He spent, She spent

Married couples who resolve personal-finance issues can help keep their union a going concern.

In college, when Lisa Concepcion and Alex Giassa shared a pizza, they'd take turns picking up the tab. Now that Lisa and Alex are married, decisions are no longer limited to plain cheese, pepperoni, or whose turn it is to pay. A large chunk of every paycheck from their full-time, public-relations jobs goes toward the mortgage and furnishings for their new home. But those carefree days at Rutgers University gave them a taste of the teamwork required in marriage, says Ms. Giassa.

The Giassas now pool their earnings into one joint account, which covers household expenses. And, because each of them makes a "decent dime," they have individual accounts as well. "This arrangement works great, but is often controversial," Giassa says, explaining that her mother isn't timid about voicing her opinion. " 'What's the point of getting married?' " she'll ask. "I guess we're pretty modern," says Giassa, "but it's best this way. We see each other as equals, and we are also a team."

The Giassa's arrangement is actually more common today than her mother might think. But, of course, there are many variations. Some couples prefer to share all their money. Others want to stay separate down to the last dime. One thing is certain, though: Money issues can be a source of tension in any marriage, but those couples who work as a team and communicate openly, honestly, and frequently about finances are often happier.

Take it from Elliot Cohan, who has been counseling couples for 30 years. "Before you hook up," advises Mr. Cohan, "it's critical to discover 'how important is money to your honey?' Does it matter that you earn more than he does or vice versa? What are your prospective partner's financial goals? Is he or she a spender or saver? Is he or she generous or cheap? Is money viewed as power or love?"

After consulting your intuition, observing closely, and having a few initial talks, it's time to roll up your sleeves and get down to the nitty-gritty. This can't happen early enough, says family-finance expert Terry Savage, who often appears on CNN, CNBC, and public-television's "The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer."

"When planning to get married, couples talk about religion, sex, politics, and even pick names for their kids, but they don't talk about money!" Ms. Savage says, incredulously.

In those early discussions, she adds, couples must strategize about everything from banking and saving (will they have joint, separate, or both types of accounts) to how they will afford retirement (set mutual goals and a plan for reaching them).

Lifestyle expectations must also be discussed. "If one spouse is going to work part time, stay at home raising children, or become an entrepreneur without a regular paycheck, you'll have to restructure your expectations," Savage says. "Valuing contributions to a marriage means you'll have to look beyond dollars and cents.

"Problems arise when one person comes to the marriage with savings or investments, and the other brings a pile of past debts," she says, advising: "Before the ceremony, figure out if the 'saver' is willing to subsidize the 'spender,' and if the 'spender' is willing to commit to a plan of paying off those debts."

As newlyweds, Denise and Michael Panco weren't burdened by heavy debt, but they did have to face their differences after buying their first home left them "officially broke."

"He was used to paying the minimum, so he had more money for 'today,' whereas I was working at making 'tomorrow' easier by paying off my debts earlier," Ms. Panco explains.

In their 20s, the Pancos are learning to work better as a team. "I have friends who have divorced because they thought marriage was a way to be taken care of," she says, "but we've learned that it takes two people working and contributing."

As soon as he recognized his wife's sharp accounting skills, Mr. Panco put her in charge. "He knew at his rate, he'd retire a poor man," she says, chuckling.

But appointing one person to hold the pursestrings is no joking matter, say the pros. Jim Barker, a financial adviser in Burlington, Mass., urges couples to share financial decisionmaking. "Often one person has no interest, and the other wants to be in charge," he explains. "It's OK for one person to handle the money, but it's vital that both are part of major financial decisions and that they routinely communicate. Otherwise, there's trouble."

Mr. Barker has witnessed quite a few marital squabbles during his closed-door sessions. "Couples often fail to come up with a financial plan; they end up viewing their circumstances as embarrassing. Once they realize I'm not their parents, they relax."

Barker has a three-pronged approach to working with couples: First, they must ignore history, stop placing blame, and focus on moving forward. Second, they have to identify their goals and plan realistically how to achieve them. And third, they need to look closely at their cost of living and monthly spending.

While Barker coaches couples through this process, he nudges them to keep talking on their own, too - a point that may seem obvious but is often overlooked.

Although Norma Carpenter's job as a field auditor keeps her frequently on the road, she and her husband still carve out time every week to talk about "where we are and where we want to go," she says. This is new for the Carpenters, who didn't talk much about money during the two years they dated. They did "observe each other's spending habits," however, and they also came from families that had similar attitudes about money - both were extremely conservative about spending.

Family history is a consideration that shouldn't be overlooked, says Andrea Spatz, a financial planner based in Los Angeles. "You don't need to come from the same financial background, but your values do have to be compatible," she says. "Money reflects our values, and if one person has been brought up to value education and travel, it's much easier if the other one has, too."

In addition to incompatible values, money conflicts can flare up, says Barker, only half-jokingly, because there "just isn't enough of it." With a more serious tone, he explains that friction occurs when there's a lack of trust about how money is being spent, or when one person is living beyond his or her means.

This is where Howard Dvorkin, president of Consolidated Credit Counseling Services, steps in. Couples bogged down by debt might have done better if they had learned to "take it slow," he says. "Some people get married and open a joint account the next day. Instead, they should merge gradually, make sure they know about any skeletons in the closet, and keep credit cards separate for a while."

His clients often write appreciative letters or call to express tearful thanks for saving their marriages.

"That's what makes this job so worthwhile," he says. "Money issues are the No. 1 cause of divorce, and anything we can do to help people avoid that is gratifying."

Others say money is not necessarily the root of the problem. "It's just where blame is most easily allocated," says Barker.

Or, as Cohan puts it: "Money is the area most often perceived to be the cause or effect of strife in a relationship. The truth is that the couple has lost touch with the real issues between them, issues that haven't been resolved or even discussed."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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