Money Spat with Your Spouse? Let the Downturn Help

By: Candice Choi
By: Candice Choi
For Melissa and Adam Zipper, residents of Willow Grove, Pa., the recession is laying bare their attitudes about money.

Adam Zipper looks on as wife, Melissa Zipper works on the couple's check book while one-month-old son Lucas Zipper sleeps nearby at their home Monday, Feb. 2, 2009, in Willow Grove. Pa. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)

NEW YORK (AP) -- She cuts coupons and worries about retirement. He's dreaming of flat screen TVs.

For Melissa and Adam Zipper, residents of Willow Grove, Pa., the recession is laying bare their attitudes about money.

"It can get frustrating being on different ends of the spectrum," said Melissa, a 29-year-old who works for an insurance broker. "I've always been more conservative, more stressed about money."

The good news is that an economic downturn is also an opportunity to address concerns you and your partner ignored in the past. So before money matters rain on your Valentine's Day, make it a priority to put those simmering financial worries on the table.

"People are finally being shocked into talking," said Sharon Epperson, a personal finance correspondent for CNBC and author of "The Big Payoff," a guide to help couples manage their finances.

The key is to avoid any finger pointing when broaching the topic with your partner, she said.

The Zippers are doing just that, even as the recession lights up their conflicting outlooks on money.

"She's definitely pulling back now, not spending nearly as much. We're working a little harder to resolve our differences," said Adam, 34, who installs security systems for a living.

GETTING HELP: One way to prevent conversations from deteriorating into shouting matches is enlisting a third party. This is also a good option if you're simply not getting through to your partner.

"You might know what the counselor is going to say" Epperson said. "But it's your spouse that needs to hear it."

Getting help doesn't have to be expensive.

The National Foundation for Credit Counseling offers assistance at more than 900 locations across the country. To find a counselor in your area check the group's site at http://www.DebtAdvice.org .

Consultations are usually free, though some agencies charge a one-time fee of $15 or so. The fee can be waived for those who can't afford to pay.

Seeing a counselor about money matters doesn't mean you and your partner aren't compatible. It's simply a way to avoid the resentment the topic often breeds, said Gail Cunningham, a spokeswoman for the NFCC.

"The counselor won't know either of you, so they can't be accused of taking sides," she said.

Whether or not you get third-party help, broaching the money issue might reveal a lot you didn't know about your partner's financial philosophy. Remember that there are no set rules for couples when it comes to sharing funds or dividing bills. The key is that you're on the same page.

If you're not sure what topics to cover, here are some basic points worth discussing:

-How to divide bills, especially if your salaries differ significantly;

-How much of your earnings to spend, save or invest;

-How much to sock away into retirement accounts;

-Whether to have separate or joint bank accounts; and

-Your confidence about job security and how things are going at work.

KEY ISSUES: Talking about job security in particular is critical these days, with unemployment at a 16-year high of 7.2 percent and expected to jump higher by the end of the year

If you aren't already, keep your spouse updated on your prospects at work. Hiding a potential layoff will only make it more painful if it comes to bear.

It also robs your partner of the chance to adjust to the idea and be supportive, said Ellen Siegel, a certified financial planner and president of Ellen R. Siegel & Associates in Miami.

Springing that type of surprise could also breed distrust.

"You will lose the ability to talk about any other issues with openness," Siegel said.

Being upfront will also let you and your partner collaborate on a strategy for making ends meet on a reduced income. Can one of you take on a second job? What expenses can you trim from your household budget?

Whether it's about job security, spending habits or retirement planning, the point is that you should talk to your partner. It might be what saves your relationship from the trappings of the downturn.

It's a strategy that's working for the Zippers.

Before getting married last year, Melissa worried about Adam's carefree spending.

Now, the couple pools the bulk of their earnings in a joint account to pay for major living expenses. The setup frees Melissa of past worries.

At the same time, they each keep a small personal account to use however they wish. For Adam, that often means indulging in entertainment purchases: "I can go buy a DVD or video game, and she won't question it."

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