6 Money Mistakes Couples Make

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Nearly a quarter of married Americans would hide affairs from their spouse, a recent study suggests.

OK, they’re talking about financial affairs – but those can lead to divorce just like the sexual kind. A recent press release from the National Foundation for Credit Counseling points to court records showing financial stress as a primary reason for divorce. A 2009 study called “Bank on It: Thrifty Couples are the Happiest” [PDF] backs that up, saying money problems are the third strongest predictor of divorce, following drug abuse and sexcapades.

In the video below, Money Talks News founder Stacy Johnson takes a look at some of the top money mistakes couples make, and how to avoid them. Check it out and read on for more.

Like Stacy says, there are obvious financial perks to marriage – like splitting the bills. But a poorly managed partnership can easily wipe out any advantages, if not lead to outright disaster and divorce. Here are some of the big mistakes that can take the money out of matrimony…

1. Poor communication.

As Stacy concluded, it’s important to talk about money early and often with any significant other. If marital harmony isn’t reason enough, consider that in a divorce you could also end up being responsible for your ex’s debts. So it’s important to regularly set aside time for a financial discussion to prevent problems. The NFCC says you can “make it a casual conversation about a serious subject,” but “don’t point the finger of blame.” Maybe make it a part of date night, or breakfast in bed. But talking early and often about spending, concerns, and progress toward your goals is important for any relationship.

2. Keeping secrets.

Many spouses hide purchases from each other. Some are small, some are big, but any of them can be an unpleasant surprise on the bank statement. This Marketplace segment interviews a psychologist who explains: “Part of the reason we don’t want to tell our spouse about spending is that we don’t want to feel like a child again.” The obvious solution for that is to treat each other like independent adults. For some couples this means separate bank accounts, or setting limits on what each can spend without asking the other. But being less judgmental of each other’s purchases goes a long way too.

3. No budget.

It’s hard enough keeping track of our own spending without a budget, but virtually impossible when there’s another spender whose actions you don’t know about. A budget has advantages beyond pinpointing where we overspend – it keeps both parties on the same page, can be used to start and maintain discussions about money, and provides a reality-based foundation for those talks where emotions (and accusations) can otherwise run rampant.

As we mentioned in 5 Steps to Building a Budget That Works, creating a specific goal – like saving a certain amount for a home, a car, retirement, or a baby – is an important first step in creating the motivation to stick to a budget. Whether you use a free budget spreadsheet or an online solution like Mint, come up with a good goal together.

4. No will.

Another document people put off too long or altogether: a will. It’s not a fun subject, but people die, sometimes unexpectedly. Whose name is on retirement accounts and insurance policies, and what should couples expect if the worst happens? Missing or forgetting to update documents could mean legal battles with an ex or in-laws, so it’s best to spell everything out. In How to Get a Will on the Cheap, Stacy highlights options ranging from free or cheap – doing it yourself with online software – to hundreds of dollars, done through a lawyer.

5. Ignoring differences.

As the saying goes, opposites attract. This can be true with spending styles too: Some people are successful savers while others rack up debt and don’t worry about the consequences until it’s too late. Some are terrified of investments, while others are willing to take big risks for potentially big rewards. The easiest thing to do is simply let your partner spend the way he or she wants, but it’s not the smartest.

Marriage has implications for your taxes, your credit score, your bank balance, and almost every other aspect of your financial life. Discuss spending scenarios and uncover expectations are for investments, savings, and spending – along with why you each feel that way. Then work out a compromise.

6. Sharing the wrong things at the wrong time.

It’s romantic but not always pragmatic to say “we’ll share everything,” especially early in a relationship. Whose name goes on a lease or title? What happens if you break up – who keeps what, and who pays for it? Are pre-marriage assets shared or kept separate? If one person has more debt, does the other co-sign a loan or credit card, help pay it down, or just stay out of it?

Being in love doesn’t mean you’re insensitive for asking these questions. They’re all things to discuss relatively early in a relationship, even if they aren’t decided until later.

Bottom line? There’s no one right way to approach money and marriage. But there’s definitely a wrong one: not talking about it. Here are a few other stories on the subject you might be interested in…

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