03/28/2013 04:04 pm ET Updated May 28, 2013

4 Steps to Help You and Your Spouse-To-Be Marry Your Financial Thinking

For Women & Co. by Jonathan Clements, Director of Financial Education, Citi Personal Wealth Management

First comes love, then comes marriage. Then come all those money issues. Unfortunately, finances are one of the biggest sources of marital tension. But it doesn't have to be that way. Want to get your marriage off on the right financial footing? You need to understand each other's goals and attitudes -- and then, working together, you have to settle on some financial rules of the road. Here are four steps to help you and your spouse-to-be marry your financial thinking:

1. Avoid the parent trap.
We swear we will never be like our parents. And then, oftentimes, we end up behaving just like them. That's especially true when it comes to money matters.

Whether you realize it or not, you and your future spouse have likely adopted the financial attitudes of your respective parents. Indeed, if you want a glimpse into your future spouse's financial thinking, just check out his or her parents, including what they say about money, how freely they spend and how financially content they seem. You may consider your future spouse's financial behavior wrongheaded -- and your own money habits "normal." But rest assured: The feeling is mutual.

Today, such financial differences may not be especially bothersome. They might even seem cute. But a few years from now, they could be a major source of conflict.

What to do? It's best to hash things out today, rather than leaving these issues to fester and become a nagging source of resentment. One approach: Establish strict rules for spending, saving, and taking on debt.

2. Agree on a budget.
We live in a world divided between savers and spenders. Which category do you fall into -- and how would you classify your future spouse? As you plan your wedding, you will get an opportunity to find out. This is also your first shot at financial cooperation. Together, decide how much you will spend on the wedding and then force yourself to live within that budget.

This might sound harsh. But the reality is, with things like exercising, eating, and money, general guidelines often don't work. Instead, what works are firm rules such as "must go running four times a week," "never snack between meals," and "can't spend more than $15,000 on the wedding."

Consider adopting the same strategy when handling other parts of your financial life. You don't want to be fighting constantly over how much to spend. Instead, sit down together, settle on a target level of monthly spending and thereafter compel yourself to stay within this budget.

3. Lay down rules.
You also need to agree on rules for coping with debt, especially credit card debt. With the help of credit cards, you can live beyond your means for a while -- and avoid tough decisions and heated conversations about how much to spend. Eventually, however, the bills will come due. In fact, carrying a large credit card balance can rank as one of the more foolish financial mistakes, thanks to the hefty interest rate often charged. To avoid this sort of mess, lay down rules for how you will deal with credit cards. A smart strategy: Commit to paying off your credit cards in full every month.

4. Agree on goals.
We all have financial dreams, whether it's purchasing a new car, buying a home, or retiring in comfort. But which goals should you pursue? Once again, it is time to talk, figuring out which goals really matter to both of you and then laying down strict rules. Those rules might include "invest 10 percent of every paycheck in the 401(k)" and "save $200 a month toward the house down payment."

To be sure, we are talking here about a lot of rules. But these rules could ease the financial conflicts in your marriage -- and free you up to focus on more important matters, like reveling in your new life together.

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