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There goes the romance

(Article by Kimberly Lankford from Your Money Magazine, February 2005)

Budgets | Make a date to talk about money this Valentine's Day.

Want to do something really special this February 14? Open a bottle of wine, light some candles, and have a tête-a-tête ... about your finances. At first blush, financial planning might not seem to fit in Cupid's quiver. But considering that quarreling over money is one of the biggest causes of marital discord, a once-a-year "money date" can be refreshingly romantic.

"Financial dates are a great way for couples to set priorities, build trust and increase marital bliss," says Jennifer Openshaw, CEO of FamilyFN, a Los Angeles company that provides financial advice. "Probably the biggest mistake couples make is not talking about money. It's really about setting aside time so you can both plan for your hopes and dreams."

Following Openshaw's advice has paid off for Janet and Jim Fender, a Chicago-area couple in their mid forties who had their first financial date about three years ago. "Before that, we always fought about money," says Janet. "I would be afraid to put the bills in the bill box."

The primary conflict: He's a saver. She's a spender. They knew they shared similar goals -- they both want to save for retirement and set aside money for home improvements, vacations and other more immediate expenses. But only after focusing on the cost of reaching those goals did Janet appreciate Jim's penchant for saving. Now, she's on board and they're saving more.

Even if you and your partner already work well together as a financial team, it's helpful to discuss your goals and your progress toward achieving them. Ginita Wall, director of the Women's Institute for Financial Education, in San Diego, likens the discussion to a corporation's annual board meeting. After all, she says, you are "the board of directors of your marriage."

Like the Fenders, many couples assume they have similar goals but have never articulated a strategy for reaching them. "Couples are pretty good at setting vague goals, but they aren't so good at quantifying them," says Wall.

Openshaw says that "one of the best ways to begin the conversation is to ask your partner, 'Where would you like to be in five or ten years?' " For example, would one of you like to quit work to be with the children or go back to school? Focus on the top priorities, and discuss hard numbers and specific dates. "If you don't have a specific savings target and time frame, you don't know how much to set aside each month to achieve it," says Wall.

Plan your spending. You don't need a strict budget, but it helps to review your spending at least once a year. Why not on February 14? "So many people just wing it," says Stephanie Sherman, a financial planner with Prudential in East Hanover, N.J. For help getting started, order a copy of FamilyFN's Quick and Easy Budget Kit at through February 15 (there's a $4.95 shipping charge).

Working with a budget was an eye-opener for Janet Fender, whose husband did most of the bill-paying. When she added up everything she wanted to do with the money, "I had us spending more than we even make," she says. That realization forced the couple to set financial priorities. "We ended up putting more into our savings account after that," Janet says.

It's also important to discuss spending rules with your spouse, such as whether you want to consult one another before spending more than a certain amount. "It's setting the foundation to avoid a misunderstanding down the road," says Openshaw. And decide what you might do with extra money that comes in this year, such as a bonus or a tax refund.

A financial date is a good time to review legal documents and investments and have a heart-to-heart talk about what you would do if something were to happen to one of you. Make sure your wills are up to date and that the beneficiary designations on your life-insurance policies and retirement plans are current. Also be certain you have durable powers of attorney and health-care documents designating who can make financial and medical decisions should you become incapacitated, recommends Tracy Craig, an estate-planning attorney with Testa, Hurwitz & Thibeault, in Boston. Make sure that both of you know how to access all of your accounts, especially if you pay bills online.

"Money is a living, breathing tool," says Beth Letson of Bremen, Ind., who used to fight with her husband, Al, about money before having a financial date about a year ago. "If you put it on the back burner, it can get out of hand and bubble over into chaos," Beth says.

Beth, 34, and Al, 42, now talk frequently about money. They're building an emergency fund and saving to send their daughter to Australia. "We really began to see how to approach the subject without attacking each other," says Beth. "Financially, we are better off than we were this time last year."