Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Love me, love my finances?

The big talk before the big day

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Once upon a time, there was an element of surprise and wonder about the first night for a newly married couple. But today, most newlyweds have already seen each other in the buff, taken the test drive, etc.

Still, some mysteries do persist until the two rings bind a couple together, presumably forever. Yet these involve baring oneself in a different fashion: full-frontal financial disclosure.

"You do feel naked. You feel absolutely vulnerable," says Ashleigh Patterson, senior editor for Yahoo! Finance Canada.

"Money is a huge part of life and you can't avoid it."

Money and marriage are a topic Patterson knows something about. For one, she writes about finance almost daily, but she's also well-versed in the potential thorns that can lie in that bed of roses.

"I think it's an issue with my peer group that a lot of people are struggling with," says the Toronto-based financial journalist, who also happens to be married. "A lot of them are getting married this summer and the financial issue always arises."

Long ago, marriage was more financially motivated than a matter of the heart. In some parts of the world, it still largely leans to the side of fiscal prudence. But in North America -- and most developed nations -- few would dare admit marriage is anything but romantically motivated.

Yet money will eventually rear its arguably filthy mug in the relationship, and most experts agree it's better to discuss finances long ahead of the wedding day instead of the day after.

"The day after you get married and you're sitting there with all your envelopes, you feel flush, amazing and it's pretty difficult to strategize in that moment," Patterson says. "You have a plan set out before that day comes."

The main question to wrestle with is whether to merge the finances.

Generally speaking, there's no right or wrong answer. It largely depends on preference, says Dr. Moira Somers, a psychologist whose practice is called Money, Mind and Meaning.

"There isn't a right answer, but there's ease," she says. "It's definitely easier to merge just because of bookkeeping and tracking, but that's not always psychologically easy."

The next easiest way to blend finances is combining them -- paycheques flowing into one account to cover the bills -- but a portion of the money will be transferred into individual accounts to be spent as desired by each partner.

"They can each take out the same amount every month for everything from buying a birthday gift for each other to buying a coffee, video games or whatever their indulgence is without having to feel accountable for every penny."

Another permutation is each partner has income deposited into individual accounts and then they transfer a set amount to a joint account to cover expenses.

"The least easy way, but still one many people manage with quite fine, is to lead totally separate financial lives, where it's decided who handles what bill," she says.

"The disadvantage with that model is, unless you're really conscious about it, you don't know how your partner is faring financially."

Regular, honest meetings need to take place with full disclosure. Otherwise, some serious shenanigans could be afoot.

Your partner could have an unhealthy devotion to VLTs, crack cocaine or a pricey pair of pumps or two... or 20.

And these bad habits could go on interminably until the money's all gone, the debts are large and your partner has dragged you to rock bottom.

"Financial secrecy is just not really good for a marriage," Somers says. "Although as a couple you may prefer to keep your finances separate, there's no financial institution in the world that sees you as a separate entity."

Your debt is your partner's debt and vice versa -- at least in the eyes of tax collectors and creditors.

Certified financial planner and money coach Sheila Walkington says she recommends against keeping finances separate for those aforementioned reasons -- and then some.

"When people earn different amounts of money, for some couples that's not a problem," says the Vancouver-based adviser. "They'll often split costs equally and that's often what happens when people get together when they're young with no kids."

When children come into the picture, inevitably one partner -- often the woman -- will have to take a large amount of time off work. Carrying on with separate finances can be difficult, especially when the primary caregiver is earning no income or Employment Insurance benefits.

The first step to merging finances is building a foundation of understanding. Like most things in life, it's better to get your feet wet than to dive into the water no questions asked.

Often the next step involves a conscious shift in how both partners perceive their finances. "When I talk to couples, I suggest that they are a family," she says. "I always try to make sure that his money is hers and her money is his and everything is 'ours,' so to speak, because it's just fairer that way."

And this isn't always easy.

Despite best intentions, most people haul baggage from past relationships, their own personal financial missteps and family values about cash management that may not be positive.

People's histories matter -- especially regarding past marriages and debts.

"If they've been through a painful divorce and have been cleaned out by an ex-spouse, then just talking about sharing assets is enough to make somebody frankly panic-stricken," Somers says.

As for debt, it's always best to try to pay off the nasty ones, like a high-interest department store card debt, before slipping on the rings. Or at the very least, construct a workable, realistic plan to pay them off after.

"If you have a $10,000 student loan, and you're making $100,000 a year, that's not really going to bust you," Somers says. "But if together you're earning $36,000, that's a lot of stress."

Of course, the ugly truth about your finances shouldn't keep you from tying the knot. But be honest ahead of time. Sit your partner down in a safe environment, Walkington says.

Get an objective third party to help if need be.

"When it's just one vote on each side it can be hard to find common ground unless you're both willing to be very open and understanding," she says, adding the third party could be a financial planner, money coach or psychologist.

And listen without judgment. Talk without blaming.

"It's usually better than you think."

At worst, the marriage gets called off, but that's likely better than going through with it and finding out after it's not going to work.

It's a miserable notion to ponder -- and unlikely, too, Walkington says.

In the end, it's important not to get too worked up about the subject. No matter how you do it, if it works, it works.

Take Patterson, for example. She and her hubby have separate finances, a setup that works just dandy.

"We really have different views of money management, so this way is one that works best for us."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 21, 2012 B9


Updated on Saturday, July 21, 2012 at 12:07 PM CDT: adds art, adds fact box

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