homes together was -- get this -- romantic.

(Take a moment now to picture your beloved sporting a perfectly worn leather tool holster and rugged flannel shirt, beaming at a job well done. OK, enough fantasizing.)

It's not too far of a leap to connect the similarities of home-improvement projects to other household chores, including managing the family finances. Both have the opportunity for big payoffs. Both have the potential to be fraught with frustrations. Both undertakings are designed to increase comfort, liveability, and in some instances a lovely southern view. Neither is free from a certain amount of drudgery, anxiety, opportunity, and the risk of a few paper cuts or trips to the emergency room.

But in matters of money and small construction, four hands are always better than two. The old saw about measuring twice and cutting once can get dull if you're the one doing all the measuring and cutting.

The difference between construction and financial affairs is that matters of the heart tend to have more fluid rules. (You probably don't want to test the accepted rules of positive-negative charges when it comes to handling wiring.) Just because there are black and white numbers in your checkbook, doesn't mean you can treat this topic with black and white answers. Consensus is key if you want your union to last 'til death do you part.

To avoid coming to blows, consider treating your finances as you would a fixer-upper. Come up with a master plan for your family's future -- together. Tackle big projects (saving for retirement) and small ones (cutting down the entertainment budget) -- together. When you keep the ultimate payoff in mind (and perhaps a few snapshots of your retirement manse on the fridge), developing a shared vision of what could be is that much sweeter.

Prep work
Before any renovation project, there's a certain amount of prep work to be done. Start off by thinking of money as opportunity. The best things in life are indeed free -- like catching the twinkling eye of your Sig. O across the room at a cocktail party. All other things require cash. Don't avoid the topic of finances because it's unromantic. Instead, start your money conversation by discussing your dreams. Maybe you both pine for an early retirement, a summer home, sending the kids to your alma mater. Next, start brainstorming ways to align your finances with your life goals.

As you lay out your project, play to your strengths. Who's better at bargain shopping? Which one of you has a knack for researching things online? Answer these questions and you've started to form your plan of attack.

Don't use trouble spots as an excuse to give up. According to the Great Neck survey, 6% of couples say that they fought like cats and dogs during their home renovations. Their main complaints? Twenty percent think that their partner can be too bossy and 16 percent said that their partner is too much of a perfectionist. When things get heated and nerves frazzled, take a break and approach the project with fresh eyes and a full night's rest. Oh, and try not to be a bossy perfectionist.

Finally, divide and conquer. This is the old "I'll cook if you do the dishes" rule at play. Even if one of you is giddy with excitement over balancing the checkbook or reviewing your insurance needs once a year, it takes two to make your financial whoopee work. That may mean that one person does most of the heavy lifting when it comes to money matters while the other picks up the slack in other areas of household management.

With the tarp rolled out and the kids packed off to the babysitter, it's time to don your grubby clothes and get to work.

Spruce up the exterior. A little superficial housekeeping can go a long way to improving your living conditions. Just finished your taxes? What a great time to clean out the files! As a general rule, the items you want to keep forever are your tax returns, real estate records, annual retirement account summaries, final loan statements, and receipts for big, insured items for as long as you own the item. Hold onto bank records and investment statements and paperwork for seven-ish years. Update your beneficiary information, especially if you've had a critter or undergone some major life change since you last did it. Then come up with a simple system to keep your accounts straight. Don't forget to tell your beloved where to find all the important papers and how to follow your lovingly crafted filing system.

Do a patch test. Don't you hate it when that perfect shade of celadon on the 1-inch-by-1-inch sample turns into what your brother-in-law affectionately refers to as "the puke green room?" Before you go hog wild rearranging your finances, run through a few scenarios. What would happen if you were forced to live off one salary for six months? How much would it pay off in the future to increase your contribution to your work retirement plan by 3%? Online calculators can help you envision your financial plan in all of its wall-to-wall glory.

Pick one major area to renovate. In home renovation, it's all about increasing the resale value of your abode. In finances it's, well, getting the most bang for your buck -- the "bang" being enjoyment and peace of mind. Whether it's retirement savings, paying down debt, or adding to your child's college savings, concentrate first on one area that'll give your family the biggest payoff. After that, tackle your next project with the same zeal.

Find a trusted pro. When it comes to calling in the reinforcements, it pays to do your homework. You wouldn't hire an electrician without calling his references. Same goes for your financial pros. Take a few minutes to read our advice on hiring an advisor, or try out TMF Money Advisor -- which includes an online planner and one-on-one help when you need it.

Couples said that one of the most satisfying parts about working together on home-improvement projects is proving that they could work together, according to the Great Neck Saw survey. And while wielding sharp objects, no less. Ah, togetherness.

Dayana Yochim has a way with a staple gun, although she has never been described as "handy" around the house. Otherwise, you can bet she'd tout that in herFool disclosure. She is the author ofThe Motley Fool's Guide to Couples & Cash, which required very little manual labor.


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