Personal Debt Issues

How to get your spouse's financial baggage out of the closet

(10/3/2011) - It might be good idea, in this troubled economy, to have a heart-to-heart with your better half, real soon.

There's about a one in four chance your spouse will lie by omission if it means confessing to you that she or he is suffering financial distress.

The National Foundation for Credit Counseling's (NFCC) September online poll found that 24 percent of more than 1,400 respondents aren't about to tell their spouse if they experience financial difficulties. What's perhaps most striking about the find is that the reasons why they won't tell come down to the root cause of adolescent lying -- the fear of a negative reaction -- a you-can't-handle-the-truth form of denial.

If your spouse withholds information from you about financial stress chances are it's because they fear it would worry you; because you are already unaware of the debt (what-you-don't-know-won't-hurt-you denial); or because it would damage your relationship, NFCC found.

As for the latter, known or unknown, financial stress places a great deal of emotional stress on a relationship and often shows up in divorce cases. That's certain.

But if you are unaware of a problem, you can't help dial down the drama. If you don't tell your spouse, you can't get his or her help.

The time-worn soap opera lesson about lying premised upon protecting a loved one is that the plan virtually always ends up in meltdown, much like the worst recession since the Great Depression.

Examine economic fallout due to withholding information on mortgage applications, withholding information from mortgage applicants, not disclosing risks to investors and not telling prime borrowers they didn't have to take sub-prime loans.

Lies, the kind told by withholding information, are a major part of what ruined the economy.

"Even if well-intentioned, withholding financial information from a spouse is not a sign of a healthy relationship, either emotional or financial," said Gail Cunningham, spokesperson for the NFCC.

"It is encouraging that the majority, 76 percent, would share the information with their spouse so that they could work together to resolve the situation," she added.

Cunningham says, sure, talking money ain't easy and it gets tougher the longer you put it off. It's not the kind of baggage you bring to a relationship and lose it in the romance and passion.

"People bring financial baggage into a relationship that they often don't deal with until there is a problem, making it challenging to have a constructive conversation," Cunningham said.

Otherwise, follow these crucial tips to talk cash with your spouse and not trash.

• Be cool. Don't approach the subject in the heat of battle. Instead, set aside a time that is convenient and non-threatening for both parties.

• Open up. Make it a casual conversation about a serious subject, respecting the fact that each person has valid opinions and concerns.

• Fess up. Be honest about your current financial situation. If things have gone south, continuing the same lifestyle that was possible before the change in income is simply unrealistic. • Adjust. Be open to adjusting your lifestyle. Don't whine if spending cutbacks or second jobs are necessary. Typically, tough times are temporary. Cancel the pity party.

• Be loyal. Hiding debt and financial problems is financial infidelity. Put your recent credit report, pay stubs, bank statements, insurance policies, debts and investments on the table.

• Avoid the "You." Don't point the finger of blame. That's a real conversation stopper.

• Probe. Try to understand long-held financial attitudes, often present since childhood and ingrained by observing how parents addressed money issues.

Understand differences. Acknowledge that one may be a saver and one a spender, understanding that there are benefits to both mindsets and agreeing to learn from each other's tendencies.

• Plan. Make a plan to deal with any skeletons that came out of the financial closet. Surprises can compromise your ability to obtain future credit opportunities.

• Join forces. Construct a new joint budget that includes savings. Emergencies happen. Prepare. Without a rainy day fund, the financial hole becomes even deeper.

• Delegate. Decide which person will be responsible for paying the monthly bills. It is likely that one person will be a good fit for this task, while the other finds it burdensome.

• Create a financial democracy. Allow each person to have independence by setting aside money to be spent at his or her discretion.

• Set goals. Decide upon short-term and long-term goals, individual goals and family goals.

• Make it a family affair, or not. Talk about loaning money to family members and friends. Decide if it's something you're both comfortable with, or if it should be taboo. Also talk about caring for your parents as they age, and how to appropriately plan for their financial needs, if necessary.

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