How can relatives confront contentious money concerns without dynamiting family ties? Because personal finance is as much personal as it is finance, we asked experts from a range of disciplines—finance, law, psychology, and even preschool education—to address common family money scenarios. Here are a couple you may have encountered with your spouse. We’ve added our own practical advice.
Your husband put $5,500 in golf equipment on the Mastercard last month, a discretionary purchase that’s not completely out of character for him. He has some bank accounts that are separate from yours, and while you doubt there’s a mistress involved, you’re wondering what else he’s spending money on that could put your family finances at risk.
A relationship expert’s take. A major expenditure that’s not discussed in advance can feel like a betrayal, says April Masini, founder of AskApril.com, a relationship and advice site that includes a dating-advice forum. If it’s also a budget buster, the repercussions can be even worse. To stem the damage, you and your husband need to “sit down at a scheduled time to talk, without pointing fingers, about what you found out and how it makes you feel,” Masini advises. “You can say you were shocked that you weren’t consulted before the purchase was made.” Try not to moralize, she advises. Instead, problem-solve. “For instance, you could suggest a $1,000 rule—or whatever dollar amount works for you—where you agree not to spend over $1,000 without consulting each other first.”
A financial planner's take. “First, check your credit report,” says Carol Fabbri, a certified financial planner and managing partner of Fair Advisors in Denver, and co-author of “The 3 Simple Rules of Investing: Why Everything You’ve Heard About Investing Is Wrong—and What to Do Instead” (Berrett-Koehler, 2014). “If he’s doing crazy things and not making payments, you need to know and protect yourself."
Assuming you don’t find anything scary, Fabbri says you need to accept responsibility for not paying attention to the finances and suggest to your husband that you start sharing more of the money-management responsibilities if you haven’t been. “One person in a couple may pay the bills and balance the checkbook, and the other can focus on the retirement investments,” Fabbri says. “But both people need to know what is going on.”
Of course, this doesn’t mean you can’t have privacy when it comes to spending. You just need to establish rules. “One way is for each person to have their own credit card and a set amount they can charge each month,” Fabbri adds. “And you agree to not look at the other’s statement.”
CR says: If you’ve never set up usernames and passwords to view your joint accounts, do it now. Also check your free credit reports from the three major credit bureaus, at annualcreditreport.com. Educate yourself about money through the Women’s Institute for Financial Education and SavvyLadies.org. The latter offers a free, 30-minute consultation with a certified financial planner. If your husband needs credit and debt counseling (post-golf-equipment expenditure), he can reach out to the National Foundation for Credit Counseling, a nonprofit organization, at nfcc.org or 800-388-2227.
More on Family Money Issues
A Dream With a Big Price Tag
Your spouse is certain that his business idea will be The Next Big Thing, and he wants to take out $60,000 in home equity to get it off the ground. How do you protect your family finances while showing that you support him in spirit?
A professional mediator’s take. “I would be reluctant to put home equity toward that goal,” says Jennifer Safian, a family and divorce mediator based in New York City. If the business fails and you can’t repay the loan, you’ve lost equity that could have been used for other purposes, including retirement savings, she notes. “Instead, I would talk to my spouse about other ways to get a loan that would not diminish equity in the house,” she says, adding that helping your spouse find alternate financing is a way to demonstrate your support.
A debt expert’s take. “Tell him, ‘Before you do this, let’s reach out to some experts in the field you’re entering,’ ” says Jason Thomas, founder of Future Family Finance, a financial coaching company in Huntsville, Ala. “Encourage him to talk to third parties about the risks and startup costs.” Enlisting knowledgeable, objective people to weigh in will help inform his decision and shows you have his best interests at heart, Thomas adds.
CR says: Get free business advice from a volunteer mentor at SCORE, a national not-for-profit organization that matches working and retired business professionals with small-business people in the same field. A volunteer can help prepare a business plan and explore funding options, among other things. Also, check out the Small Business Administration’s loans and grants page for options beyond home-equity financing.
Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the May 2017 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.
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