Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Blended family, bending finances

Non-traditional families merge households and money

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It took Natalie Bell two years to come around before she would go out on a date with her fiancé, Michal Jarzyna. A single mom with two daughters, the 38-year-old human resources manager owned a home and had been used to getting by nicely on her own.

"I was kind of like 'Hmmm, bachelor has no worries and parties all the time. I don't want none of that,' but somehow he convinced me," she says with a laugh.

That was six years ago. Now, the couple have five years of living together under their belts, recently bought a new house in Sage Creek and have a child together.

Life is good.

But it wasn't without its adjustments, especially when it came to merging their finances.

"I am extremely independent and have been for quite some time, so to share my finances with someone was very difficult," says Bell, who blogs about her blended family among other issues on Pegcitylovely.com.

"For him to come in when we first moved in together and to hear, 'Now my bills are also your bills and your bills are my bills' was interesting... it wasn't difficult because we talked a lot about it, but we definitely had to adjust."

Like many other Canadian families, Bell, Jarzyna and their children do not fit the traditional mould of the nuclear family where a couple get married, buy a home and have children.

They're a blended family, and according to a recent survey by TD Bank, they're in good company. As many as one in five Canadians lives in a blended household.

And one of the biggest challenges for many merging families is blending finances, says Crystal Wong, a senior regional manager for financial planning for TD.

"It's more than just having a joint bank account together."

While it's often tempting to avoid baring it all when it comes to the income, expenses, debts and assets, sharing information is as essential to success as sharing cash, Wong says.

With that in mind, the best first step is often developing a budget statement that shows how much money is coming in and how much is going out.

"Step two would be trying to develop savings strategies for common goals," she says.

"Once you identify what amount of money you can put away for a rainy day, you can then have that 'Let's talk about retirement together' conversation."

For many blended families, the goal is to end up just as with any other family -- living well in unison, says Gina DeBrincat, who was a single mother of three before remarrying.

The Winnipeg-based life and wellness coach's family of four became a family of six after her second marriage in 1999 to Mark.

"We have been trying to have our blended family as organic as possible, so it hasn't been something where it's like I look after mine and you look after yours."

Yet it took work, she says. And a lot of meditation on the subject -- so much so she authored a book entitled Matrix of the Blended Family.

"I wrote it out of necessity for people who are in blended families that would be looking for a manual -- an easy read that they could go back to often."

Let's face it, she says. Many people entering a second marriage already have a track record of botched mergers.

And there are a lot of failed relationships in Canada. According to 2008 data collected by Statistics Canada, the last year it monitored the divorce rate, about 40 per cent of marriages ended in divorce by their third decade.

So for those looking at doing it again, they are often agonizingly aware of the emotional and financial costs of failure.

"Divorce and remarriage and all the complications that go along with that weren't exactly my first choice, and I didn't take it lightly," DeBrincat says.

After taking care of her own family and its finances for so long, she did not want to risk what she had built on her own.

Yet she and her husband were willing to put in the time to make it work, discussing the household finances.

That's a key element to success, says psychologist Dr. Moira Somers, an assistant professor at the University of Manitoba and a financial therapist with Money, Mind and Meaning.

"Money is at the root of many marital conflicts. It's one of the leading causes of divorce," she says. "If you've especially come out of a relationship where that's contributed to the breakdown, you need to do a few things, one of which is heal from it."

In fact, she says, it's probably best for people to ensure they sort out their money issues before they cohabit.

"The divorce rate is higher in second and third marriages often because the conditions that led to the end of the first or second ones weren't addressed, or the previous marriages left such scars that trust and openness had become increasingly hard to achieve," she says.

"If it's really hard for you to talk about money, you should not be getting married."

Yet proceeding with caution and even delaying melding families aren't necessarily bad news, because in many cases blended families are coming together with many more complications than their previous relationships.

"It's one thing to get married when you're in your 20s and all you've got between you is a ratty old sofa and $20,000 in student debts; it's another thing to come into one in your 40s, 50s and 60s," she says. "Some people I've worked with are sitting on considerable nest eggs, or know they're going to inherit millions."

While the steps to blending complicated financial situations can be legion, onerous and even expensive, involving lawyers and prenuptial agreements, it's always better to deal with the flashpoints prior to marriage or a similar relationship because the potential sore spots will flare, Somers says.

Bell and Jarzyna say they left no potential rock in their financial lives unturned.

Although they're constantly working on smoothing out disagreements about spending, at least their relationship is on a good foundation of openness and trust, Jarzyna says.

"The most important thing about us coming together financially was that we were completely transparent with each other's finances," he says. "She knew exactly what my financial position was and I knew the same about hers -- no surprises."

giganticsmile@gmail.com

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 5, 2014 B19

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