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Marriage: Money Rules for Couples

On Thursday I wrote about the devastating toll financial infidelity can take on relationships. While we may not talk about this sort of "cheating" often, it turns out that it's quite common and occurs in an estimated one out of three marriages. If I had to guess why it's so prevalent, I would bet it's because most of us don't realize when we've crossed a line.

Let's end the confusion right here. I spoke with Dr. Doug Welpton, a Clearwater, Fla, based psychiatrist and family therapist, for some ground rules to keep spouses from spending unhealthy sums of money without telling their partners.

The Money Rules
Set a Monthly Budget
You've heard it before, but it's worth repeating. Every healthy relationship should start with a budget. As a couple, you should figure out how much you need to spend on necessities, such as your mortgage payments and 401(k) contributions, and how much you can afford to put toward discretionary items, including entertainment and shopping. If you're having trouble agreeing on how much you need to set aside for certain goals, including retirement and your kids' education, consider hiring a financial planner.

In the context of financial infidelity, couples also need to decide how much each spouse can spend without telling the other person. (Not having a formal limit is what gets so many of us get into trouble.) Rather than saying any purchase under $100 is acceptable, it's better to come up with a monthly amount so each of you can choose if you want one expensive item or if you'd prefer to spread out your expenditures in smaller increments during the same time period.

End the Power Struggles
One way to end any sort of power struggle over money is to have separate bank accounts. My husband and I have three. There's one for him, another for me, and a third for our joint household expenses. Welpton likes this arrangement and suggests couples put an equal percentage of their income into the joint account and then fund their own accounts with what's left over. If one person isn't working, he thinks the one who is should fund the non-working spouse's account.

Disclose all Secrets
If one spouse has a spending problem and has accumulated debt, now is the time to speak up. Once the problem is out in the open, the two of you can work together to figure out a way for the bills to get paid off. If the credit card balances are very high and one person feels terribly wronged, Welpton believes you may benefit from seeing a marriage counselor to discuss the issue. If there's an addiction problem at the heart of the matter, help your partner get the help he needs.

Monthly Meetings
Finally, agree to sit down and meet monthly to discuss your finances so everything stays out in the open. It's also a good idea for the two of you to check in with each other and make sure the bills are getting paid and that you're sticking to your savings goals. As difficult as these meeting may initially feel, try to approach them with an open mind. Just remember that the two of you are partners and one person should not control the family finances or your relationship could feel out of balance. And that, sadly, could lead to another other types of infidelity.

Dollars! image by pfala, CC 2.0.

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