Friday, March 30, 2007

Financial Planning 101: Managing Money as a Couple

Merging money isn't that easy for many couples, experts say. In fact, young couples fight about money more often than they do about housecleaning and sex, according to a recent study by PayPal, a money transfer service.

Because money is such a hot-button topic, couples need to find a way to talk about it as early as possible, even before they walk down the aisle. By discussing it and setting guidelines for spending and saving, couples can avoid a lot of tension and fights down the road, experts say. It's not enough to just lay out your salary, your savings and your debts. It's also important to understand each other's approach to money -- either to make sure you are on the same page or to understand where conflicts might arise.

You also need to discuss your fiscal habits, broaching subjects such as:

Are you a saver or a spender?

How did your parents handle money?

Do you pay your credit card bills on time?

What's your credit score?

If you are having trouble, consider starting with a discussion of your financial goals. Talk about big dreams: When do you want to buy a house? What kind of house do you hope to buy? When do you want to pay off your debts? And when do you want to retire? But look at smaller goals, too, such as an annual vacation or a weekly night out.

Ideally, you want to set aside money in your budget for these smaller objectives so you don't have to put them on a credit card.

Setting goals is a great way to start ''because it is positive,'' said Carmen Wong Ulrich, financial expert and author of ''Generation Debt: Take Control of Your Money -- A How-to Guide.'' Come up with a savings plan so you can one day take your vacation, buy your home, send your children to college and maybe even retire happily ever after. That process addresses savings -- but what about spending?

Couples need to figure out who's going to pay the bills and where the money is going to come from. It's common for newlyweds to wonder whether they should have joint bank accounts and credit cards or separate ones. Experts generally advise them to have joint checking accounts and credit cards for household expenses and joint savings accounts for their goals, but it's really up to each couple. Decide how much each of you will contribute to the household each month.

If your salaries are similar, you can come up with a dollar amount that will cover the expenses and set aside savings. If one spouse makes considerably more than the other, each one could contribute an equal percentage of salary.

The same goes for your pre-wedding debts: Experts say it's important to agree whether each of you will pay off your own debts or the two of you will try to whittle away the total. In most marriages, one person handles the bills, experts said.

But both partners need to be informed and involved in the process, as well as know about all the bank, brokerage and credit card accounts. And make sure you both review your tax returns each year.

When it comes to spending, partners need some autonomy, said Dayana Yochim, personal finance expert at the Motley Fool, an investing education and advice firm. A person should not have to ask his or her beloved for permission for every purchase. In fact, 82 percent of respondents in the PayPal study said they hid shopping bags and purchases from their partner.

To avoid having to hide things, partners who keep separate checking accounts and credit cards for their own purchases are advised to agree in advance on how much they can spend each month.

''You don't want every little financial decision to turn into a formal summit or a fight,'' Yochim said.

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