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PERSONAL FINANCE / KATHY M. KRISTOF

Valentine, Let's Talk About Money

February 14, 1996|KATHY M. KRISTOF

Valentine's Day, perhaps the most romantic day of the year, is a perfect time for love-struck couples to talk about money.

"Money?" you say. "What of love, marriage and togetherness?"

Any couple that hopes to stay together must eventually have a frank discussion about financial goals, says Kathy Stepp, a certified financial planner with the Kansas City, Kan., firm of Stepp & Garrett.

Indeed, the vast majority of couples who split cite money as the main or a primary factor. A recent Citibank survey found that 57% of divorced couples said financial disputes were a primary cause of discord and 10% said it was the main reason for the divorce. Planners say their experiences with individual clients bear out those findings.

"Money shapes your life together in a very substantive way," says Esther Berger, a Beverly Hills-based certified financial planner and author of "Money-Smart Divorce."

"If you know what you are dealing with--the good, the bad and the ugly--it helps to form a better financial partnership as well as a better personal partnership," she says.

Adds Peg Downey, a Miami-based financial planner: "You may not actually need to discuss money on Valentine's Day. I can understand people not wanting to spoil a romantic holiday. But at the point that things start getting serious, you definitely need to talk about how you feel about money, the things that you think money is for. Is it a tool? Is it a reward? Is it a treat?"

For many couples, Valentine's Day marks the time when things start getting serious. Roughly 8% of all couples who wed become engaged on Valentine's Day, says Alan Fields, co-author of "Bridal Bargains." That makes Valentine's Day the second-most popular day of the year to pop the question. (Christmas remains No. 1, possibly because the practical fellow realizes that if he buys his love a ring, he won't have to spring for another big present, Fields says.)

Once talk of love turns to marriage, discussing money is "absolutely critical," says Linda Lubitz, a Miami financial planner. But it won't be easy.

Money, planners agree, is the last verbal taboo.

"It used to be that people wouldn't talk about sex," says Downey. "Now it's money. But the fact that it's taboo makes it essential that you talk about it now before you start building up resentments."

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However, that doesn't mean you have to trade information about checking account balances or details about salaries and 401(k) plans. At first, at least, you'd be best served discussing financial goals and the way you handle money overall. In other words, what do you expect for the future? Do you want your own house? A luxury car? Do you aim to take time off--or quit--if you have children? And, equally important on a day-to-day level, do you save for major expenses or do you charge them?

The one financial detail that couples absolutely must share, however, is whether either or both are coming to a marriage with outstanding debts, Berger says. Do you have thousands of dollars in student loans that must be paid off? Do you owe money to the Internal Revenue Service or to half a dozen credit card companies? What is your plan to pay those off?

"You want to make sure that you don't inadvertently inherit somebody's credit problems," Berger says. "If you talk about it, it's on the table. You know what you're getting into."

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In addition, Stepp points out, eventually you'll have to determine how you'll handle household expenses. If both of you are working, do you plan to have a joint checking account, keep accounts separate or have a joint account for joint expenses and separate accounts for individual discretionary spending?

If one spouse will stay home, how will that spouse buy things? Will he or she get an allowance or a credit card that can be used up to some limit, no questions asked? Or will one spouse be in control of the purse strings?

"The one thing I've found is that people really need to have some of their own money--even if it's only to buy gifts for the other person," Stepp says. If one partner is too controlling, it will make the other feel helpless and, often, resentful.

But what if the love of your life says he or she is not comfortable talking about money?

You'd better find out why, says Berger.

"You wouldn't want to find out after you were married that your partner doesn't want to have children and you do," she says. "This is the same thing. Money is going to come up in your relationship, whether it's because of work or how to save or what to buy. If one person thinks the conversation invades their privacy, you are going to be in a pickle sooner rather than later."

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