- The Washington Times - Monday, June 28, 2004

Michael and Janine Jackson had a big decision to make before they were married last August: how to manage their household finances after they walked down the aisle.

The Lanham couple attended several premarital counseling sessions through their church, which helped them work out a system to fairly divide their monthly expenses and ensure all their bills are paid on time.

Almost one year later, the couple has stuck to their plan. Mrs. Jackson writes the check for the mortgage payment, her car note and the telephone service, while her husband is responsible for writing the check for the electric and gas bills and his car payment.

“We just find it easier for each person to be responsible for certain bills,” Mrs. Jackson said.

Few couples talk seriously about how they will manage their household finances before they get married, according to Candace Bahr, co-founder of the Women’s Institute for Financial Education, a San Diego nonprofit group that advises women on becoming financially independent.

This can create big problems later. Money is often cited as one of the top reasons for divorce, although reliable statistics on the causes of failed marriages are hard to come by.

The American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, a trade group for divorce lawyers, cites poor communication, financial problems, a lack of commitment and infidelity as the most common reasons for failed marriages.

More than 65 percent of newlyweds believe money will be the source of most fights during their first year of marriage, according to the Association of Bridal Consultants, a New Milford, Conn., industry trade group.

Couples should follow the Jacksons’ lead and map out a plan before their ceremony, according to financial planners. This can be difficult, Ms. Bahr said, because it isn’t easy to be candid about your financial situation.

“Money is not a polite thing to talk about, especially if you have had any problems and especially if you haven’t handled them well. It can be embarrassing,” she said.

Couples must determine their priorities and then create a budget to meet them, Ms. Bahr said.

For example, each spouse should consider what is most important to them, she said, whether it’s buying a home, starting a family, saving for retirement or something else.

Financial planners are split on whether one spouse should be assigned to pay the bills or if a couple should share the load.

Some say it’s good to designate a single money manager in the household — one person who is responsible for writing all the checks. But unless this spouse is disciplined, it’s easy to rack up late fees, financial planners say.

One way to avoid this is to arrange to have bills paid automatically, either on a credit card or through an automatic withdrawal from a checking account. “It can reduce a lot of hassle,” Ms. Bahr said.

The bottom line: “Keep the lines of communication open. Ask questions. Never assume that one person in the marriage has paid their share of the bills. Keep talking about them,” said Randa Ghnaim, director of corporate relations for Visa International, the world’s largest credit-card company.

A couple’s financial plan should also include a thorough review of the tax benefits to marriage, financial planners say. In most instances, income taxes are lower when couples file jointly, although it could be more advantageous to file separately if there is a big difference between each spouse’s income.

Before taking a walk down the aisle, couples may also want to consider a prenuptial agreement, according to Jamie S. Lapin, a Rockville financial planner who specializes in advising people after they have been divorced.

“Most people — especially the young — think [a prenuptial agreement is] the most unromantic thing in the world, but the philosophy of ‘what’s mine is mine’ and ‘what’s ours is ours’ generally doesn’t play without a prenup,” Ms. Lapin said.

The agreements are particularly helpful to couples in the Washington area, which she called “the workaholic capital of the world.” She recalled one woman who had such little faith in the institution of marriage that before marrying her husband, the woman told Ms. Lapin that she asked herself, “Is this the person I really want my children spending their weekends with?”

Estate planning should be part of every couple’s joint financial plan, too, according to Ginita Wall, who co-founded the Women’s Institute for Financial Education with Ms. Bahr.

“Every marriage ends. It’s just a question of whether it ends in death or divorce,” Ms. Wall said.

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