Ann Benson's first commandment for two-career couples wanting to manage their money better is ''Communicate!'' An investor information specialist with Merrill Lynch, Ms. Benson has focused on the dual-income family and its particular financial planning concerns.
Such couples are busy, and even in this era of let-it-all-hang-out, she says, ''People are hesitant to discuss money. It's a delicate subject, not easy to bring up.''
But somehow time must be found.
A couple should make an appointment with each other to discuss family finances. Ms. Benson envisions a two-hour session every week until goals have been set and a working plan hammered out.
Once this plan has been set, the two-hour sessions will be necessary only every couple of weeks, or maybe once a month.
A couple should start their ''financial housekeeping'' by calculating their net worth. (See table, page B10.)
Ms. Benson recommends doing this annually; after the first of the year but before tax returns are due is a good time. ''You can use your net worth to figure whether you're moving forward from year to year.''
Another element of the financial housekeeping is a review of each spouse's employment benefits package. ''Some people never know what's in their package,'' Ms. Benson observes. But especially now that many companies are becoming ''more progressive'' on fringe benefits, a couple can exploit the fact that they have two employers to get a package that meets their needs. If the husband's health insurance covers both spouses adequately, the wife may want to talk her employer into giving her child-care benefits instead of health insurance. Ms. Benson also stresses that people should have adequate disability insurance.
Still another vital part of the financial housekeeping is getting wills up to date. Any will made before the Economic Recovery Act of 1981 should be reviewed, Ms. Benson says categorically.
Many couples total up their assets - real estate, savings, insurance policies , and so on - and are pleasantly surprised to find how much they are worth.
''And then they wonder, 'If we're worth so much, why do we feel so poor?' '' Ms. Benson says.
The high dollar income of two-career couples can give them a false sense of security, Ms. Benson warns. People don't adjust their idea of a ''big salary'' for inflation. And although two-career couples have two salaries, they also incur extra expenses, such as clothes, transportation, child care, and meals out , which they wouldn't have if Mom - or Dad - stayed home all day.
Moreover, the two-income couple is generally in a higher tax bracket than if there were only one breadwinner.
A particular danger Ms. Benson warns against is overuse of credit cards, something to which two-income couples are particularly prone. ''Ten percent of your income is the maximum you should be paying in installment credit,'' says Ms. Benson. ''If it gets to 20 percent, you should be cutting your cards up.''
(This is excluding payments on charge accounts paid in full each month, with no interest charges.)
''Pay yourselves first'' is another maxim from Ms. Benson. She recommends skimming 5 to 15 percent off the top of each paycheck for savings, and says people should have the equivalent of three to six months' salary saved as a ''cushion.''
One danger of two salaries is that people get used to having them and if either spouse loses a job, or some other emergency occurs, a couple could end up borrowing just to get by the crunch.
This, in the Benson view, is not good.
Office munchies can nibble a surprisingly large hole in family finances, she adds. ''If you have two people that are each spending $5 a day for lunch and coffee breaks, that's $50 a week,'' she calculates. ''If they can brown-bag it for a year, that's $2,500 saved.''
That sum could be a good start on the couple's cash ''cushion.'' Once the cushion is all plumped up, it's time to think about further investment goals, such as buying a home.
At this point couples may want to do some talking to harmonize their goals. ''People are socialized differently. People raised to be extremely prudent may find themselves married to spendthrifts. I find when I mention this at my seminars that a lot of couples turn to each other and laugh.
''People should be able to discuss, not accuse.''
One spouse may be considerably more comfortable with speculative investments than the other.
She finds that in many couples, the wife handles the everyday finances, as a sort of extension of the housework, but investments are left to the husband. She suggests that spouses take turns with the household finances, perhaps every three months or so, so that both parties are informed and neither is ''helpless.''
Another point to negotiate is cash management: Should there be one joint checking account, separate accounts (his and hers) - or two separate accounts plus a joint one (his, hers, and theirs.)
The mother of two grown children, Ms. Benson identifies herself as of a generation where there was just one way to do things: ''But now we see there are a lot of alternatives.''
If one spouse earns substantially more than the other, having each partner contribute a percentage of his or her earnings into the common fund may seem more equitable.
The general affluence and high inflation rates of recent years have given many younger people, particularly, a philosophy of buy now and pay back later with cheaper dollars. But disinflation, she says, ''has put the brakes'' on that kind of thinking.
Once a couple are ready to start investing, a little research is in order. ''Some two-career couples suddenly accumulate a lot of money, and they don't know about things like being able to talk with a broker after market hours.''
Walking into a brokerage office and asking for the broker of the day is just ''taking potluck,'' and Ms. Benson doesn't particularly recommend it. There are other ways, such as asking friends for their suggestions on brokers or collecting cards from brokers addressing seminars.
''A lot of brokers use too much jargon. People need to give themselves permission to ask questions, and if they aren't satisfied with the answers to their questions, it's not because they've asked a dumb question; it's because the person they're speaking with is a poor communicator.''
For those doing preliminary research, full-service houses like Merrill Lynch have lots of free informative publications, such as ''How to Buy Stocks,'' by Louis Engel and Peter Wyckoff.