Save Your Finances (and Maybe Even Your Marriage)

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Nearly half (44%) of married couples in the United States have fought about money in the past year, according to the recent “Marriage and Money” survey from TD Ameritrade. And at least one study has found that early arguments about money are a top predictor of divorce down the road.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t bring up the M-word with your partner — quite the contrary, in fact.

Talking about money is not the same thing as fighting about money, oreven being stressed about money. Arguments and worry can be prevented, or at least greatly reduced, by a simple tactic: scheduling a “money date,” a short monthly meeting during which you talk about the good, the bad, and the ugly aspects of your household finances.

A money date isn’t hard to do, and it isn’t something to be dreaded. It’s a smart and ultimately encouraging activity that helps you create the framework for a successful financial future. Business and life strategist Tom Sylvestercalls the monthly meeting a chance to “discuss your vision for your lives and goals.”

“Once you’re aligned on your ideal lifestyle and your goals, it is then much easier to have these money discussions,” says Sylvester.

Start on a positive note.

Begin your money date with some version of the following statements:

  1. How happy you are to be with your partner, and
  2. How excited you are to be building a secure future together.

Saying these things out loud helps the two of you keep the big picture – your relationship – at the forefront. (Note: Single people should also plan money dates with themselves. Adapt the tactics in this article using some self-reflection to keep your finances on the up-and-up.)

Choose a location and time that work best for your circumstances. Before the kids came along, Andy Hill of Marriage Kids And Money says he and his wife would order a pizza and enjoy some grownup beverages. These days, they hash out their finances while sitting outside watching their kids ride bikes; if the weather is inclement, the family heads to an indoor play space.

“If we didn’t infuse a little fun into the budget process, I’m not sure we would have stuck with it,” Hill says.

Even if you’re on a tight budget, you can still find ways to make this a special event. Put on some of your favorite music, say, or make a special dessert to enjoy together.

A money date can be super-organized, with spreadsheets and written goals, or a brief, focused look at the month’s wins and losses. You might choose to make this an actual date, at a restaurant or coffeehouse, or you could chat at the kitchen table with glasses of wine and your bank statements displayed on a laptop or tablet.

Some couples find that budgeting software helps make their money more real. It’s one thing to say, “We should probably spend less on restaurant meals” – and quite another to look at a pie chart showing that 80% of all food expenditures happened away from home.

On a more positive note, the pie chart that shows your credit card balance decreased by one-third in a single month will do wonders for your enthusiasm for rapid debt repayment.

Set some ground rules.

The money date is not a chance for one partner to lecture the other. Ban phrases like “you always…” or “you never…”

Obviously the two of you need to address any financial issues. But discuss them in a neutral way. A couple of examples:

  • “It’s so much fun to buy things for the baby. But I’m concerned about how much we’ve put into toys and clothes vs. starting a college fund.”
  • “We’ve talked about wanting to get a place of our own, but never take it any further. After tonight’s money date, let’s take an hour to research first-time home buying.”

Emily Guy Birken, author of “The Five Years Before You Retire,” advises against using the date for “painful penny-pinching or (after-the-fact) purchase shaming.” Instead, focus on what your money can do for you and the best ways to make things happen.

That means creating some shared goals. Obviously some will be more urgent than others — for example, building an emergency fund, setting aside money for a family vacation, paying off consumer debt, or planning for retirement.

Make room to dream.

But leave space for some blue-sky stuff, too. For example, Birken’s husband wants to take a motorcycle trip on a landmark birthday. Voicing this idea during a money date got them started planning ways to make his dream happen.

Try asking yourselves, “What would we do if money were no object?” Two great potential outcomes are:

  • You might find that your unrealistic dream is actually attainable.
  • You discover that something you’d like (e.g., entrepreneurship, early retirement) is a goal your partner also shares.

That’s why “Never dismiss an idea out of hand” is another good money-date rule. Jamila Souffrant, who blogs at Journey to Launch, notes that our situations and goals can change over time. Each person should be able to ask for things (or express concerns) without fear of being shouted down.

“For example, my husband may want a luxury car in the future, and that’s OK. I’m willing to push back my retirement date a few months or work a little harder to save up for it,” Souffrant says.

Postponement of deadlines or goals is sometimes inevitable. Unexpected expenses like major car repairs or high medical co-pays will affect the amount you can put toward debt repayment or retirement (unless you have an emergency fund that will cover some or all of the cost).

Strive for proactive vs. reactive adjustments. Elle Martinez of Couple Money always includes a look at upcoming money matters. Is there a trip coming up, or are irregular expenses like insurance premiums due soon?

“Talking ahead allows us to tweak things as needed,” she says.

What if you’re no good with money?

Plan a money date even if you tend to leave the financial stuff to your spouse or partner. Especially if you do: This is your money, too, and it’s essential to know how it’s being used.

Lesley Jeffres Pearson, a CPA who blogs at StrongerWallet.com, has a husband who told her that “dollar signs are his Kryptonite.” He’s fine with setting and meeting financial goals, but doesn’t want to manage money or strategize about it. Pearson uses the monthly meetings to update him on their progress “without overwhelming or boring him,” she says.

“I share a quick financial snapshot (and) we talk about any areas where we didn’t stay on plan, or need to adjust,” Pearson says. The average money date is a 15-minute talk after the kids have gone to bed.

Note: A money date is especially crucial if your some or all of your household income is irregular. If you’re a freelancer or work in a tip-based job, for example, then your paycheck could fluctuate noticeably. Since a drop in earnings one month will affect the next month’s budget, it’s vital stay on top of your finances.

A money date is about honesty, which means there’s a slight chance you won’t always like what you hear. Perhaps your partner has financial secrets that he or she can finally blurt out: My student loans are much bigger than I led you to believe. Or: I have a secret credit card and the balance is getting out of hand.

Again, don’t make it about shame or blame. It’s fine to express shock and disappointment, but only as a means of getting your own feelings out in the open. After that, the question is simple: How can we deal with this as a team?

Your ultimate goal is to build a shared financial future – and the best way to do that is with open and honest communication.

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