How to Manage Money in Marriage

Dr. Taffy Wagner suggests some separate accounts, but no secrets.

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I've been following the tweets of Dr. Taffy Wagner for a while now, and I always enjoy her perspective on managing money within marriage. She recently reminded her Twitter followers, "Discussions about money should not be a power struggle. You are in the marriage together." She also asked, "If you knew then what you know now about money and marriage, would you have said 'I Do'?"

As an ordained minister and personal finance educator, Wagner often incorporates her faith into her work. Wagner, an Air Force veteran, is also open about her past struggles with debt in her own marriage, and how she manages today as a working mom of 7-year-old twins. I recently spoke with Wagner about her work and advice. Excerpts:

How did you first get interested in marriage and money?

My husband and I came into our marriage with debt. He had a business that was college counseling for high school students and he hired me. We would do seminars together, and parents would hire us to work with them and high school seniors preparing for college. We would be counseling families way back then. We've been married for 13 years.

[For more, read: "Quiz: Are You Ready to Get Married?"]

Is money different for married couples versus single people?

[Once you're married], you have to understand now that you're responsible to another person. You can't just think of it as 'my money,' even if you have separate accounts. Both of you are responsible for the overall household. If one of you think it's just your money, the household will fall apart.

Do you think married couples should maintain separate accounts?

We have separate accounts for pampering each other, but not for household money. Before, if he tried to pamper me, I would say, 'Where did that money come from?' since I was in charge of managing the money. So I recommend a separate account for that factor. Also, if you are bringing debt in the marriage, that should stay separate until you figure it out.

That way, you don't have to feel like, 'Honey, can you give me an allowance?' You'll go crazy like that. I have gone and made arrangements for our anniversary and made hotel reservations and he didn't know. For Father's Day, I made arrangements for him to go to a photography seminar next month. And he'll bring me flowers with that separate money. We allow that freedom because we talk; there are no secrets.

What if only one person earns money in the family, does that same system work?

When we were in that situation, I made sure I left a signed check in the house, so if anything came up, they could handle it. It's still the household money, not one person's money.

What are common mistakes married people make with their money?

If somebody gets their feelings hurt, they go and shop out of emotion, so they're creating new bills without addressing what was done to hurt their feelings. The problem is still here. Another thing that's common is the one who makes the most money thinks they can dictate the household, because they think it's my money and not ours.

[For more, read, 'The $2,000 Kiss."]

Do you think getting married can improve people's finances?

It can. It did for us. My husband and I both come into our marriage in debt. When you're a giver, like I am, you have to learn to set boundaries. He was a shopper, so I was the best person to manage our money. We formulated a plan and said, 'We'll be out of debt in 5 years.' We did it in 2.5 years. We had $30,000 in debt and were making $20,000, and we paid everybody off.

What should engaged couples talk about before they get married?

What existing debt do you have? What student loans? What car payments that parents will stop paying? Are you about to lose your car? If you have a child, do you have child support? You can't hold anything against the person prior to your getting married -- you were not there. We all make mistakes. Forgive yourself for financial mistakes that you made; you were not taught how to mange money.

How is the recession affecting couples' relationships?

If they were not talking about money before, it's happening now. People have less income and the same bills. People have to get creative about money management. A lot of people are starting small businesses because they need the income. They have to discuss how to get the bills paid, maybe we need to cut going out to eat, movies, and Starbucks.

Follow Wagner on Twitter here.