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Don't Let Money Kill the Mood

First comes love. (He/she'sthe one. The One!) Then comes marriage (or shacking up or otherwise sealing your commitment). (Score!We both love mid-century modern couches, puppies, and mint chocolate chip ice cream!) Then comes a host of money issues. (Should we combine our checking accounts? Why are his retirement savings so paltry? Which one of us is going to input our receipts into Quicken? You spent how much for that?!)

As if navigating the uncertainties of a relationship weren't hard enough, introduce a bunch of financial issues and your bond gets sideswiped by eye-rolling, resentment, and worse.

Take comfort in a fact that therapists can practically bank on: Finances continue to be the No. 1 issue couples fight over.

The good news is that if you can find ways to successfully navigate the money minefield, your relationship has exponentially that much more of a chance of succeeding. We've gathered a few experts (including Dr. Ruth) to offer words of advice to carry you and your sweetheart through to another Valentine's Day.

Say what?
In the mood for a money talk? It's hardly on the top of anyone's list today. But like teaching the kids the birds 'n' bees and remembering to give the dog its heartworm pill, you can't put it off forever.

As cliched as it sounds, communication is key. "Not now, honey, I've got a headache" is just one of the excuses people use to avoid this prickly topic. However, excuses are a bad idea if you want your financial union to last.

Don't take it from us: Dr. Ruth Westheimer, college professor, sex therapist, and diminutive author of countless relationship books, concurs. As she told us in a Valentine's Day interview last year, when there's trouble (and there will be) -- in the bedroom or family boardroom -- talk it out. "Couples have to have communication skills so that when there are setbacks, they don't get discouraged," she says. "Those who do don't say, 'Oh my gosh, what is going to happen!?' but [instead] say, 'OK, we are in this together.' "

Expectations also play an important role in keeping your relationship satisfying. Couples who have realistic -- not Hollywood -- ideas about their union tend to focus on the things that bring value to their relationship. " ... a couple who is married 20 years is not going to suddenly start having sex every night," the doctor says. "But if they are sexually literate, they know something of the importance of valuing the experience."

So, too, with money whoopee. Having a clear vision of your shared financial goals makes it easier to put the day-to-day struggles into proper context. Bonus: When your resistance is weak ("Honey! Plasma TVs on sale!" or "I can't believe we have to spend this much to fix the car."), you've got someone to lean on.

Teamwork enabled Bill and Akaisha Kaderli (regular contributors to The Motley Fool) to leave the rat race at age 38, move to the West Indies, and spend their early retirement traveling the world together. Bill crunched the numbers and showed Akaisha how a few sacrifices could make this dream come true. Akaisha writes in "The Treasures of Teamwork": "We had plenty of what we fondly call 'high-volume discussions.' We had to make sure our financial boat would float, and we depended on each other to substantially contribute to this goal, in one fashion or another."

The boat did indeed float because Bill and Akaisha both committed to their goal. Today, 15 years later, they're still enjoying the early retirement of their dreams.

No wallets in the bedroom
"Don't go to bed angry" may be basic couples-therapy advice. We'd like to add to the saying: "And don't bring the checkbook register to bed, either." Money, job insecurity, and everyday stress often creep into the bedroom and affect the relationship in ways that can't be measured in dollars and cents, Westheimer says.

A common issue is the division of labor -- particularly when one partner makes substantially more money than the other. In Breadwinner Wives and the Men They Marry, author Randi Minetor talked to 60 couples for whom the woman brought home more of the bacon than their spouse. What made these marriages work was the attitude that the women had about the extra dough padding their W-2. They weren't looking for power in the relationship: They wanted an equal partner.

Again, sharing dreams -- approaching the black-and-white dollars and cents as fuel for common goals -- helps you celebrate each other's successes as a win for the team.

So, how do you rope in a partner who would rather avoid financial discussions and not ruin your romantic dinner? As couples told us in Couples & Cash: How To Handle Money With Your Honey, it's all about make-up nookie. Just kidding. But it is about -- surprise! -- open communication.

Small talk, not cheap shots
One great way to lure a reluctant partner into a dreaded money talk is to relate the topic to something he or she cares about. Chances are, some require a bit of cash to come to fruition.

Robert and Elizabeth Brokamp opened their behind-closed-doors money talks to the Fool community a few years ago. They started with "A Financial Manifesto for Couples," where over a series of car trips, coffee shop sit-downs, and back-and-forths, they outlined their lifetime goals and an agreement of how to achieve them. Consummate educators, they came back and reported on their progress, grading themselves on each task. They even outlined how they handled a hot-button, big-cash topic -- the holidays -- in "Couples and the Christmas Cash Crunch."

I am happy to report that they are still giddily married (though with a little less time to report publicly on their finances, now that kids rule the roost and Robert heads a successful retirement planning service for the Fool).

How have they managed through so many financial ups and downs? Every money conversation they have adheres to the ground rules they set for themselves early on:

  • Agree to try -- managing your household finances is a two (or more)-person job.
  • Accept equal responsibility for changing your lives.
  • Don't play the blame game. No fair bringing up past financial indiscretions. Make this conversation all about setting yourselves up for a sweet future.
  • Be honest and realistic about your financial situation.
  • Take a break if your conversation becomes heated and unproductive.

If you've never had a frank money talk with your honey, start now. Don't worry about getting it exactly right the first or even the 30th time. It's about progress and committing to making your union work, and each discussion helps form a strong foundation. Says Dr. Ruth: "People live very hectic lives. A marriage -- a relationship -- has to be a strong one to survive."

By removing the burden of weighty, unresolved money issues that cloud so many relationships, you two lovebirds can make it through the long haul.

Dayana Yochimis the author ofThe Motley Fool's Guide to Couples & Cashand a frequent "phone a friend" and "referee" for couple friends in financial tight spots.


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