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How-to Guide: Manage Money With Your Mate

It's no great mystery why money issues are often cited as one of the top reasons for divorce in the U.S.: Talking about money is never just talking about money. Most couples -- whether married, engaged, or cohabitating -- cop to having an occasional tiff about family finances. Even in the best of times, money can be a conversational time bomb in relationships.

If your money tete-a-tetes typically result in one of you sleeping on the couch, rest easy. We created this guide to help you and your beloved have more fruitful financial conversations. After all, the more you talk about your finances, the richer (metaphorically and literally) your relationship will be.

Read on for strategies that will strengthen your financial union, starting right now.

Get in the mood (for a money talk)
We're going to start with a personal question. No, not that personal. We just want to know when was the last time you and your sweetheart talked about your finances in more depth than "Did you remember to pay the dog walker?"

To remove some of the pressure of bringing up money with your honey, ease into the conversation with the lighthearted game below to see how well you know each other's money habits.

Pop quiz!
Grab two sheets of paper -- one for you and one for your significant other. Work through the following questions and record your responses (no peeking), then compare your answers at the end. (It helps to channel old Newlywed Game episodes and add your own color commentary.)

1. You get $1,000 back as a tax refund. What would you spend it on? ____________ What would your partner spend it on? _______________

2. You view money as (circle one):

(a) A necessary evil.
(b) The path to happiness.
(c) Nice to have, but I won't sweat over it.
(d) Hey, where's my wallet?

3. Which of the two of you is more likely to:

__________Know how much is in the checking account
__________Buy an expensive gift
__________Shop around for the best deal
__________Know how the stock market fared today
__________Do the taxes
__________Watch a "Get Rich With Real Estate" infomercial from beginning to end

4. What are the three best purchases you've made as a couple? The three worst?

Best:

________________________________________

________________________________________

________________________________________

Worst:

_______________________________________

_______________________________________

_______________________________________

5. Who has more cash in his or her wallet right now (winner takes all!)? __________

6. My biggest financial concern (besides finding cash for tomorrow morning's Starbucks fix, if you were on the losing end of question No. 5) is ____________________________. I think my spouse's biggest financial concern is _________________________________.

7. The cutest thing about my partner right at this very moment is ___________________.

Now that you've (hopefully) had a laugh, it's time to get down to money business.

Get it done: Set the (money talk) date
You make time for the important things -- the vet, the kids' soccer games, the dentist, the in-laws. Setting (and keeping) a date to talk finances is just as critical as almost anything you do as a twosome.

Mark your calendars (in pen): Don't relegate this task to the "we'll get to it sometime" pile. Formalizing the event shows your commitment to bettering your relationship.

Choose a comfortable setting: The kitchen makes a fine conference room. But consider taking this conversation to a place you will both enjoy.

Plan for distractions: Schedule a babysitter. Unplug the phone. Leave no room for excuses -- TiVo can record the big game.

Pick a reward: The benefit of working through your money issues is increased comfort, security, and satisfaction. We think following through on your money date deserves a tangible reward, too. So pick an incentive (e.g., movie tickets or dinner at your favorite restaurant) to celebrate the completion of your powwow. Write the reward on your calendar as a reminder of the big payoff.

Repeat quarterly: Wall Street provides updates to shareholders on a quarterly basis. That's a good calendar for couples, too. It keeps you both in the loop and allows you to track your goals and tweak them. So, while the calendar's out, pick a date for your next money get-together.

Declare your rules of engagement
It's not uncommon for one party to be more interested in finances than the other. That's OK, but making decisions about money is a two-person job. Daily decisions about how you spend or save are much easier when you're on the same page.

Dealing with the silent treatment
What do you do if your partner is reluctant to sit down and discuss finances at all? Dangle a carrot, of course!

Put a positive spin on money management: Illustrate that hashing out some money issues now can pay nice dividends in the short, mid-, and long term. Ask what your partner is excited about in the coming years. Maybe it's a family cruise, paying cash for college, or retiring 10 years early. Then commit to finding ways to make those things happen together.

Also make it clear that you don't expect to perfect your finances right away. The goal is to make incremental improvements over time. The beauty of having this conversation on a quarterly basis is that it gives you the chance to practice talking about money.

Get it done: Set some ground rules
Conversational ground rules sound overly formal. But studies among couples show that having rules in place helps keep money conversations from devolving into bicker-fests.

Here are a few suggestions to get you started. Modify them to suit your style. We suggest writing them down and having them on hand for reference as you talk.

  • Agree to try. Managing household finances is a two-person job.
  • Accept equal responsibility for changing your lives. Don't put the onus of all money decisions on one person.
  • Don't play the blame game. No fair bringing up past financial indiscretions and mothers-in-law. Each conversation should focus on what you can do from this day forward to improve your lot.
  • Be honest and realistic about your financial situation. We applaud aggressive goals, but trying to achieve a pie-in-the-sky ideal will only lead to frustration and resentment.
  • Breathe. Relax and approach the conversation with anticipation for what you can achieve by putting your heads together. Take a break if your conversation becomes heated and unproductive.

Now you're ready for a deeper meeting of minds and wallets. So let's find something to talk about.

Set an agenda that excites you both
You've got your ground rules and now you're ready to chat. Remember, not every money issue needs to turn into a formal financial summit.

Start with your wish list -- your family goals. Chances are a few of them cost money. Brainstorming ways to make goals a reality will help motivate you to work together.

Preempt money conflicts
Don't gloss over any issues you face, however. Commit to talking about a few of your biggest and most sensitive financial concerns before issues become fodder for a fight That way you're setting yourselves up to be partners, not adversaries.

Set the agenda by individually answering the following questions:

What's my biggest daily financial concern?

___________________________________________

My top three ideas on dealing with it:

___________________________________________

___________________________________________

___________________________________________

What are the most important midterm (next one to five years) money concerns we face as a family?

___________________________________________

Ways to tackle them head-on:

___________________________________________

___________________________________________

___________________________________________

What worries (or excites) me most about our long-term (six to 10 years) financial well-being?

___________________________________________

How can we best prepare for it:

___________________________________________

___________________________________________

___________________________________________

Fodder for your first talk
If you don't already have a good handle on what you own (your assets) and what you owe (your liabilities), we suggest earning the title of World's Best Spouse by volunteering to wrangle your money essentials. (Use our "Get It Done: Must-Do Quarterly Review" as your guide.) With that in hand, your first formal sit-down as a couple should start with a review (remember, no judging).

Deal with issues without tissues
Keep your money talks from ending in door-slamming and pouting by incorporating some of these tips into your next talk.

Use concrete examples of what you want: Instead of talking in the abstract (e.g., "I get worried about what we have in the bank"), be specific (e.g., "I'd feel a lot more secure if we had $3,000 in our emergency fund"). Ask your partner to do the same.

Listen seriously: Uncross your arms, don't roll your eyes, and make no judgments. Keep our "Get It Done: Set Some Ground Rules” nearby as a cheat sheet.

Give a little, get a little: Compromising is much more palatable if you know you'll get your way in at least a few areas. Come up with an amount of money each partner can spend every month without question. As for medium- and long-term expenses, come up with a plan that you can both live with and will look forward to achieving.

Try a third party: If emotions run high, get a neutral third opinion. Plug your plan into a personal finance program like Quicken or Microsoft's Money. There should be no arguing with black-and-white numbers. If there is, consider taking your budget talk public with a fee-only financial advisor. Nothing inspires civility like someone sitting behind a desk in a suit.

Bring on the memories: Remember your first date? What did you do? How much did it cost? Who paid? And what was the rent on that first apartment that was such a dump? There you go, you're laughing and recalling what drew you two together in the first place. Money doesn't have to be a sore spot in your relationship. Keep reminding yourselves of those strong bonds that first attracted you to each other.

Conclusion
If you've never had a frank money talk with your honey, we hope you're convinced to do so now. A longtime Fool who is nearing his 50th wedding anniversary says, "If you want to stay married, talk about money."

He's right -- the burden of weighty, unresolved money issues clouds so many relationships. By talking openly about finances and working together to resolve outstanding issues and achieve your goals, the two of you will be richer in ways that aren't just reflected in your account balances.

Resources that get the green light

Dayana Yochim just wants everyone to get along. She's constantly looking for ways to help readers deal with money better.


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