For newlyweds: balancing the checkbook and other financial feats

Account numbers 5800-8766 and 8701-6772 recently became 2938-2994. The merging of newlyweds' bank accounts gives new meaning to the phrase ''the two shall be as one.''

Whether or not they decide to open a joint account, most newly married couples are confronted with dozens of important financial choices - everything from the color of the bank checks (flowers or duck hunters won't do) and whose name goes on the credit cards to how much insurance to take out.

At the office the other day, several recently married baby-boomers were comparing notes on who handles the family finances. The biggest quandary was who gets to keep the checkbook. ''What if one makes a withdrawal and forgets to tell the other?'' ''Who pays the bills?''

The consensus was that it would take a while to settle into a routine that worked well for each couple.

A lot can hinge on those early decisions. Some can bear fruit or cause hardship later in life, and the habits established for resolving financial matters say a lot about the tenor of the marriage.

There's no success formula for how two new controlling shareholders should run their family corporation. But one new ''prospectus'' may help.

''Financial Fitness for Newlyweds'' (Facts on File, New York, $8.95), by Elizabeth S. Lewin, is for first-timers - first-time home buyers, first-time investors, first-time joint-tax filers, first-time household managers. And while its advice has special application to those just setting up housekeeping, much of the book could be helpful to anyone, regardless of marital status, who is new at making personal financial decisions.

In addition, it's a helpful reference book for choices that come up a little further along in life. Not all newlyweds these days are in a position to rush out and buy a house, much less think about things like playing the stock market, opening an individual retirement account, or whether to rent or buy a French horn for your third-grader. This book may collect some dust on the shelf before you're ready to look up the chapter on shopping for a mortgage, but if you pay attention to Chapters 1 to 10, you may be ready someday for Chapters 11 to 17.

The first step suggested by the author is to establish financial goals. It's time to start things off on the right foot. But you look at the empty worksheet with spaces for short-, middle-, and long-range goals, and there's that vast forever of a lifetime confronting you, waiting to be filled in.

My husband and I found this task fairly difficult. There are too many big variables on the financial horizon right now, ranging from the sale of some real estate I owned as a single to a new business venture he's organizing. But if we couldn't decide exactly what we wanted to do in the long term, we could at least agree on what we didn't want to do for now - i.e., acquire more debt, buy another car, vacation in Tahiti.

We filled in our goals in pencil. The author wisely counsels flexibility: ''Never feel you must stay locked into a specific goal.'' Be willing to change course as circumstances evolve and your abilities and desires grow. The idea is to sketch out what you want to aim for, so those paychecks don't get nickel-and-dimed down to nothing.

And no fair snitching the money set aside for long-term goals to pay for something you think you can't do without now. ''That's robbing yourselves,'' the book says.

Once the goals are established, there's the budget-drafting process. The worksheets look easy: List sources of income, deductions, and fixed and flexible expenses, then total up the bottom line.

But many people can't neatly reckon their finances into a ledger. Because my husband is launching his own business, we were able to predict neither income nor expenses - so the whole first half of the book simply did not apply to us.

For those whose financial outlook is more predictable, however, the challenge is not so much figuring out a budget as sticking to it. ''Financial Fitness'' offers common-sense tips on how to say no when you want to say yes. Those of us who are inclined to think of budgeting as a big drag should take to heart Ms. Lewin's advice: Make it fun.

Some of us, however, might take issue with this suggestion: ''The fun of it is, you make your own rules. Like gourmet meals? Budget for them. ... Want to see faraway places with strange-sounding names? Budget for them. Want a knockout wardrobe, closets so full you seldom wear the same thing twice to the office? Budget for it.''

If the flippancy of that statement offends you, you're probably not a member of the upper-income Yuppie (young, urban professional) set. Much of the book seems aimed at this group.

The latter chapters of the book cover the nuts and bolts of taxes, home-buying, record-keeping, and obtaining credit. Have you considered, for example, that a couple does not have to put all its possessions into joint ownership? ''Check the tax consequences,'' Ms. Lewin suggests. ''A lawyer or accountant who knows the federal and local estate and property laws will be able to help you make the right decisions.''

Another tip: How about joining or forming an investment club? For instance, that bunch of newlywed baby-boomers at the office could pool their little nest eggs together, with the aid of a stockbroker, and do the kind of investing that otherwise might be years away for couples acting alone.

For most people, ''Financial Fitness for Newlyweds'' will provide continuing benefits long after the honeymoon is over - and as the partnership continues.

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