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When was the last time you sat down with your husband for an in-depth discussion about your household finances? If you're like a lot of women, your answer may be "never." It's a toxic topic even in the best of times, and in the current economic climate it can be explosive.
Money is one of the least-discussed subjects in a marriage, says Bonnie Eaker Weil, PhD, author of Financial Infidelity: Seven Steps to Conquering the #1 Relationship Wrecker. "Yet it's also the major reason for fights and divorce." For many couples it's easier to live in denial than to face financial realities. Also, no one wants to get caught stealing from the piggy bank. One survey found that 82 percent of married people occasionally hide purchases from their spouse, while another reported that about 30 percent have been dishonest about their spending habits.
When times are good, spouses can get away with avoidance and even dishonesty. "As long as there's extra money around, they can hide from their differences," says Stephen Betchen, a marriage and family counselor based in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, and author of Magnetic Partners. "But when there's no longer enough money to cover them up, they bubble to the surface." When partners finally do have that long-overdue financial discussion these days, it may be under extremely stressful conditions as they grapple with lost jobs, withered retirement accounts, and unsellable houses. They're forced to face the truth and take a cold, hard look at income, investments, budgets, and spending habits.
You've got to start talking, experts say -- and it's much better to do so before a crisis occurs. Here are five of the most important financial questions to ask your husband right now, with advice on how to keep the conversation positive and productive.
"What if we lose our jobs?"
It's a reasonable question, especially now. But it's a scary topic, and not just in terms of financial security. Men and women both get a sense of identity and self-worth from their career. "Men tend to be touchy about their role as breadwinner," says Betchen. "The idea that they won't be able to protect and provide for their family can make them feel ashamed."
Meanwhile, many American husbands still earn more than their wives do, and some wives don't like being dependent on that income. Asking their husband about his job security may make them feel even more uncomfortable -- and vulnerable.
Once you've dealt with your own avoidance, how do you get your husband to talk? Make it about the headlines, not about him, says Candace Bahr, cofounder of the nonprofit Women's Institute for Financial Education. "Say that with unemployment as high as it is, you need to talk through contingency plans." Ask how you might cut back on spending or beef up your emergency fund beyond the usual three to six months. Then brainstorm alternative jobs you both could look for if the ax falls. And don't be afraid to keep the discussion going. "People don't always tell their spouse when things are looking shaky at work," says Pepper Schwartz, PhD, chief relationship expert at Perfectmatch.com. But it's critical to keep each other in the loop. Otherwise a job loss can throw the relationship into a tailspin because the other partner feels ambushed.
"If our parents need financial help, how will we handle that?"
The financial issues around caring for aging parents can create intense conflict in your marriage, says psychologist Barry J. Jacobs, PsyD, author of The Emotional Survival Guide for Caregivers. Some couples avoid discussing the issue of their parents' financial well-being until there's a foreclosure notice or a broken hip and no money for nursing care. But it's vital to have discussions with your parents and your in-laws before there's a crisis.
First, broach the subject with your spouse by asking broad questions, Dr. Jacobs suggests: "Do you worry about your parents running out of money? Would we be able to help?"
Then it's time to get specific. "Both of you need to talk to your parents, even though the idea of barging into their pocketbooks makes most people squirm," says Craig Reaves, president of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys. Ask them how much money they have, what their expenses are, and whether they have healthcare directives and a current will or living trust.
"Isn't it time we start making more financial decisions together?"
Although many couples collaborate in household money management, one 2006 survey found that men are four times as likely as women to say they make the financial calls. And while nearly seven out of 10 women say that they share decision-making responsibilities, that was apparently news to their husbands, since fewer than half the men admitted to sharing decisions.
That power imbalance has two painful outcomes. "Husbands who are in charge of the money get stuck with too much blame when things start to go badly," says psychotherapist and business consultant Olivia Mellan, author of Money Harmony. "And wives feel helpless, which adds to their anxiety." Couples have to be able to talk about financial decisions together, she says. Otherwise, when things go wrong, it's easy to start blaming.
The trick is to wade in gently, without sending a "you really screwed up" message. If you've been too hands-off, start by owning up to your part, Mellan advises. "Say, 'I know I'm late to the table here. But I realize that this is my responsibility, too. Can you bring me up to speed on what we own and why, so we can make future decisions as a team?'" If he's shot down your efforts to be involved before, point out that this time -- and this economy -- is different. As you share more decisions, you may find you don't always agree on how to spend or invest and you'll have to make a few compromises along the way.
"Should we give the kids a bailout?"
Between job losses and smaller starting salaries, lots of young adults are turning to the Bank of Mom and Dad. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that more than a quarter of 25- to 29-year-olds are living with parents; given the current economic situation, that number might go up. In many ways, 30 has become the new 20. Even if your kids don't move back in, they may ask for loans or gifts or want you to cosign for loans, says Terri Ciochetti, a marriage and family therapist in Sacramento, California. You and your husband may find yourselves butting heads about how much help to give. It's not unusual for one spouse to slip the kids a few bills while the other takes a tougher stance.
Ciochetti suggests you start a conversation based on hypothetical situations. "What would we do if one of the kids wanted to move back home? Would we charge rent? Set a time limit?" If you suspect your husband thinks you've been a sucker in the past, ask him directly: "Are you worried that I'd be too generous if they got in a jam?" It will be easier for the two of you to talk out your differences when you're not in the middle of an ordeal.
"Will we be able to afford to retire?"
Even when the economy was strong many Gen-X and Baby Boomer visions of retirement were pie in the sky. But only 53 percent of people between the ages of 45 and 54 have even bothered to calculate how much they'll need to retire, and 36 percent of those in that age bracket have saved less than $10,000, according to the Employee Benefits Research Institute. Now that so much wealth has vanished, many people are realizing just how sloppy their plans have been. In fact, a recent Gallup poll reports that 52 percent of Americans doubt that they'll have enough money to retire comfortably.
They may be right. Debt is one big factor, says Denise Snodgrass, assistant director of the Center for Creative Retirement at the University of North Carolina at Asheville. "People have borrowed against their homes, which have now declined in value. Many couples are realizing that they may be forced to work longer in order to pay off what they owe." Even those rare debt-free souls who have been careful savers and meticulous planners have a problem, as stock market declines swallowed a big chunk of their savings.
Scary? You bet. Snodgrass tries to look on the bright side. "This recession offers you a chance to ask important questions like, 'What kind of life do we really want? When do we want it? And how will we pay for it?'" Talk about who will work and until when. In one recent study by Fidelity Investments, 60 percent of couples didn't agree on the year they planned to retire.
Now is a good time to bring in the pros, suggests Bahr -- even if you've never met with a financial planner before. But when you bring up the idea with your husband, make sure you don't sound as though you're blaming him for the sorry state of your retirement plans. Start with something like, "Since so much has changed with the recession, I'd like to sit down with a professional and go over some retirement ideas."
As uncomfortable as these talks can be, they're one upside to the shaky economy, experts say. "The recession is forcing couples to have the frank conversations they should have been having all along," Bahr says.
"Money is actually bringing people together," adds Dr. Weil. "Couples are finding a few minutes a week to sit, pay bills, talk about money -- and finally work as a team."
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, November 2009.