Whether you're newlyweds, soon to be wed or an old married couple, money is at least as important to a balanced, happy marriage as love and sex. Money is a common cause of conflict -- and even divorce -- among couples. Blend your financial lives successfully, and you are more likely to have a happy marriage.
Because opposites attract, combining money-management styles that conflict is among the greatest challenges married couples face. Early and frequent communication is critical, says Cathy Pareto, a financial adviser in Coral Gables, Fla. That includes discussing your debts, income, credit history, investments and goals. "You've got to meet in the middle," Pareto says. "Otherwise, I promise you there will be fights."
Starting out. The first conversation could be an uncomfortable one. Maybe one of you has a low credit score or a lot of credit card debt. Or perhaps you have significant differences in your approach to spending and saving. Until you've had plenty of honest dialogue, set the ground rules and built the trust you need to put your money together, Pareto recommends keeping accounts mostly separate. "Better to wait to commingle than to do it too soon and be unpleasantly surprised to learn that you have an irresponsible partner."
You may be able to make do with an informal split of your finances. Alec Papazian, 27, and Brooks Heckner, 31, of Cambridge, Mass., who plan to marry this summer, have been living together since 2006. They have no shared accounts or assets, so they divvy up their mutual expenses.
To account for a gap in their earnings, Heckner pays $75 more in rent each month. Papazian pays the utility bills, and Heckner covers the cable and Internet. Then they eyeball most of their other expenses to determine a fair split.
Shannon Hancock, 33, and Scott Knight, 42, who are getting married in September, are more comfortable with the prospect of combining accounts. They chat monthly about their individual budgets, which Hancock expects will help with their transition to budgeting as a couple. They plan to open a joint checking account, from which they could pay their mortgage and other bills, and sign up for a joint credit card.
After the honeymoon. Especially after you buy a house and have kids, it makes sense to merge more of your finances -- although most financial advisers recommend that you each keep at least one credit card in your own name and have access to some money that you can spend without having to consult your spouse (you should check with each other about large purchases). Since Julie Billing, 37, and her husband, Greg, 39, of West Milton, Ohio, got married more than 14 years ago, they have stuck to a strategy of merging their bank accounts. Julie usually handles the bill paying and budgeting. Having such a "family CFO" is a common way for couples to handle expenses, says Pareto.
Talk frequently about your plans, and don't let your emotions become stumbling blocks. Doug Pauley, a financial adviser in Austin, Tex., says sometimes it can help to consult a financial counselor or a financial planner you both trust, who can add perspective and help defuse arguments.