Photo: Amber Cebull
Making the wrong money moves can send a couple to Splitsville, but you don’t have to become another statistic. Your Money spoke with happy couples who got past their financial hurdles, and asked them to share their stories.
With help from Dr. Taffy Wagner, CEO of Money Talks Matters and divorce attorney Diane Mercer, we’ve highlighted 8 crucial steps any couple can take to get their marriage back on track.
Jeanine Earhart's husband, the family breadwinner, once insisted he manage the household purse strings.
Big mistake: His money know-how was so bad he ended up dragging the family into debt.
'Eventually we realised we both needed to have a say in how the money was spent,' Earhart says. 'And as it turns out, I'm the better money manager. So now any spending is discussed by both of us.'
Wagner says communicating is the smartest thing couples can do to rescue their ailing finances.
'If one person's doing everything, they can get overloaded and then do nothing, (which is probably what happened in Earnhart's case),' she says. 'The husband was doing it, not liking it and gave up because his wife wasn't involved.'
Fast-forward a year and a half later, when Pitman had boned up on personal finance 101 and gotten the couple's budget under control.
'I never liked doing the bills,' he says, 'But we've been married 16 years and can talk about money because she put her foot down!'
The ballsy move worked, but Wagner says Pitman's wife should have addressed her financial concerns in a more positive way:
'You need to present the picture by saying, 'here's what we're doing, here are our goals; here's how I'm making sure they'll happen,'' she says. 'If you play the blame game, (your spouse) won't be as receptive.'
Richard H. and his wife were constantly switching off, or 'leapfrogging,' who held the full-time work job.
When he was earning too little in his law enforcement job, the missus became a store clerk. When she decided to stay at home to raise their child, he took on a Union-backed job.
Wagner says the couple could have padded their finances if they'd based their household on more than one income.
'When there's two people and no kids, both spouses should be working unless there's an agreement,' she says. 'And if you marry into the military, you really have to know their pay and how much money is going out to bills.'
She recommends military wives look into transient jobs, whether it's freelance writing or becoming a virtual assistant. That way they can take their job with them wherever they move.
'Keeping your finances completely separate really doesn't create a 'We',' says Mercer, co-author of Making Divorce Work.
Just ask Cebull, who was aware she and her husband were in in the hole, but not how much since they kept their checking accounts separate.
'He had a little more debt than me, but I didn't realise how little we paid to it each month,' she says. 'Typically, he paid everything late and we weren't making progress on his cards at all because most of the payments were for late fees and interest.'
Enter a joint account, which enabled the couple to see everything.
'Since we've combined everything, we haven't been late on any payments and are progressively paying down debt every month,' Cebull says. 'Combining everything ensured there were no more fights about who is and isn't responsible for keeping our household bills on track.'
Before you rush to remarry, make sure you've outlined who's doing what with the money, warns Wagner.
Nancy Fagan, mediator with the Divorce Clinic, learned this the hard way when she married a man who'd been badly burned by his ex.
'He told me everything he made was his money and I'd better not spend any,' she says, 'but I knew it was all his baggage because his ex-wife spent money like it had an expiration date stamped on it.'
The solution? Putting everything in writing, from their retirement plan to what they paid for their respective children.
Margelit Hoffman and her husband's union seemed doomed from the start:
They were culturally different (he's German, she's American) and constantly borrowed money to visit their families in the U.S. while they lived in Israel.
'We were fighting all the time,' Hoffman says.
Eventually, the couple discovered Dave Ramsey and applied his no-nonsense approach to spending and debt reduction.
'We lived in a cheap apartment, drove used cars on their last legs, and never spent money on anything besides groceries and electricity,' she says. 'We also worked all the time to build our business and make it happen.'
Overspending or avoiding real conversations about debt can be the first sign a couple is turning away from each other and headed for divorce, says Mercer.
'Hiding things from each other is just corrosive to a marriage,' she says. 'You'll feel horribly betrayed as if you've been lied to.'
Carrie Rocha knew this all too well when she and her husband found themselves $50,000 in the red, while she was tasked with policing their spending.
'He'd ask, 'Do we have money for such and such?' and I had to say yes or no,' she says. 'It was a constant strain in our relationship.'
After making a commitment to track and talk about their spending habits monthly, they eventually kicked their debt to the curb.
'Now I feel like our finances are one of the strongest areas in our marriage,' Rocha says.
Mercer agrees with Paula Holt, a blogger at MaritalMusings.com, that hiring a fee-based financial planner can be a smart choice for couples struggling with debt, especially if one spouse keeps control of the purse strings, leaving the less money-savvy spouse to feel bullied and useless.
'A fee-based financial planner can really help, as well as attending a financial planning class through a learning annex or college extension program,' she says. 'If you do it together, you won't end up lecturing the spouse who doesn't get it.'
And it doesn't have to be expensive. Mercer points to Clear Point Credit Counseling Solutions, a national nonprofit agency with offices nationwide, as a good place to smart.
'They'll work with debt repayment, pre-purchasing a home, foreclosure counseling and pre-bankruptcy counseling,' she says.