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Till Debt Do You Part? Not if You Start Good Habits Early : Money management: Couples should think about bills, budgets and investments before or right after they marry, advisers say.

June 26, 1995|From Associated Press

NEW YORK — Few topics can dim the vision of starry-eyed newlyweds faster than money.

Financial advisers say that just after or right before a couple pledge their undying love is the best time to talk about paying bills, balancing checkbooks and investing for the future.

"At this stage in one's life, there are so many good habits you can develop. You can really start on a good financial footing," said Jonathan Pond, a Boston-based financial counselor and the author of "The New Century Family Money Book."

Perhaps the best place to begin financial planning is with the wedding gifts. Brides and grooms today often receive what amounts to a four- or five-figure dowry from family and friends. If the couple are paying for their reception or honeymoon, then part, if not all, of their loot should be allocated for those expenses.

"The best investment they can make is paying off their credit cards," said Kaycee Krysty, a managing partner at Moss Adams in Seattle. "If you look at the rate of interest versus alternative investments, avoiding a high rate of interest is a better pay-back than almost any investment. Only no debt is acceptable."

Once the bills are under control, newlyweds should begin building a nest egg to take care of long-range goals such as buying a home and saving for retirement and children's college expenses.

Although there's usually little argument on what goals should be met, deciding how to get there can sometimes cause marital warfare.

"Inevitably, in every relationship there is some conflict over money," Pond said. "One reason for that is spenders marry savers. The relationship would be boring . . . any other way."

To avoid conflict, each spouse should try to make certain financial decisions, such as where to invest, ahead of time.

Terry Hamacher, chief investment officer of Prudential Mutual Funds, advises that most couples in their 20s and 30s choose stocks and stock mutual funds, since the stock market has consistently been inching up. A balanced or conservative fund will yield far more than any savings account, she noted.

She and other experts also recommend that couples make maximum contributions to employer-sponsored 401(k) savings plans as a way to invest for retirement.

Equally crucial is establishing a household budget.

"You would think that merging two households into one would result in some savings, but it often doesn't happen," Pond said. "Of course, there's a tendency to want to create a nice household. What used to suffice for furniture may no longer. They may use their combined incomes to go out and buy a new car or something foolish."

A couple needs to decide who will handle the routine financial chores, such as paying the rent and writing checks for the monthly bills.

"One person needs to be the financial VP of the household," Krysty said. "However, they should never pay bills in a vacuum. They should try to talk once a month to review what bills are being paid."

One question that always seems to come up between newlyweds is whether they should have joint or separate checking and savings accounts.

Most financial advisers say couples should have both.

"I always recommend one joint account for paying joint bills," Krysty said. "But each person needs some amount of privacy with their money. It could be in the form of an allowance system or a small checking account. It saves a lot of fighting about small stuff."

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Insurance is another important issue to be addressed. Couples may consider having both spouses covered under one health care policy to save money. At the same time, though, they will probably need to take out additional life insurance coverage to handle their new, and in many cases growing, household.

Estate planning, which includes writing wills or creating trusts, is also important. Many financial advisers recommend that older couples, particularly those who have been married before, have pre- or post-nuptial agreements that spell out the distribution of their assets and allow each spouse to keep separate whatever that person accumulated before the current marriage.

"Before my husband and I got married, we sat down with an accountant and went over a lot of these issues," said Prudential's Hamacher. "For many people, if they don't come up with a financial plan ahead of time, they may never get started."

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