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The Painful Process of Merging Your Finances: Don't Let The Almighty Dollar Destroy Your Marriage

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One of my former Caribbean destination wedding clients recently celebrated her one-year wedding anniversary with her husband, and the most important thing that happened on her anniversary night was that her husband didn't ask her split the check. Yes, you read that correctly -- the man she married a year ago still expects her to split the check with him. It's not that he doesn't spend money on his wife or that he denies her anything (they both have good professional careers), it's just that they have never been able to agree on how to combine their funds in a manageable way. As a result, she is bitter and embarrassed about how he acts with money. And he doesn't understand why it's such a big deal. Or does he? He has to know on some level that when he asks her for half of the money in front of other couples they are dining with, he's drawing a line in the sand that says, "We're not really married. We still have our own money." They are definitely married. I know because I mailed them the marriage license. It's time for the silliness to stop.

I am a HUGE advocate of keeping your finances and your assets separate until AFTER you have received the actual marriage certificate. I bought my house on my own before Bill proposed to me, and I didn't put his name on anything. When we sold the house, the assets were combined with our joint funds (everything is joint now), but up until that moment, it remained my property. I hear about clients who are engaged and buying homes together because the interest rates are so low and I cringe and pray that it's all going to work out perfectly in the end. My daddy always said, "Don't buy anything with anybody you're not married to."

While I don't think you should buy a home together or put his name on her bank account before the Big Day, I do think you need to talk about and have a plan for your combined financial future. If not, who's to say how things will or won't change after you get back from the honeymoon? Money is the #1 thing that breaks up marriages -- why wouldn't you plan ahead for something that you know is going to be a challenge? If one of you has a lot of money that you intend to keep separate, you need to discuss this pre-wedding. You know how you hear about prenuptial agreements that get popped on people two days before the wedding? That's not kosher. But a prenup isn't necessarily a bad thing. I wish I'd had one now because Puerto Rico law won't let me buy property without my husband unless I have a prenup separating our assets. It's not that I need to buy alone, but it's the fact that I'm not allowed to that rankles me. A postnup won't do it and isn't very useful in most places anyway. A prenup is the way to go. Too late for me. The price I pay for living in paradise on an island in the Caribbean, I guess.

Do you know each other's true financial background? Were either of you married before? Have you seen each other's credit reports? Have either of you ever had a lien on property? Did the bill collectors ever know your college roommate on a first-name basis? This is the financial version of the pelvic exam ladies -- it's time to put it all out there on the table and take a deep breath. Don't assume the bride has the financial baggage and credit card bills, though. An awful lot of men are divorced and still paying off the detritus of their last disastrous marital decision. Nobody is perfect. Everybody has something in their financial past they're not proud of and would rather not reveal -- heck, even the ones who have plenty of money might be bad about paying their bills on time. It's important to know AND understand how your future life mate manages finances before you become legally joined. Once you are legally joined, you are responsible for half of all the good and bad decisions your spouse makes. If you're doubting that your fiancé would or could ever hide anything serious from you, go channel Anne Hathaway for a few minutes. I'm guessing that she and the Italian stallion never had a "let's look at each other's credit reports and swap pay stubs" kind of conversation.

So how do you, as future newlyweds, approach this humongous challenge? There are all kinds of easy-to-read books on managing your finances. Buy one and take the time to read it and/or go through it together and talk about things. Does he have a traditional pension or a 401(k)? Are her health benefits better than his? If you're a gay couple, what are the laws affecting your finances, the policies at your work place regarding benefits? These are all really important items to tackle before your actual wedding day. I'm not saying that it's any easier to do it earlier, but the first few months of being married can be difficult enough without adding fuel to the fire.

You can use your wedding planning as a practice financial marriage. A great way to ease into married banking is to create a new joint checking account when you get engaged, and get a credit card together that you will only use for wedding expenses. One of you is in charge of managing the card and paying the bills with joint funds from your checking account that you'll both deposit into when you open it. Set a monthly contribution amount for the time up till the wedding and stay on top of it. You can't both manage one checking account and you can't both use a debit card for the same account all the time or, inevitably, one spouse is going to forget to share a receipt and the next thing you know, everything bounces. One person manages it but both of you make decisions about it. This is an excellent learning tool. You'll find out quickly what happens when you leave a platinum card with a 10K limit in your wife's purse when she's shopping with the girls. And she will learn exactly what he means by "no problem" when he forgets to make the deposit to that account and I call and tell her that the catering check just bounced.

Nothing in life that's worth the effort is ever easy, and that includes merging your finances. If you have a bad track record, treat it like a Band-Aid and tell your partner about it all at once. Don't lie about any debts -- they'll find out eventually. It's a much better idea to tackle them together as a team. But start this process before you get married so that once you get the marriage license, all you have to do is open some new accounts together. And by the way, that's a good idea too: to dissolve prior accounts and start fresh checking and savings accounts together. Remember, for sanity's sake, you can certainly have two different checking accounts and each of you using a debit card for one of them, just be sure that both accounts are in both names in case of emergency.

It's also important to completely merge your finances in case of an emergency or death. I can't tell you how many women I know who didn't have a clue where the money was when their spouse died suddenly or was unexpectedly incapacitated. Some of them don't even know where they bank or how their savings and retirement are kept. I'm not saying that both halves of every couple have to run the money in the family, just saying that they should AT LEAST know where everything is kept, be signatories on all accounts, and have a copy of the passwords filed away in case of emergency. You should also go make out your wills together after you get married. God forbid something happens to you shortly after you're married and you find out that everything is going to his former wife or children. It's important to protect yourself at the outset because if she dies without a will, her accounts will be frozen and you'll be up a creek until after probate.

This is real life, kids, and when you get married, everybody starts to consider you a grown-up -- even if the two of you are a 40-year-old, first-time bride and groom. You have to make the tough decisions together now, and you have to be honest about everything. Would you really want to marry somebody you didn't know absolutely everything about anyway?

Until next time, happy wedding planning from Weddings in Vieques and Weddings in Culebra!

Sandy