Finding your financial harmony
Valentine's Day is a great excuse to look beyond the candy hearts and flowers and give a gift to your relationship by improving how you, as a couple, deal with spending money.

Money is a topic that strains most relationships, especially marriages, experts say. One survey by American Express showed finances were by far the largest cause of stress in relationships. Money dwarfed such other stressors as intimacy, children and in-laws.

"Money is the third partner in a marriage," said Pegi Burdick, who helps women untangle their emotions about money through her Torrance, Calif., company, The Financial Whisperer.

Of course, the first advice you'll often hear is to communicate, which is the solution to many relationship problems, experts say. But aside from the general advice of talking constructively about money, here are more tactical ideas for getting on the same financial page, specifically with spending money.

Mars and Venus. Couples often end up with their money-spending opposites, trying, and often failing, to live in harmony, according to the 2009 academic study "Fatal (Fiscal) Attraction: Spendthrifts and Tightwads in Marriage."

Some spending differences are specific to individuals, but men and women typically have wildly different ideas about what's important, especially for extra or discretionary money. It's not unusual for a woman to want to spend on beautifying herself, the house and the children. Men often want to spend on electronics, tools, cars and functional items.

A recent survey by credit website myFICO.com showed just 12 percent of people said they have the same spending habits as their partner.

The best advice is to acknowledge the different priorities and avoid thinking that what your partner wants is stupid, frivolous or a waste of money.

Finance author Matt Bell said he didn't at first understand why his wife, Jude, is so particular about buying eyeglasses for herself. Though generally frugal, she likes to shop for pricey glasses at a high-end boutique optical shop. Bell said he didn't get it — he would buy cheaper glasses for himself — but it's important to her and reflects a perfectionist streak that is part of her temperament, something he explored in his new book, "Money and Marriage" (NavPress, $14.99). He now understands that the next time his wife needs a new pair of glasses, they won't be going to a department store or a national eyeglasses chain. And he has made peace with it.

Tell all. In exploring the money part of a relationship, find out where you both stand with money, especially if you're a new couple or have separate accounts. Break out the bank statements and investment account summaries. Then go to annualcreditreport.com and download a free credit report from the credit bureaus. It's essentially a printed history of your credit life. Swap documents and calmly ask the questions you need answers to.

"It's really important to have full financial disclosure before getting married and complete ongoing financial transparency after getting married," said Bell, who blogs at MattAboutMoney.com.

Don't sweat the small stuff. Partners need to be on the same page about big stuff but don't need to micromanage, experts say. First, set a spending limit above which you're obligated to discuss a purchase with a spouse. Second, each person needs access to money to spend as they see fit, no questions asked.

"No more guilt. No more fights over 'How much did you spend on that leather jacket?'" said Farnoosh Torabi, author of "Psych Yourself Rich" (FT Press, $22.99).

Bank accounts. There's ongoing debate and little agreement among money experts about whether married couples should maintain joint or separate bank accounts. Probably the best advice is this: If the system you're using now isn't working, try something else.

"The traditional view of relationships assumes that all money should be pooled, but it isn't always that simple," said Tina B. Tessina, author of "Money, Sex and Kids: Stop Fighting About the Three Things That Can Ruin Your Marriage" (Adams Media, $14.95). "For many couples, separating your money makes things run smoother; you don't wind up struggling for control."

Get a system. Consolidate your money information in a single place so both partners know what's going on. Examples are online site mint.com and Quicken financial software — or a spreadsheet — available on a joint computer.

"A money tracking system, call it a central financial operating system, is so important," Bell said. "Information about all of the household's income, expenses, debts, investments, etc., needs to be easily accessible by each spouse."

Who should be the bill payer? While both people need to be involved with money decisions, typically one will be better at details and deadlines. That's who should handle bills, Bell said.

"Trying to turn a big-picture person into a detail person and forcing them to be the bill payer is a recipe for frustration," he said. "Learn to work with each other's strengths."

Resolve spending conflicts. He wants a pool table, and she wants a trip to the Caribbean. Who wins?

"Both might be able to win, but probably not at the same time," Bell said.

Most people view household budgets as restrictive, but they can also show how to recapture money and redirect it toward goals you really care about, even when they're fun goals. For big expenses, you can simply trade off: You get your purchase this year; I get mine next year.

"If you want to spend your life with someone, getting really good at making trade-offs will go a long way toward helping you have a happy marriage," Bell said.

Get goals. Too bad goal setting doesn't have a more attractive or romantic name, because it's crucial. Setting goals as a couple pre-emptively eliminates money arguments because you've already decided and agreed on the goals and how much money should go toward them.

"Plan for your short-term, midterm and long-term financial goals and make them a priority," said Julie Murphy Casserly, author of "The Emotion Behind Money" (Beyond Your Wildest Dreams, $24.95).

Separate bank accounts for specific goals are generally a good idea. Examples are house fund or vacation fund, Murphy Casserly said. Free online site smartypig.com can help with financial goals.

Use a pro. If money problems are destroying your marriage, Bell said, "find a financial planner or money coach who has experience working with couples."

gkarp@tribune.com