Reason #1: They engage in small skirmishes over the month
Q: My husband and I have a constant tug-of-war over money. What can I do?
A: Arguing over money is the number one cause of divorce in the United States, so it's important that you talk with your husband about how you are feeling before you drift further apart. Keep your conversations on the positive side; try to focus not on the mistakes of the past but on what you both can learn from this experience.
The two of you should sit down once a month to go over your finances: You can take turns paying bills. You can balance the checkbook and figure out how much money is in your accounts. You should also request copies of your credit reports from one of the three major credit bureaus (contact Equifax, Experian, or Trans Union). If you've had a hard time keeping up with your debt, my guess is that you do not have the best credit. When you and your husband look at your credit history, he'll be able to see your financial picture realistically. Once you've faced your situation, you and your husband will be in a position to end the tug-of-war and begin repairing your finances as a team.
Q: I've managed to keep my husband from destroying my credit, but I'm so tired of all the bill juggling that I'm considering divorce. Any suggestions?
A: Often when life isn't working out the way we dreamed, we blame forces beyond our control. But just as often, the problem is staring at us in the mirror. I can't stress enough that when we learn to take responsibility for what we do and don't have, we put ourselves on the path to happiness.
Your goal is to see if you can avoid that extreme option of divorce. First explore why he behaves this way. I find that when people act out with their money, it's typically because they don't value who they are. Sit down with your husband and talk with him about his attitude toward money, your family's financial situation and his self-image. Spell out what you need to have happen to keep this marriage alive. For one thing, you are not to be the sole bill payer. Make this a joint exercise so that he sees the problem and understands his duty to fix it. Be patient. After a few months, if he doesn't respond, then you'll know you must leave and can do so with a clear conscience.
Extraneous spending needs to stop, and you must start paring down your debt. Pay the minimum due on all accounts, then add an extra payment onto the one with the highest interest rate. It will take time to undo the damage, but as long as you're paying the minimum on every card, you'll keep the credit raters happy and making headway on getting out of debt.
Q: I'm a stay-at-home mom who's been married for 22 years; my husband is the sole provider in our household. Our bank accounts are in his name only, and I have no idea how much we have in checking, savings, or our IRAs. He gives me an allowance for gas and groceries, but when something else comes up (oil changes, birthday gifts, prescriptions, clothing, haircuts, doctor visits), I'm expected to cover that, too. Then I don't have enough to buy gas and groceries...so he accuses me of overspending and lowers my allowance. I feel defeated. How can we manage our finances together in a mutually respectful way?
A: Your husband has some strange ideas about equality in a marriage. But he isn't entirely to blame here. Why have you allowed him to impose this dynamic on your relationship? A child gets an allowance—you are his wife. He may be the one who earns money, but being a stay-at-home mom is a job, too. Whether it generates a paycheck is irrelevant; it delivers tremendous value to your family. The real problem is that your husband doesn't appreciate what you do, and you can't expect him to value your hard work if you're not valuing yourself. You don't have a money problem. You have a self-esteem problem.
You must demand that your name be put on every account as co-owner, and then learn exactly where you and your husband stand financially. Next, bring your husband in as an equal partner in managing the monthly spending. Sit down at the end of this month and review every bill. If he has a problem with the amount that's being spent, then it's up to him to offer plausible solutions for cutting down on expenses. This is not your problem to fix alone. It's a challenge for you both to solve—together.
Q: My husband just discovered that I took out a $125,000 unsecured loan (at 8.29 percent interest) without his knowledge—and needless to say, he's furious. I've suggested that we either refinance our home or take out a home equity loan to pay off this debt. What do you recommend?
A: Your husband "discovered" that you took out this loan—meaning you never told him about it? Your biggest debt is the one you owe your husband, who is a saint for sticking by you. It will take work to regain his trust—you will need to hold yourself accountable from now on and observe one of my first rules of finance: Truth creates money, but lies destroy it.
I'm generally not in favor of exchanging unsecured debt for debt tied to your home, because if you have trouble keeping up with the higher mortgage payments, you could lose your home. The one exception is when you have ample resources, plenty of equity in your home and your intention is to stay in the home for at least five. In that case, it may make sense to refinance if you can qualify for a fixed interest rate of around 5 percent. (The home equity loan at 7 percent doesn't give you enough of a rate reduction over the personal loan to be worth it.) As I write this, the average 30-year fixed-rate loan is right around 4.5 percent. Paying off that $125,000 through a 4.5 to 5 percent fixed-rate mortgage in which the interest is tax deductible is a far better deal than paying 8.29 percent on a personal loan in which the interest is not tax deductible.
Q. My 53-year-old boyfriend has recently reduced the amount he's investing in his 401(k), though he still contributes enough to get his company's match and maxes out his IRA. He's started using the extra money to pay off his mortgage early. He lost $12,000 last quarter in his IRA and thinks reducing a mortgage is the safer bet in this market. He argues that I should do the same thing. I'm 55, at least a decade from retirement, and not sure I'll be in my home forever. Should I follow his advice?
A: This is great! I love, love, love that you and your boyfriend are talking openly about finances. No couple can have a truly healthy relationship if they're not discussing money matters. Your boyfriend's strategy makes a lot of sense for his situation, but that doesn't mean you should follow in lockstep. Let me explain.
If you told me your boyfriend had stopped contributing to any retirement accounts, I would be concerned. But in fact he is doing what I recommend: contributing enough at work to get the matching contribution and then funding an IRA. Once those commitments are taken care of, paying off a mortgage can be an incredibly smart retirement move. Think about it: Yes, your boyfriend will have less saved up in his retirement accounts, but he will also have much lower monthly expenses. The trick here is balance. You, on the other hand, seem to be in a different situation.
Given that you're not sure you'll stay in your home once you retire, I see no need to speed up your mortgage payments. Just keep saving as much as you can for your future. You have a long way to go until you stop working, and decades of life after that. Don't get too wound up in what the markets are doing this quarter or this year; stay focused on the need to save for the long term. If in the coming years you decide you do want to stay put in your current home, then you can accelerate your mortgage payments.
Reason #5: They focus on the perfect budget and not the perfect conversation
Q: My fiancé and I combined our bank accounts last year. At the time, he had about $24,000 in debt and I had two credit cards that I typically paid off each month. I make $32,000 a year, and he makes upwards of $55,000. We pay a monthly mortgage (at 8 percent), a car loan ($400), student loans ($200), cable, and utilities. After covering our necessities, we are left with only about $500 a month. How do we set a budget so we can get ahead?
A: You don't need a budget—you need a reality check. Something isn't adding up. Your combined income is $7,250 a month; even in a state with a high income tax rate, your combined take-home pay is probably about $5,000 a month. I'm guessing that your nonmortgage bills eat up $1,100, so that leaves $3,900 for your mortgage and other living costs. You told me the rate on your mortgage but not the monthly cost. Why? Are you in a house you can't afford? At 8 percent, a $400,000 30-year mortgage would run you $3,000 a month—leaving not much money for food.
People with FICO credit scores of 700-plus have been locking in fixed-rate mortgages of no more than 6 percent. The fact that you are paying 8 percent tells me something's wrong somewhere, as does your fiancé's $24,000 in debt. And that's really the issue here, right? You were doing fine until you combined finances, but now your guy's poor money habits are dragging you down.
No budget on earth will work until you and your fiancé have a series of heart-to-hearts about your finances.