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New couples must decide money issues
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- Whether to have joint or individual accounts is one of the biggest questions newly married couples face when they decide how to handle family finances.
Each couple must decide whether to pool all money and pay the bills together or divide the bills and keep incomes separate. They also must decide what to do about credit cards and debt brought into the marriage.
Jan Lukens, consumer management specialist with the Mississippi State University Extension Service's Coastal Research and Extension Center in Biloxi, said prospective couples should talk about money matters and the feelings associated with them.
"Work toward fairness that will build trust in the relationship and a respect for the other person," Lukens said. "Finances are one thing, but building up the relationship is most critical."
As soon as new or prospective couples have joint expenses, Lukens said they should decide whether they'll have joint or separate accounts. This decision typically depends on such factors as the couple's lifestyle, age and assets.
"The older a couple is when they get married, the more likely they are to want to keep things separated," Lukens said. "The tendency is that the longer a couple stays together, the more likely they are to have joint accounts on everything."
Couples who write a lot of checks may decide to have their own checking accounts rather than risk using two checkbooks and trying to keep one set of records. Other couples find that one person is much better at tracking money matters and decide to let that person be responsible for most of the family finances.
"Whatever arrangement a couple decides upon, both spouses need to know the financial situation so they can take care of things if something happened to the other," Lukens said.
Couples who keep separate accounts should carefully divide bills fairly, not necessarily equally.
"Most couples don't have equal incomes, so the burden shouldn't be split down the middle," Lukens said. "Make a list of bills and decide what is more logical for each to pay."
Lukens suggested that each individual could pay a percentage of the bills equal to their percentage of the family income. Another way is to decide how much spending money each person needs, and calculate backwards to determine how much of the bills they should cover.
Don't forget periodic expenses when making calculations. These expenses can include such things as Christmas gifts, major auto repairs and taxes. Couples should estimate their periodic expenses for a year, divide by 12 and then each put an appropriate amount of money into a shared account monthly to pay for these expenses as they arise.
All this planning and calculating may seem like a lot of work, but Lukens said most of it can be done in a single planning session.
"When you set up your budget system, make sure it is something you won't have to adjust each month," Lukens said. "It should be workable and fair at the beginning, but able to be modified over time."
Those who decide to maintain a joint account usually find the burden of maintaining the budget falls on one person. These couples don't divide bills, but should protect their feelings.
"Each person has a different background and expectations of managing and spending money," Lukens said. "Talk about the way you feel about financial issues because there are more than just dollars at stake, there are personal feelings."
Couples also must decide whether to share credit card accounts or have their own.
"Each spouse needs to have a credit card in their own name, whether this is a joint or individual account, because this gives you a credit history," Lukens said.
Problems with joint credit arise if one spouse spends excessively or the couple divorces.
"Regardless of what the judge says about who pays the credit card, the company still has the original contract that says both are obligated," Lukens said. "Each person is totally responsible for the credit limit regardless of what happens to the other person."
To avoid trouble, pay off balances monthly and keep low credit limits or hold only individual accounts.
Debt brought into a marriage is another potential problem. Lukens said too much consumer debt, such as that from credit cards or finance companies, can create serious financial and relationship problems.
"Spend a lot of time talking about how consumer debt is going to be handled. Understand the feelings that may go with a new spouse having to take on your debt burden," Lukens said. "You may want to wait until some of this is paid off before marriage."