Navigating Marriage's Financial Minefields

10/20/2010 10:50 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

As with all challenges in a marriage, what starts as a small issue can grow into a large one, given enough time. It's not surprising that after being together a few years, some couples realize that the financial quirks they initially found amusing or simply ignored in their spouse now dominate their marital disagreements. In fact, money issues tend to top the reasons for divorce.

If you're having financial difficulties, long before they escalate to that point, step back and examine how and when you and your spouse discuss -- or don't discuss -- your financial situation, and explore ways to ease the tension. Here are a few ideas:

Put it on the calendar. You're both busy and have probably divvied up the chores, including who pays the bills and balances the checkbook. But even if you're in complete agreement on money matters, the family "accountant" should keep his or her spouse in the loop -- if for no other reason than so they can easily take over managing the finances in an emergency.

Set up monthly or even weekly meetings to discuss things like bill payments, progress or setbacks regarding savings goals, budgeting for upcoming expenses (property taxes, insurance premiums, back-to-school supplies, etc.), and strategies for coping with unforeseen expenses (car repairs, emergency dental work, bailing out a family member, etc.)

Don't postpone painful discussions. Say you accidentally bounce a check or miss a payment. Don't wait until your next conversation to address it or try to hide the problem -- you'll only make matters worse and create an atmosphere of mistrust. Sometimes it's best to rip off the bandage with one quick tug.

Be on the same page. When the news isn't good -- say your 401(k) balances tanked last quarter or one of you got laid off -- communication is all the more important. Whether you need to temporarily tighten the budget or make a major life-altering decision like postponing retirement, talk it through and be prepared to compromise so neither party becomes the bad guy.

Realign your goals. Couples often start out with one game plan but then life deals an unexpected hand and goals change. Periodically touch base on how you both feel about such major events as family size, home ownership, career changes, financing college for your kids (or yourselves), appetite for financial risk, when and where you'll retire, and taking care of elderly parents.

Follow your budget. Some of the worst financial battles occur when one or both parties sabotage the family budget. If you don't already have one, numerous free budgeting tools are available online. Check out the U.S. Financial Literacy and Education Commission's, the National Foundation for Credit Counseling and, among other sites.

Seek help. If you're no longer on the same page and can't reach compromises, your marriage could be headed for trouble. A number of counseling alternatives are available:

Like any other joint venture, marriages can derail when partners don't communicate. Make sure that doesn't happen to you.

This article is intended to provide general information and should not be considered legal, tax or financial advice. It's always a good idea to consult a legal, tax or financial advisor for specific information on how certain laws apply to you and about your individual financial situation.

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