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How couples can fix their financial future without risking a break-up
Finances are often the source of stress, strife and even separation for many relationships and marriages. But the solution is simple, experts say: Clear communication about money while dating rather than after tying the knot. - photo by Chandra Johnson
In 14 years of marriage, the biggest fight Dana Corey has ever had with her husband didnt involve children, housework or work encroaching on family time.

It was over a $2,000 refrigerator.

Corey, a business and life coach in Oregon, thought she and her husband were just looking at refrigerators, but her husband was buying.

It was uncomfortable for, like, three days, which is forever in this house, Corey said. When stuff like this happens, its a wake-up call for couples because money is one of the hardest things to talk about, because theres fear behind it and until youre sharing finances, its hard to know how youll each react.

The topic of money whether couples join finances or keep them separate is an unavoidable reality for any serious relationship, yet avoiding the topic is what couples most often do, Corey said.

We think sex is the most intimate topic for couples, Corey said. No, no, no its money.

Disagreements over finances or a disparity in financial standing between two spouses can spell serious trouble in a relationship, research finds.

Finances are often one of the top reasons couples divorce, according to financial expert Suze Orman, and a 2013 study from Kansas State University found that such arguments were a viable predictor of divorce.

The U.S. Federal Reserve also released a paper this year that found that couples who shared high credit scores were more likely to stay together in the long term than couples with differing or low credit scores.

Sadly, the money argument that ends many relationship is sometimes the most easy to solve with simple, clear communication, says New York-based family therapist and author Bonnie Eaker Weil,

Thats why they say money is the root of all evil, Weil said. It sets up a power struggle and people dont like to talk about it because theres a lot of shame involved.

Relationship smokescreen

Weil said people usually have trouble talking about money for two major reasons: because they dont want others to think less of them or because money can cover up other problems within the relationship.

People worry that their financial history will make others treat them differently, so if they dont talk about it, itll go away, Weil said. If the couple has a lot of other issues, money is used as a way to withhold, cajole, bribe or punish. Its usually a smokescreen for other things.

Colorado personal financial adviser Matt Kelly agreed that money problems are seldom about the money itself, but anxiety around it.

Its not at all about the math. Its all the things weve been conditioned that money means, Kelly said. Money means that, as a man, Im powerful, Im strong, Im desirable, Ill be respected.

Corey and Weil both advise that to work through these things, communication is absolutely key and offered these tips for couples to maintain their relationships as they repair their financial

1. Keep it light

While financial problems are a harsh reality, Corey says couples need to remember to give themselves a break even if the situation is bleak.

Worrying is like praying for disaster, Corey said. If youre constantly thinking about how awful it all is and how youre scared, thats what youre going to get.

2. Make family money tree

Weil says much of how people approach finances depends on how their family handled it. Rather than using the knowledge to shame the person, take it as something to be aware of.

"Knowing as much background as possible will translate into communication skills in your relationship," Weil said. "Know what money represents for them, know how money makes them feel and find out what's most important to you both."

3. Avoid blame

Shaming someone over poor financial decisions will only lead to more reluctance to talk about it, Corey said.

"You're a team," Corey said. "Try to focus on that fact and remember that no one is perfect."

4. Have weekly budget meetings then do something fun

Weil suggests that talking about money regularly helps take the sting out of it, as well and staying on top of goals, bill payments and managing other issues like debt.

"Put on your emotional bullet-proof vest and talk about it all weekly," Weil said. "Remember that when you discuss money, it can actually make you depressed, so after the talk, do something active to get yourself out of that mindset."

5. Dont just watch the other person, watch your own habits

Weil says financial infidelity or spending money without consulting or telling your significant other isn't always about being deceitful. Often, it's about people simply putting their wants and needs first without thinking.

"Sometimes financial infidelity is so subtle they don't even know they're doing it," Weil said. "Don't cling to old patterns of behavior and don't go back to your old habits if you think the other person isn't changing fast enough."

Setting goals

Kelly said most couples struggle to adjust to sharing money and financial responsibility because they dont think about money as a way of achieving goals, but of achieving happiness.

We're always trying to make ourselves happy, especially by buying things, Kelly said. If you dont have shared vision, your individual happiness is in conflict with your partners you spent the money, you made yourself happy, so now I cant make myself happy.

Kelly had a few practical tips for couples who are still getting used to sharing finances:

1. Dont wait to bring it up

Many couples may wait until they move in together or get engaged to talk about finances. Weil and Kelly both say couples should bring up the topic around the same time theyd talk about past relationships on or about the third date, Weil said.

2. Have a common goal

For Kelly, this is the most important detail for couples because it can help them see eye to eye about each other's values as well as where the money goes. Spouses who compromise their habits of spending freely vs. saving will both be served if they feel they're working toward a common vision of the future.

"It requires more discipline if long term, yet it points at something fun you can do with your money down the road," Kelly said. "Once you reach your goal, the spending part of that is fun, so theres a balance there."

3. Be accountable

Whether mistakes were made before the relationship began or a spouse slips up and overspends, Kelly says it's crucial for partners to be accountable for their mistakes. Being honest at every stage of the relationship is important.

"I postured with my wife about being able to afford to take her on dates and spending more than I could. It all went on credit cards," Kelly said. "By the time we were getting married, I had $10,000 in credit card debt. You have to be willing to tell the truth."

4. Be certain about income and budget

Kelly says many people don't have a firm grasp on either how much they spend or how much they make. To fix financial problems, both spouses have to know for sure and keep track of both.

"You wouldn't believe how many clients I work with who only have a vague idea of how much they make," Kelly said. "In my estimation, we waste about 30 percent of what we make on impulse purchases. They don't always understand that when they budget and stick to it, it's like getting a 30 percent raise."

5. Focus on what can be fixed

Paying bills on time, not overspending and reducing debt should be the focus for most couples, Kelly said, rather than focusing on more nebulous factors like credit scores.

"The formula for calculating credit is an industry secret, so it's not always clear what will effect it, so don't focus on that," Kelly said. "Focus on what you can do right now and being responsible with money. Your credit score will follow."